Italian Chanukah Traditions + Recipes: A Conversation with Rebbetzin Shachar Banin
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For Rebbetzin Shachar Banin of Venice, Italy, Chanukah is truly about pirsumei nisa, or publicizing the miracle, through food, tradition, and culture. The rebbetzin – who owns and manages the restaurant GAM GAM in Venice – finds meaning through celebrating with her community.
Both Jews and non-Jews attend the communal lighting of a 25-foot menorah and the Chanukah celebrations that the rebbetzin and her husband lead in the center of Venice’s Jewish Ghetto Square. This is the oldest Jewish ghetto in the world, according to the rebbetzin, who said she finds this yearly tradition inspiring and special.
“There’s this big menorah, and everyone is gathered around in this old ghetto square where Jews had to be locked in at night, [where they lived] for over 300 years,” Banin said. “To see the menorah lit up – and it really literally lights up the whole square where 4,000 Jews were crammed in, living in this tiny little area – is such a symbol of freedom and triumph.”
Those who attend the communal menorah lighting receive mini latkes served in cupcake liners that the rebbetzin herself prepares. The gathering typically sparks questions, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the holiday.
“It’s the food that’s a starting point of conversation,” Banin said, adding that some people are surprised by the applesauce-and-latke pairing. During this celebration, the rebbetzin typically finds herself discussing how latkes are made as well as the significance of the oil they’re fried in. “[It] always leads to beautiful discussions about the oil in the menorah and how it increases light and how we can increase in light,” Banin said.
When asked why she thinks non-Jews are also drawn to the festivities, the rebbetzin attributed it to an innate human desire for connection.
“Everybody wants to feel that influence of goodness and kindness and helping one another and joy and spreading light,” Banin said. “Each one of us has this spark of godliness within us. We can ignite ourselves. We can ignite one another… It’s really easier than we think to encourage one another.”
Though the ubiquitous potato latkes are served at the public Chanukah gathering, the rebbetzin enjoys preparing other traditional Italian Chanukah foods throughout the holiday, too.
Rebbetzin Shachar Banin was incredibly generous and shared not one, but two indulgent Chanukah recipes with us. (Trust me, you're going to want to save these recipes and try them out for yourself.)
The first traditional Italian Chanukah dish is called gnocco fritto. These are savory fried rectangles of dough that are cut with a pastry wheel. This dish is made all over Italy, with slight variations depending on the region.
For example, in Bologna, where the rebbetzin’s husband, Rabbi Ramy Banin is from, the dish goes by the name crescentine Bolognesi and is typically made with flour, salt, sugar, and olive oil. However, in Rome, semolina flour is typically used, according to the rebbetzin. To make this dish parve, soy milk can be substituted. However, the rebbetzin said that her husband’s family typically uses regular milk in this dish on Chanukah to honor the custom to eat dairy on the holiday. Gnocco fritto can be served with a cheese platter, or, if made parve, a meat platter and red wine.
Fried honey balls, or precipizi, are another classic Italian Chanukah dish. This dessert is made of a dough that consists of egg, sugar, flour and rum or rum extract (or apple juice). The dough is rolled into a rope, cut into small pieces, fried, and then dipped in honey. The final products are dusted with confectioners’ sugar.
If making these dishes sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. However, Banin said that preparing these intensive recipes from scratch helps her connect to the holiday.
“It makes you feel connected to the generations of people that have made these foods before,” Banin said. “The round shape of the sufganiya or of the latke really show that life is a cycle and that our customs are important, and they continue. And we pass them down from one generation to the next.”
Chanukah recipes and customs also help Jews around the world connect to each other, the rebbetzin said.
“The customs may differ [from family to family],” Banin said. “Maybe somebody is using chocolate inside, or somebody else is putting raisins inside – but ultimately, they are based upon the same ingredients and they bring out the same feelings of togetherness and emotion.”
Follow Rebbetzin Shachar Banin on Instagram for stories, inspiration and Italian culinary adventures here- @rebbetzinunplugged
Photography By Sina Mizrahi