by Diane Heiman
In the story of Hanukkah—the cruel reign of Antiochus, the unlikely victory of Mattathias and his sons, the one cruse of sacred oil left in the plundered Temple that burned for eight days—there is no mention of money. And yet, on the 25th day of Kislev, Jewish children will once more sit by candlelight amid platters of steaming latkes and sweet sufganiyot, counting their chocolate coins before spinning a dreidel.
Money may not be part of the Hanukkah narrative, but it was connected to the military triumph: Following the Maccabees’ success, the king of Syria declared for the first time that Jews had the right to mint their own coins. Some of these, embossed with a seven-branched menorah, survived to modern times, serving as a model for the 1958 issue of commemorative Hanukkah coins in Israel.
So Jewish coinage originated with the heroes of Hanukkah. But what of the practice of giving children gelt (“money” in Yiddish) during the festival of lights? Israel Bartal, professor emeritus of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explains that the tradition began with European Jews in the first half of the 18th century, when money was a gift for adults at Hanukkah—not children. “During Hanukkah, beggars and those who were on the payroll of the Kahal [communal administration] would go from house to house and collect their money gifts—usually a copper coin,” says Bartal. “One thing is sure: We are talking of a late custom, mainly Ashkenazi, that began to expand all over Central and Eastern Europe in the 1700s.”
Exactly when and why this ritual evolved into giving gelt to children is seemingly lost to history. But by the end of the 19th century, major Yiddish and Hebrew authors, including Sholem Aleichem, were writing it into the canon. In the short story “Khaneke Gelt” (1899), Aleichem describes the joy two young brothers share as they collect coins during Hanukkah visits to their relatives—much like American children go house to house for Halloween treats. “Surprisingly enough,” Bartal says, “I suspect that giving Hanukkah gelt to children became so popular in part because of its literary and folkloristic documentation.”
When Jews left shtetl life behind, they adopted traditions from their new neighbors. “As chocolate became more accessible, the Christian celebration of St. Nicholas’ feast day on December 6 in Belgium included filling children’s shoes with oranges and chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper,” says Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz, author of On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao. “It’s easy to see how those chocolate coins would become popular with Jewish children, too.” By the 1920s, American candy companies started cashing in on the hype. Loft’s and Barton’s were two of the first, writes Prinz. These versions became the candy we know today: chocolate wrapped in gold or silver foil, sold together in colorful mesh bags.
Today, the Israeli Elite brand, decorated with menorahs and dreidels, is ubiquitous. But fancier options are also finding a foothold in the market: Foiled Again! Chocolate Coins in Cary, North Carolina, offers coins made from Callebaut Belgian chocolate with customized wrappings. “This is not the old waxy, gritty gelt we used to get from bubbe,” says company founder Scott Wayne. Other favorites are “Got Gelt?” and “All-State Dreidel Champion.”
Hanukkah gelt, however, isn’t immune from controversy. Jewish fair-labor advocates have raised concerns that it may be anathema to Jewish values and to the spirit of Hanukkah itself, because much of the world’s chocolate is produced by forced, unpaid child labor in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. “When Jews are proudly celebrating their liberation and freedom from an oppressor at Hanukkah, we should be mindful of the more than one million children in the chocolate industry who are working under slave conditions in West Africa,” says Prinz.
As an alternative, Prinz urges Jews to consider buying fair-trade chocolates. The nonprofit Fair Trade Judaica markets kosher dark and milk chocolate “guilt-free gelt” in partnership with Divine Chocolate, which supports a fair-trade cooperative in Ghana. For sophisticated palates, chocolatier Heather Johnston sells “Kosher Gelt for Grown-Ups” at Veruca Chocolates in Chicago. Made from 100 percent fair-trade Guittard chocolate, the handcrafted confections replicate ancient Judean coins and are available in dark chocolate with sea salt, dark chocolate with cocoa nibs and milk chocolate. Lastly, the coins are airbrushed with edible gold or silver—who needs foil? A box of 18 coins goes for $15—perhaps a hefty price tag for a round of dreidel, but good enough to eat long after the Hanukkah candles have burned down.
Click here for Moment’s Hanukkah Guide with more
Hanukkah Recipes, Stories and Lessons
Chocolate Hanukkah Gelt
From The World of Jewish Entertaining by Gil Marks
1 ¼ cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
12 to 14 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 tablespoons almond, hazelnut, orange raspberry, or other liqueur
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 pounds semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1. You will need two 14- by 4-inch rectangular flan molds (bottomless metal molds about 1 inch high), which can easily be removed from the chocolate. Or you can make molds by cutting two large pieces of cardboard into ¾- to 1-inch-wide strips about 36 inches long, wrapping with aluminum foil, and bending into 14- by 4-inch rectangles. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set the flan molds or homemade molds on top.
2. To make the ganache: Bring the cream and butter to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Pour over the 12 to 14 ounces chocolate and stir until melted. (This can be done in a food processor with the machine running.) Stir in the liqueur and vanilla.
3. Spread the ganache evenly into the flan molds to a 1/2-inch thickness. Cover with plastic wrap and smooth the surface. Refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes.
4. Using a heated 1 ¼- to 2-inch biscuit or cookie cutter (or metal can with the top removed), cut out rounds. Chill until firm, at least 2 hours.
5. To make the coating: In the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water or in a microwave, melt the chocolate, stirring until smooth.
6. Dip the ganache rounds into the chocolate, letting the excess drip off. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour. If desired, wrap the candy in pieces of gold- or silver-colored aluminum foil. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
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