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Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, starts on Tuesday night. But the flickering candles won’t be the only things shining on the table. Many families celebrate with gelt, chocolate coins covered in gold and silver foil. But while this treat is beloved, it’s not all that delicious.

“It snaps. It’s not soft and buttery — it’s waxy. This is chocolate you have to chew,” jokes Ariel Cohn, who runs Tree of Life, a Jewish pre-school in Portland, Ore.

Although you can now buy upscale Jewish gelt — from fair trade certified to chocolates shaped like ancient Judean coins — Cohn, like many Jews, still has a sentimental attachment to the waxy coins. Because, well, it’s Hanukkah.

“It’s what human life is made of,” Cohn laughs. “Holidays and gatherings where you see your family and your friends. And you can make anything a part of tradition, really.”

But it turns out this particular part of tradition used to look a lot different. Gina Glasman, who teaches Judaic Studies at Binghamton University, says that in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, you do find something that is called Hanukkah gelt. But it has nothing to do with children, and nothing to do with chocolate. Instead, this gelt is basically an end-of-the-year tip for itinerant workers.

“A butcher for kosher meat, and a teacher for Jewish studies,” lists Glasman. “And you’d even have a guy employed to bang on people’s doors to wake them up for prayers. Hanukkah was a time you paid these men a little bit extra.”

Glasman notes there was also a tradition of minting coins for special occasions — but not for Hanukkah. These, instead, were for charitable giving, or holidays like Purim. And if you were to give any sort of gift, it was generally for the holiday of Purim. But as families moved from the community-centered shtetl to towns and cities, these money rituals of the self-sustaining communities began to change — and the practice of Hanukkah began to change as well.

“By the end of the 19th century,” Glasman notes, “you see, mysteriously, the custom switch from giving tips to these guys to giving a little gift to your children.”

And when Jews began to emigrate, it changed even more — because of Christmas. Jonathan Sarna, who teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis University, says that as Christmas is magnified in the American setting, becoming a national holiday, Hanukkah too becomes magnified. It takes on new importance, and the focus shifts to gift-giving and children. But even so, it still maintains echoes of the past.

“We’ve morphed that gelt into chocolate coins, as a kind of cultural memory,” Sarna notes.

He acknowledges that the rise of chocolate gelt, in the early- to mid-20th century, is a small part of Hanukkah. But adopting new traditions — and connecting them to the past — is part of the larger story of Americanization.

“You were able to signal that wonderful sense of being part of the larger society, and apart from it, at one and the same time,” he says.

Just as with chocolate bunnies or Santas, a simple treat can be a passport to this history of belonging, and ritual, and nostalgia — no matter how the chocolate tastes.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript :

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hanukkah starts on Tuesday night and for many Jewish families, especially those with children, part of that celebration is to munch on gelt, chocolate coins covered in gold and silver foil. Reporter Deena Prichep unwraps the story of this sweet holiday tradition.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: To be honest, Hanukkah gelt is not really known for being all that delicious.

ARIEL COHN: It snaps. It’s not soft and buttery – it’s waxy. This is a chocolate that you have to chew.

PRICHEP: Ariel Cohn runs Tree of Life, a Jewish preschool in Portland, Oregon. The 2-year-olds here don’t seem to share the same criticisms of Hanukkah gelt.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Ooh, chocolate.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yum.

PRICHEP: But even though the chocolate might not please adult palates, Cohn says she still has a soft spot for it because it’s Hanukkah.

COHN: It’s what human life is made of – holidays and gatherings where you see your family and your friends, and you can make anything a part of tradition, really.

PRICHEP: But it turns out this particular part of tradition used to look a lot different.

GINA GLASMAN: In the old world, in Jewish Eastern Europe – and we’ll call it the shtetls – we do find something that is called Hanukkah gelt, but it has nothing to do with children and nothing to do with chocolate.

PRICHEP: Gina Glasman teaches Judaic studies at Binghamton University. She says that in the 19th century, Hanukkah gelt was basically an end-of-the-year tip for itinerant workers.

GLASMAN: A butcher for kosher meat and a teacher for Jewish studies, and you’d even have a guy employed to bang on people’s doors to wake them up for prayers. Hanukkah was a time you paid these men a little bit extra.

PRICHEP: If people gave gifts at all, it was generally a few months later for the holiday of Purim. But as families moved from the community-centered shtetls to towns and cities, that started to change.

GLASMAN: By the end of the 19th century you see, mysteriously, the customs switch from giving tips to these guys to giving a little gift to your children.

PRICHEP: And when Jews began to emigrate, it changed even more.

JONATHAN SARNA: As Christmas is magnified in the American setting, it becomes a national holiday, Hanukkah is greatly magnified.

PRICHEP: Jonathan Sarna teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis University. He says that while Hanukkah takes on new importance, focusing on kids and gifts, it maintains echoes of the past.

SARNA: We’ve morphed that gelt into chocolate coins as a kind of cultural memory.

PRICHEP: Sarna acknowledges that the rise of chocolate gelt in the early to mid-20th century is a small part of Hanukkah, but adopting new traditions and connecting them to the past is part of the larger story of Americanization.

SARNA: You were able to signal that wonderful sense of being part of the larger society and apart from it, at one and the same time.

PRICHEP: And just as with chocolate bunnies or chocolate Santas, a simple treat can be a passport to this history of belonging and ritual and nostalgia, no matter how the chocolate tastes.

For NPR News I’m Deena Prichep.

(MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.