Gelt at Hanukkah
Of the many images of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah a few stand out as especially symbolic. The menorah with its brightly burning candles, the irresistible smell of frying potato pancakes or latkes and who can forget those foil wrapped Hanukkah coins now referred to as “gelt“.
But how did the concept of gelt come about?
Well, that’s where it gets a bit cloudy. Common belief is that the practice of giving small amounts of money, called gelt in Yiddish, began at the time of the Maccabees when special coins were minted to symbolize their newfound freedom. Another theory is that in the 18th century in Eastern Europe a tradition started of recognizing teachers will small amounts of gelt around Hanukkah time as an appreciation of their teachings. Over the years, the tradition moved from teachers to students as a means of recognition for their studies and as an incentive to learn more about the history of the holiday.
In America, Hanukkah was not a widely celebrated holiday until the early 20th century. At that time Hanukkah began to flourish among American jews, becoming a major holiday coinciding with the secular celebration of Christmas.
American chocolate manufacturers, looking to capitalize on the growing popularity of the holiday began manufacturing gold and silver foil wrapped chocolate coins in the 1920’s. It wasn’t long before netted pouches of these shiny foiled discs became ubiquitous with Hanukkah itself.
Traditional imagery was often used on the coins including the menorah, Star of David, or the four Hebrew letters present on the small top known as a dreidel.
Unfortunately these early coins were nicer to look at than to eat. Manufactured with low-grade chocolate and paraffin wax to prevent melting, they didn’t taste much different than chomping on a menorah candle.
Nowadays, the caliber of Hanukkah gelt has evolved through the use of high-quality cocoa beans, more refined fats and better milk powders. The designs have also evolved into modern times. You can still get the traditional imagery of the menorah, dreidel and Star of David…but modern twists like “Oy to the World”, “Happy Challah Days” and “Jews Do It for Eight Days” add a whimsical touch to the Festival of Lights.
While the allure of fresh out of the griddle potato latkes is pretty alluring, with kids there’s no disputing the fact – Gelt talks.