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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Learning the Hanukkah food traditions

    Tierney Backus prepares traditional Jewish foods for her family, including matzo ball soup, challah bread and latkes. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)

    Lisbon — Tierney Backus described her first attempt last year to make sufganiyot as an “epic failure.”

    The sufganiyot is a jelly-filled donut and among the comfort foods traditionally served during the Jewish Hanukkah celebration.

    The 29-year-old mother of three young boys was not discouraged. She plans to try again soon, but in the meantime, she’s been honing her skills and preparing family Hanukkah favorites that included latkes and meat knish while mixing in some traditional Jewish foods such as matzo ball soup and challah, a braided egg bread. The latkes are potato pancakes that can be topped with sour cream or apple sauce. Backus prefers lox, or salmon, on top.

    Traditional foods vary based on the different cultures where Judaism exists.

    Backus has been all in on Jewish foods over the past several years, ever since she decided she was going to convert to Judaism. For orthodox and Conservative Jewish denominations, Judaism is a matrilineal religion. If the mother is Jewish, the kids are Jewish regardless of the father’s religion.

    The move to convert, Backus said, was as much about finding her own religion as it was about about grounding her children in Judaism.

    Backus and her husband, Cameron, a tugboat operator, met and married while serving in the Navy and come from families with varied religious backgrounds. She was raised Catholic, having attended Catholic schools while growing up in Nebraska, but said her mother was a Seventh-Day Adventist and her father was Lutheran.

    Her parents taught her the fundamentals of religion but opted to let her explore her own way. And while her husband identified as Jewish, neither were living religious lifestyles and had drifted away from religious services until after their first child was born.

    “When we had kids we said we kind of have to pick a lane,” she said. “We were raising them the way we were raised.”

    Backus had already learned a lot about Judaism, a religion that had always stuck out for her because of its customs and traditions.

    “It’s not just a religion. It's a community and an identity,” she said.

    It was Cameron’s grandmother, Ann-Beth Ostroff, who helped pass along the cherished Jewish traditions Backus said she came to know and love. The family spent time at Ostroff’s home in Cape Cod, relying on her to lead the customs and faith practices that accompanied the Jewish holidays.

    She died of cancer in 2018, and Backus said her absence left a big hole in both her and her husband’s lives as well as a religious void.

    “She had a special place for me in my heart. She would call me every week and ask how I was doing. She became my psuedo bubby,” she said.

    Bubby is a Yiddish term for grandmother.

    It was after Ostroff's death that Backus started her work toward conversion to Judaism in earnest “and kind of went all in,” making her home a Jewish home. She used You Tube videos as guidance for prayers during the initial Hanukkah celebrations and has worked with a rabbi, studied, attended weekly services and celebrates Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, starting at sunset every Friday.

    She officially converted in July and is a member of Congregation Beth El in New London.

    Backus has also worked to make a kosher home. To be kosher means to follow Jewish dietary laws that involve which foods and ingredients are permitted to be eaten, how the food is produced and even how food is combined. For instance, it is not kosher to eat meat and dairy together. Pork is not kosher, and as a general rule, fish must have fins and scales. Shrimp, lobsters, crab and oysters are not kosher.

    Backus said she tries to be picky about meat and poultry, looking for locally raised products where she can. Vegetarian dishes are typically kosher and a healthy way for the family to eat.

    Hanukkah is not among the most important holidays for Jews. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, are considered high holy days. Rosh Hashanah is associated with apples and honey and other sweet foods while Yom Kippur is a day of fasting.

    Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day celebration that commemorates the capture and rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem during the second century B.C. after occupation by the Syrian-Greek empire. Legend has it that the Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, reclaimed the temple and when rededicating the temple menorah found enough oil to burn for just one day.

    The oil miraculously burned for eight days. The Hanukkah, or Hanukkah menorah, is an important part of the Hanukkah celebration.

    While it often falls in December, Hanukkah it is not associated with Christmas and often does not fall on the same day every year. Instead, the holiday falls on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar.

    Hanukkah is typically a time to delve into fried foods. For her latkes, Backus uses five pounds of shredded potatoes, a shredded onion, an egg and matzo meal to form the dumplings that cook in chicken stock she makes from scratch.

    The memory of her husband’s grandmother is still alive in her home since much of the Jewish literary and historical materials, known as Judaica was passed on to her home, but the Backus family is quickly making their own traditions.

    g.smith@theday.com

    Tierney Backus prepares traditional Jewish foods for the family, including matzo ball soup, challah bread and latkes. Challah is pictured here. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)
    Tierney Backus prepares traditional Jewish foods for the family, including matzo ball soup, challah bread and latkes. Here is her version of meat knish. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)
    Tierney Backus prepares traditional Jewish foods for the family, including matzo ball soup, challah bread and latkes. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)
    Tierney Backus prepares traditional Jewish foods for the family, including matzo ball soup, challah bread and latkes. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)
    Tierney Backus prepares traditional Jewish foods for the family, including matzo ball soup, challah bread and latkes. Pictured is challah ready to be baked. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)
    Tierney Backus prepares traditional Jewish foods for the family, including matzo ball soup and latkes. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)
    Tierney Backus with her husband Cameron and three sons Erik, Beauregard and Wesley. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)
    Tierney Backus prepares traditional Jewish foods for the family, including matzo ball soup, challah bread and latkes. Matzo ball soup is pictured here. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)
    Tierney Backus prepares traditional Jewish foods for the family, including matzo ball soup, challah bread and latkes. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)
    Tierney Backus prepares traditional Jewish foods for the family, including matzo ball soup, challah bread and latkes. Latkes are pictured here. (Courtesy of Tierney Kristine Backus)

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