Each year, as winter barraged us in Brooklyn -- mean, wet sleet, mounds of blackened snow -- Chanukah snuck in, to warm our homes. Twenty-five years ago, the American holiday marketing blitz had hardly begun: There were still quiet moments between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the Jewish and non-Jewish holidays were not yet inextricably intertwined. No one insisted on pareve holiday displays and "season's" greetings, not in our neighborhood, anyway. Flatbush, or at least the basic 30-block radius in which everyone I knew lived, twinkled only sporadically with Christmas lights. On my block, there were only two non-Jewish families, and that was probably indicative of the entire neighborhood, where Christmas was the exception, not the rule.
Which is why the lack of Chanukah presents at our house really bugged. "I'm very much against giving out Chanukah presents," my father insists to this day, as he did then. The idea of giving Chanukah presents was a custom co-opted from the non-Jews, and "you're not allowed to go in the ways of the goyim," he says.
But to my mind, presents and Christmas had nothing to do with each other, nothing at all. All my friends got Chanukah presents. The lucky ones got one for each night, and the luckier ones said they didn't need presents because they already had everything they wanted (a Zen concept that was as foreign to me as Christmas itself). Most people I knew among our Modern Orthodox friends, though not among my ultra-Orthodox cousins from my dad's side, snagged one really cool gift for Chanukah: a bike, a pogo stick, a doll.
We got zip.
Not to say that ours was a particularly deprived childhood; nor were our Jewish holidays lacking either. On Chanukah, we went to my grandmother's for a family gathering with homemade latkes (mashed, not shredded), and at home we had a mail-order doughnut machine which made all our sufganiyot -- no matter what we found in the pantry to fill them with -- delectable, even as they stained our paper plates with grease.
If this sounds like a Sholem Aleichem tale, let me say that after the candles dissolved, we'd run upstairs to watch TV or finish our homework or go back to beating each other up, or whatever it is siblings did in the age before the Internet, video games and IM. But for that hour, an hour when we were no doubt forced to stay downstairs and interact, we'd sit in the living room near the glow of our myriad menorahs and make attempts to play dreidel.
My father wanted us to play, to spin the top inscribed with the letters of the miracle "Nes Gadol Haya Sham," (A great miracle happened there) -- and for that he'd give us gelt.
Yiddish for money, gelt, he explained, is the real Chanukah custom: Throughout the ages, coins have been distributed to children to play a gambling game during the Festival of Lights.
And today, with the Hallmarkization of the holidays, as Christmas and Chanukah have been blended into a "season" with similar customs (except for tree vs. menorah), gelt remains a distinctive, if kitchy Chanukah custom. Except instead of money, it's been immortalized in chocolate: Gold-foil-encased coins wrapped in net bags that are so ubiquitous they have come to represent the holidays.
But what is the real origin of gelt? Is it, as my father claimed, really a long-held Jewish custom? And how did gelt evolve from money to chocolate? And why does the chocolate taste so waxy? If gelt is here to stay -- if it's going to really represent the Jews like mistletoe and holly do the Christians -- are there any better options than the molten coins of our childhood?
These are some of the questions I had as I set out on my journey in search of gelt.
Before the chocolate, came the coins.
But what does money have to do with Chanukah, a holiday celebrating a military victory -- and to a lesser extent, the miracle of the Temple oil lasting eight days?
The Encyclopedia Judaica had no entry.
Type in "gelt," "Chanukah" and even "origins" on the Internet, and what you'll get are hundreds of sites selling chocolate coins, Chanukah gifts and a number of sources on the subject that can be categorized into a few reasons behind the gelt.
- The Greeks made a decree against learning Torah, so Jews gave their children coins to play games with to make it seem like no learning occurred. After the Hellenization of the Jews, it was necessary to give gelt to incentivize the children to learn.
- According to Jewish law, the light of the menorah should only be used to commemorate the miracle of the oil (where one day of Temple oil lasted eight). As an example of forbidden activities, the Shuchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law, used counting money. That's why they gave out money -- to remind people not to count it.
- Jews must light one candle per night -- even if they're poor, the Talmud says. During this time, the community gave charity so that people would have money for candles without begging.
- Chanukah time was a bonus time for Jewish teachers -- especially teachers who would travel to remote villages to promote Jewish education. Students would also receive money for studying hard, some suggest, and the name "Chanukah," which means dedication, also shares a root with the word, "chinuch," which means education.
