Getting gelt was good as gold

What can a buck get you on Chanukah? Maybe a gold mesh bag of chocolate coins or a lighter for your menorah. But Jewish continuity?
At a time, when we get so wrapped up in gift giving, I propose that it’s a single dollar of gelt (Yiddish for money) that has the power to keep on giving beyond eight nights.
Originally in Europe, and later in America, Chanukah gelt referred to coins given as gifts to children and adults. Today, gelt brings to mind the chocolate coins wrapped in gold and silver foil that come in a small mesh bag.
But lately, gelt-wise, I’ve been thinking outside the bag and wondering why, of all the Chanukah gifts that I received as a child, it is the shiny silver dollars given by my parents that I remember best. I never even spent them.
Was something more than a dollar being given?
When I was a teenager, and the silver dollars stopped and were replaced by clothes and books, I was surprised by how much I missed the holiday ritual of being handed a dollar. It wasn’t until I got engaged that someone gave me one again.
I had been invited to a family Chanukah party at the home of my future wife Brenda’s Sephardic grandmother, Grace Hasson, or, as everyone called her, “Vava.” 
Some three dozen relatives — aunts and uncles, cousins and their spouses — crowded into the small living room of her home in Montebello. We said blessings for the candle lighting and sang songs before moving on to dinner. The feeling was nice, warm — nothing unusual.
After dinner and some bunuelos — sugar-powdered fried balls of dough — someone said it was time for gelt. 
Gelt? For whom?
I watched as four dining room chairs were lined up at one end of the room and four uncles seated. One by one, with the oldest going first, the name of each grandchild was called, and each came forward to pass down the “gelt line.”
My future mother-in-law, Shirley, knowing everyone’s birthday, kept the chronology straight, and when the time came for Brenda, I was surprised to be included with her.
In my late 20s, I thought myself beyond getting gelt. But as I passed down the line, each uncle pressed a crisp $1 bill into my hand (Stanley Berko, my future father-in-law, gave me a $2 bill), and as I shook their hands and wished each a “Happy Chanukah,” I felt like a million bucks.
When Brenda reached the end of the line, her grandmother handed her a white envelope.
At Chanukah, “You got a dollar from each uncle, two from your own parents and two from Vava, plus a birthday bond,” explained Joe Hasson, my wife Brenda’s brother.
Hasson recalls using the cash to buy record albums or gas for his car. 
“We also used the bills to play liar’s poker,” he added.
“I would bring girlfriends, and they would get a big kick out of it. It made you feel good to continue the tradition,” said Hasson, who is now married and has two children, who also went through the line.
He remembers the line as a kind of roll call.
“It was the only time you would see all the cousins,” he said.
However, I soon realized, one didn’t even need to be present to be counted. If for some reason you couldn’t make it, someone would be designated to go through the line for you.
One of the uncles, Lou Hasson, remembers the tradition beginning in the mid-1960s.
“There are four branches of our family. It was wonderful to have them together,” he said.
Another of the uncles, Gene Levey, said, “Before we gave gelt, each family would pick another family and give them gifts, but it was hard to know what to buy.”
As the cousins married and had children, the number of gelt getters grew to approximately 40. Berko, who remembers going to the bank to get about $75, recalled that his first gelt line was also the year he married into the family.
“I didn’t even know everyone’s name, but I wanted to be part of it, too,” he said, as did the next generation.  
“It didn’t matter to me if it was a $100 bill or a dollar, I really wouldn’t have cared,” Beau Karabel, one of the great-grandchildren, wrote to me in a text message. “I just loved these guys and wanted to be them one day.”
Rachel Petruzzi, another great-grandchild, said she remembers “getting together as this humungous unit” at Chanukah.
“Going through the gelt line, you would get a special moment with each uncle and my grandfather,” she said.
After some 40 years, however, when she was 25, those moments stopped with Vava’s passing in 2008 at 104.
“I miss it so much,” Petruzzi said.
For Rachel’s mother, Ellen Petruzzi, the line was a means of family continuity. Even with the deaths of several of the aunts and uncles, including her mother’s, she noted that the family carried on with its Chanukah tradition.
“We have strong feelings for each other,” Ellen Petruzzi said of her extended family, who continue to get together at Passover and Rosh Hashanah — a dinner that Brenda and I now host that is flavored with a dish from each family. “We are strongly connected.”

Grown-up gelt

All around the Jewish world, Chanukah is chocolate season. But that doesn’t have to mean you’re stuck with the waxy chocolate coins known as gelt. In fact, a new wave of boutique chocolate makers in Israel are redefining this beloved indulgence in Israel. Many of their skillfully crafted products are already available in the United States. One taste and it’s clear: Gelt has grown up.

