The Gelt Chronicles

The Forward
Leah Koenig
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The Forward
Leah Koenig

While potato latkes, with their glamorous sheen of oil and salt-kissed crunch, may be the star of Hanukkah cuisine, it's hard to imagine celebrating The Festival of Lights without chocolate gelt. Mesh pouches of the glinting, foil-wrapped discs have become a central element of grocery-store holiday displays and a mandatory snack at Hanukkah parties.

But for all its current ubiquity, chocolate gelt is a surprisingly recent addition to Hanukkah. A peek into the history of gelt reveals as much about the way American Jews celebrate the winter holiday as the sweet treat itself.

Before gelt ("money" in Yiddish) became synonymous with chocolate, it primarily referred to small amounts of money exchanged between friends, or gifted from parents to children during Hanukkah. The exact origins behind this tradition are murky. Popular legend links it to the miraculous Maccabean victory over the Ancient Greeks, when the Hasmonaean descendants minted national coins to celebrate their freedom.

However, in his book "Holidays, History, and Halakhah," Professor Eliezer Segal suggests the 18th-century Eastern European tradition of recognizing religious teachers with a token of gratitude around Hanukkah time as a more direct predecessor. "Before long," he writes, "this [custom] evolved into a quasi-obligatory gift of Hanukkah-gelt" - something akin to the American custom today of tipping the mailman at Christmas. The connection with the Festival of Lights was largely etymological, Segal writes, since the words Hanukkah (dedication) and hinnukh (education) share lingual roots. By the 19th century, the practice of giving gelt had, for unknown reasons, shifted from teachers to children.

In the United States, gelt - anything from a few coins, to stock shares and savings bonds tucked inside greeting cards - became an integral part of the larger surge in popularity of Hanukkah that developed in the first half of the 20th century. American Jews had largely abandoned the holiday, which many considered a minor and irrelevant festival, in the decades following the Civil War. But as historian Jenna Weissman Joselit notes in her book, "The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950": "By the 1920s, [Hanukkah] began to come into its own as a notable Jewish domestic occasion and an exercise in consumption."

Along with playing dreidel, frying latkes and lighting menorahs, gelt and gift exchanges solidified Hanukkah's appeal as a bright spot on the long, dark stretch of calendar between the High Holy Days and Passover, as well as a significant celebration parallel to Christmas.

Hoping to capitalize on the blossoming interest around Hanukkah, American candy companies like Loft's first introduced gold and silver-wrapped chocolate gelt in the 1920s. Rabbi Debbie Prinz, who is researching the historical connections between Jews and chocolate, said these companies may have drawn their inspiration from the chocolate coins (called "geld") given to children as part of the St. Nicholas holiday celebrated throughout Belgium and the Netherlands in early December.

Of course, Loft's edible currency was just one of many sweet Hanukkah gimmicks launched over the following decades. In place of a chocolate Santa Claus, Jewish children unwrapped brightly colored candy Maccabee soldiers and, according to Joselit, Barton's Candy piloted a line of spherical chocolate latkes in 1951. But it was chocolate gelt that ultimately emerged as the most successful and enduring of these products.

Today, the majority of the gelt eaten in the United States is not produced there. Journalist Amy Klein writes in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles that, "[America's] major kosher food companies - Paskesz, Liebers, Manischewitz - import their chocolate coins from Israel," where the Elite and Carmit brands are the major purveyors. The gelt churned out by these companies may score high on nostalgia, but - with its hyper sugary, faux-chocolate flavor and distinctively waxy snap - it lags in taste and quality.

More recently, however, a handful of companies have started to produce gourmet versions of the holiday treat, which reflect today's shifting ethical and culinary food values. The California-based confectioner, Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates, for example, offers an organic, 65% cocoa dark-chocolate gelt. Similarly, Lake Champlain Chocolates from Vermont makes kosher, dark and mint chocolate coins, while in England, Divine Chocolate (whose products are widely available in the United States) manufactures kosher and Fair Trade certified chocolate coins stamped rather appropriately with messages of justice and freedom. With recent delicious additions like these, those latkes better watch their backs.

By arrangement with The Forward.



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