- There is a connection of coins to the Macabbean victory. Two decades after the victory, their descendants minted coins to celebrate their independence. Also, the American Israel Numismatic Association suggests Maccabee leaders took spoils of war -- including coins, usually used to pay mercenaries. "On the first celebration of Chanukah in Jerusalem, and during the ceremonies of re-dedicating the Temple, large amounts of these coins were given to the soldiers, the widows and orphans of the war dead (see II Maccabees 8:28) and perhaps to the general population, who had been overtaxed by the Syrians for many years," the Web site states. "If this theory for the origins of Chanukah gelt seems far-fetched, consider the tradition of eating latkes (potato pancakes) in the Diaspora and donuts in Israel as a part of the holiday festivities. These food items are fried in oil, and this is, supposedly, an allusion to the oil that miraculously burned for eight days."
Indeed, the latkes and doughnut customs do seem far-fetched, but their origins are for another story. This one is about gelt, about chocolate coins (or it's meant to be, anyway).
"This tradition is decidedly European in origin, probably dating from the late 18th and early 19th century, when Jews figured prominently in chocolate manufacturing," Tina Wasserman wrote in Reform Judaism Magazine in 2005. "Fashioning coins out of chocolate would have allowed poor children to take pleasure in the growing Jewish tradition of receiving gelt at Chanukah time."
Gerrit Verburg, whose Michigan company imports the Fort Knox Chocolate Coins from Holland, says the Dutch company -- Pieterman Chocoladewerken -- has been making holiday chocolate coins for 100 years. "The coins in Holland are not for Christmas or Chanukah, but St. Nicholas on Dec. 5," Verburg said.
Others suggest it was a post-World War II invention, coinciding with Chanukah's rising to the challenge of Christmas. That's what Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, co-author of "The History of the Jewish People: Tradition and Change" (2006), surmises. Gelt, he says, because it was a Yiddish term, surely goes back to Europe. Gifts, he added, were virtually unknown for Chanukah. "Indeed, Jews used to give presents on Purim, not on Chanukah. The shift takes place at the turn of century -- it's clearly in response to Christmas," he said (Go Dad!)
Chanukah chocolate, he thinks, was also co-opted. "If you ever look at the [chocolate], the Maccabee was very fat. Who ever saw such a fat warrior? The same company used the same candy for Macabbees and Santa Claus. This was a way of taking the chocolate mold for Santa Claus, repacking it as a Maccabee, and presto! You could sell it for both holidays."
The keeper of the secret must be the chocolatemakers themselves.
But you try calling Brooklyn-based Kosher candy companies and asking to speak to their media department.
"Our whaa?," the receptionist cackled when I tried. I could almost hear her cracking her gum in the background as I was shuffled around from number to number. In the end, after finally speaking to real people at the major Kosher candy companies -- Paskez, Liebers, Manischewitz (yes, they make coins too) -- it turns out most of them import their chocolate coins from Israel. There are two major purveyors of candy coins in the Holy Land: Elite (owned by Strauss) and Carmit (recently purchased by Cadbury).
And, no surprise: Brooklyn media relations are nothing compared to Israeli attitude. Weeks of midnight phone calls to both companies were directed and re-directed to Yael and Yifat and Steve (you'd think someone with such a rational American name might return a call), with an air of secretiveness worthy of Israeli espionage, not chocolate coins.
Turns out, Elite has been making the chocolate coins since the 1960s, primarily for export to England (Marks and Spencer), France, the United States and even Australia, Elite's public relations firm said in an e-mail. "The packaging of the chocolate is traditional, reminiscent of the times that people went around with a bundle of coins in a small bag." Elite's milk chocolate coins are 28 percent cacao, and their dark is 40 percent.
These were the coins of our youth.
We gobbled them up like paupers, while the grownups ate latkes and applesauce -- which were fine, for sure, but not as good as gelt. Gelt is candy! Gelt is fun! The netting around the bags was just weak enough that you could tear it apart like the Hulk, freeing half a dozen coins of different sizes. They were wrapped in gold (and later silver, for dark chocolate) foil that you needed sharp fingernails to pry open -- unless you were the type of rascal that popped the coin into your mouth whole, squishing the chocolate out between the foil and chewing it up like a Twinkies wrapper. But if you did do that (and admit it, you have done it once or twice), then you couldn't spend the rest of the night smoothing out the designs on the foil until it shined like real gold.
Who knew from taste back then? Ours was a less refined food era, before $8 chocolate bars, 80 percent cacao chocolates, food blogs, lactose intolerance and nut allergies (some coins are made at plants with nuts nearby, which is why Paskesz now imports a nut-factory-free version from Holland, a secondary producer to Israel).
