It was a few weeks before Hanukkah. I had an errand to run in the mall, and there I passed a Roladin (one of Israel’s cafe chains) with their infamous sufganiyot (Hebrew for the Jewish doughnut), already taking the front stage of their baked-goods display, in preparation for the holiday buzz around this annual treat.
I couldn’t help but to stop and stare, to truly take in the glam and glitz of these pretty, impressive works of art that they are.
My jaw must have dropped a bit, because a young lady standing by me waiting for her coffee to-go couldn’t help herself from asking me (in Hebrew), “What — this does it for you?” (translated from “zeh oh-seh lach et zeh?) “You’re really tempted by these? Wow, not me. I’m totally immune to them. You — you should walk away, fast,” suggesting that sufganiyot (or rather, the purchasing and then eating of them) are to be avoided. The implication of this was that if you manage to “survive” actual Hanukkah (reminder, this was a few weeks before the holiday even began) without indulging in this “sinful” food — you win. You’re better than the food. Good for you.
Because, sufganiyot are… fattening. Right? They’re loaded with calories, pumped with sugary things and — gasp — deep fried in oil. And then, as with the fancy sufganiyot, are decorated with even more sugary, calorie-ridden things. Certainly, if any of us are trying to live a healthy life, free of processed, empty-calorie foods (empty, meaning that other than calories, they don’t offer your body any nutrients that promote or better your health), then sufganiyot are exactly the stereo-typically-unhealthy thing you should avoid.
Or… should you?
Disclosure: I am a dietitian, in case that point was missed. I am supposed to warn the public against ingesting this harmful stuff around this time, during this holiday. I am the figure to turn to when looking for a model of behavior for how-to-avoid-unhealthy-junk when the whole country is dishing it out on table. I was taught and trained to give you, yes, you, tips on how-to-not-gain-weight during this challenging time of year (especially — needless to say — if you happen to be on a diet!). Yes, my friends, I am the apparent joy-kill of this (and any other) holiday during which food-that-is-bad-for-you awaits us. The Grinch-of Hanukkah, if you will.
The thing is, there is something bigger than health to consider. Health, as it turns out, is not only defined by the status of your physical well-being. That, and there seems to be something unhealthy, or inherently wrong, about a culture that fears foods that have been otherwise celebrated traditionally for centuries. As with the case of sufganiyot, it turns out that their origins predate the father of Rambam, Rav Maimon ben Yosef, who wrote, “One should not be lenient regarding the custom of [eating] sfinge (fried dough)…this is an ancient custom, and when they are cooked in an abundance of oil, one will be blessed with wealth all year… one should not belittle this custom, and all those that act with zeal in this matter shall be blessed and their monetary debts shall be forgotten.” In other words, run as fast as you can to get your hands on some oily sufganiyot and then sit back to watch the cash roll in.
True, the Rambam’s father never envisioned the gourmet sufganiyot of today when he wrote this, but apparently some version of fried dough has been around for quite a while. Don’t be fooled; I am in no way suggesting that eating a reckless and careless amount of sufganiyot is a pious act we must fulfill as part of living a righteous Jewish life. I am merely trying to remind us all of the sacredness of tradition, and that the value of passing it on through the ages may very well weigh more than the calories embodied by it. Yes, there is a global epidemic of diabesity (diabetes + obesity) and according to the stats, the rates are only rising. But isn’t it ironic that we taboo a long-established food as (apparently) a prime example of the cause of our (relatively new) public illness, at a time when we suffer the most? I’ll just say it; sufganiyot hanging around the local shops for 8 days (more accurately, a month in Israel) out of the year do not represent, nor do they account for, accumulated years of a society’s poor nutrition and the consequential outcome. Instead, as always, I point the blame-finger not, in this case, at the traditional age-old sufganiya, but rather at the bigger issue we deal with today, and that is of the Western food culture overall and everything that it entails (a topic for another time).
Sure, you can buy (or make!) the baked version, and extra brownie points (pardon the pun) if the sufganiyot are made of whole-grain flour. Though, to be fair, this shouldn’t give you the pardon to eat more of them. Baked and whole-grain do not necessarily win a food the title “healthy/” But the focus of eating a sufganiya needn’t be on how healthy or unhealthy it is. Eat a sufganiya not for a dose of guilty-pleasure, but in celebration of the festiveness that is Hanukkah. Yes, they are an oily, calorie dense-treat, otherwise empty of nutritional value. But they are also chock full of symbolism, of the miraculous, tiny, hopeless jar of oil that, much like the people it served, demonstrated promise beyond all hope. They offer another reminder of survival-ness, of a people who endured enough terror that should have wiped them out years ago. Here we are, through it all, preparing the same dish, the memory of which may have otherwise been obliterated right along with the people who’ve been making it (and, might I add, at a time when diabetes and obesity were a rarity, if existent at all). Bring on the oil.
It is my duty as a health expert to remind us all to practice mindfulness when eating anything, especially sufganiyot. If you’re going to eat one, do so with a sense of joyousness, not shame or sin. Go look at them at the store, marvel for a moment, take in everything they are meant to represent, and with a full heart, choose one. Pay for it, sit down, and eat it slowly, mindfully, enjoying each bite. You have just partaken in an old Jewish custom of eating deep-fried goodness in celebration of the festival of lights. Now go home and make a salad (if it makes you feel better).
I’ll summarize with what I responded to that young lady at the mall, and that is this: “Why would I try to avoid sufganiyot? I actually look forward to eating them, and I try to wait for Hanukkah to begin before buying (my first) one. The thing is, I enjoy them with a moderate attitude, respectful of my body but also of my tradition. And by the way, I am a dietitian.” After receiving the look of surprise I was going for, I turned to carry on with my errands, with a slightly sheepish, yet satisfied grin.