Ah, the bliss of ignorance.
It was only after we grew up a bit -- when we'd tasted other types of chocolate from countries around the world -- that we realized those coins are, well, waxy. Granted, some of gelt coins were old, maybe saved by our moms from the year before or flown in from Israel months in advance, often lending them a white, chalky sheen, which is never a good thing when it comes to chocolate.
We grew up, but our gelt stayed the same ... until now.
Over the last 10 years, as food and eating have been elevated to art forms, chocolatiers and confectioners have contributed their own fine fare to the chocolate coin mix (almost all certified Kosher). Big-name brands like Godiva, as well as small, private labels, are making chocolate coins special for Chanukah. They use finer fats, better milk, more cocoa and they wait till "the night before Chanukah" to produce them.
"We start with a very high grade of premium chocolate, temper it," says Barbara Berg from Madelaine Gourmet Chocolates, referring to the controlled cooling of melted chocolate that promotes the formation of small, stable fat crystals in the finished product. "Agitation, temperature and time affect it," she said.
Gourmet chocolatiers are almost changing a Chanukah custom. Gelt, they promise, can be good.
Now the final step in this investigation is to taste them.
We are like kids in a candy store.
Actually, I am standing with a gaggle of kids in a candy store, Munchies on Pico Boulevard. The on-site spinning of fresh cotton candy almost distracts us from our mission: to find all the chocolate gelt we can here in this store. It's not an easy task (nor, perhaps a smart one, having to tell four children who are not my own "no" at every pixie stick, candy corn, gumball and marzipan [ugh] their little hands alight upon. I quickly rush them out.)
Onto the kitchen table we spill our loot like Veruca Salt, hoarding a floor of Willy Wonka's factory: giant fist-size gold coins, coins in a pirate's chest, coins in a large dollar-bill box, SpongeBob coins and your regular red-net bag coins. There are coins in gold- and red- and green-colored foil (which we conclude are not gelt at all), and coins in fancy mesh bags that fingers can't poke holes in, no matter how hard they try.
According to thenibble.com, a great food- finds Web site, one examines five things in an "organoleptic" (relating to perception by a sensory organ) exploration of chocolate: appearance, snap, aroma, mouth feel and taste.
Ours is not an organoleptic tasting. We -- an unscientific group of five children, ranging from age 3 to 11, and a couple of adults -- are ready to gorge on chocolate. Thankfully, most of us have seen "Ratatouille," so we know how important our mission is: to discern whether one chocolate coin is different from another. (Although, that sounds like a Passover question. The Chanukah question might be, can one chocolate coin last eight days?)
We arrange 10 chocolate plates of gelt around the table, with milk and water to clear palates and a plate for the used foil in the middle.
"It's pretty good." (Paskesz from Holland)
"Smooth and a little bumpy." (SpongeBob Square Pants, Holland)
"Soapy." (Carmit White Chocolate)
"Crunchy. Thick." (Giant Chocolate Elite Badatz coins)
"Not Gelt." (Lake Champlain gold, red and green coins)
"Corkscrew." (Carmit Milk)
"Brown." (All of them)
OK, so I never said we were scientists. But the kids weren't clueless: Wavy meant it had layers of taste, flavors that revealed themselves only gradually. Corkscrew meant pasty. Loopy might have meant it made you go crazy or "bazoinkas," as one kid does after she eats too much chocolate.
As for fun, SpongeBob was a favorite, as was the giant dollar-bill box. The large gold coins were grabbers, and the Madelaines had the nicest wrapping. Godiva had the best overall packaging.
Amy Klein reads this story on NPR's Morning Edition. Click here to listen.
In the end, the last chocolatiers standing reviewed the finest ones (incidentally, giving them the same rating as the Washington Post foodies).
Sees is the best, in my opinion -- a creamy, smooth confection that coats the tongue. Godiva -- well, Godiva is silky, like Godiva. The chocolate is good and the bags are pretty. Madelaines are light, with mild notes of cinnamon.
But for me, there is still something about those Elite coins. No, it wasn't exactly the taste, because they're still waxier than the gourmet chocolates. But the notes extend long after swallowing, so they aren't just chocolate anymore. They are gelt: They capture the memory of Chanukahs past, when the colored candles melted brightly in our front window as we four children sat nearby, trying to play dreidel for gelt, nary a Chanukah gift in sight.
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