Holy Cacao

This new guard of chocolatiers, contributing a reported $5.3 million to Israel’s domestic $40 million market, are savvy business owners and gourmands. Among them, only one — Joe Zander — imports whole cacao beans, working with the raw material from start to finish. This New Jersey native resides about 40 minutes outside of Jerusalem, in the Southern Chevron Hills, and like his comrades in chocolate, he is the definitive Israeli chocolatier: independent and artisan. Zander maintains his own piece of land in Peru, where he cultivates organic beans. Akin to the layered flavors of wine, his 72 percent Peruvian chocolate reveals delicious, complex, fruity hints of berries. His Dominican is darker, richer, more coffeelike. His 56 percent contains imperceptible ground hazelnuts that lighten and sweeten each bite.

Zander’s Holy Cacao label features sketches of the machinery used to make chocolate from bean to bar: a roaster, mill, conche and winnower. Seasonally, Zander makes truffles in a wide variety of flavors. Currently, he markets his wares online and through in-person individual sales in Israel, with plans to export on the horizon.

Sweet N’Karem

Less than an hour’s drive from Zander’s base of operations, Sima Amsalem handcrafts chocolate in a pastoral setting within Jerusalem. Ein Karem is an ancient neighborhood resembling a Tuscan village. Amsalem’s brand, Sweet N’Karem, is a tasty homage to this beautiful setting. This self-professed chocolate addict leads a small but critical team of three women chocolatiers. Together, they produce about 40 kilograms of dark, milk and white chocolate pralines, truffles and bars each month in a former Crusader building with thick stone walls and arches. In addition to high-cacao content pieces, there are liqueur infusions and other fresh ingredients, including marzipan, whole nuts and dried fruit. Everything is packaged with the whimsical logo: a truffle fairy resting on a massive chocolate pod. The self-educated Amsalem also leads workshops for groups of 10 to 20 people seeking to learn how to make chocolates at home. Visitors also personalize Sweet N’Karem products for bar mitzvahs, weddings, corporate events and more. Minutes away, the Chocolate House retail shop at 2 Mevo HaShaar offers coffee, ice cream, gifts and more.


Chocolate that goes down easy is the sole aim of Chocoholique, a cottage industry that began when former chef Marc Gottlieb tasted an inferior homemade version of chocolate liqueur. Inspired to make his own libation, this 2006 immigrant from Cedarhurst, N.Y., showed off his creation to his friend and neighbor, Shimona Gotlieb. It was so delicious that, soon after, the pair launched Chocoholique. In two and half years, “Gottlieb & Gotlieb” have introduced eight pareve, mehadrin flavors. Top seller Peanut Butter is a boozy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Intense Chocolate is made with 60 percent cacao content. And in all flavors, the alcohol level is kept low, just 7 percent, to ensure the alcohol’s astringency doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the chocolate. Other than acknowledging that it is sourced from various bars, the pair keeps their provenance confidential. Keep your eyes peeled for imports — Chocoholique plans to launch in the United States at Kosherfest 2012.

Galita’s Chocolate Farm

Galit Alpert founded her namesake Galita’s Chocolate Farm in 1999 with methods she acquired during three years’ training in Belgium. Consumed by chocolate’s flavor and texture, Alpert set up shop in a beautiful stone building that once housed the historic Kibbutz Degania Bet’s first cow shed 85 years ago. The Galita chocolateria boasts an extensive line of products, family-friendly guided tours, a coffee and homemade ice cream bar and chocolate-making workshops for all ages. Nestled amid banana groves and green lawns near the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Galita’s embodies Alpert’s nine reasons to love chocolate: for health, soul, energy, childhood memories, relaxation, joy, desire, love and for yourself — as outlined on her charming (Hebrew-language) Web site,

De Karina Artisan Gourmet Chocolates Handmade Mountain Chocolate

Tucked away in a small “chocolate house” in the Golan Heights town of Ein Zivan, De Karina Artisan Gourmet Chocolates surprises the palate with a hint of South American flavor. Named for its founder, Argentine immigrant Karina Cheplinski, this third-generation chocolatier incorporates subtle tastes and contrasting flavors, carrying on the tradition of her grandfather, an emigrant from Europe. Her factory features a coffee shop, guided tours, tastings and workshops on tempering, making truffles and other mouth-watering adventures in chocolate-making. Advance reservations required.

Roy Chocolate

When Roy Gershon grew tired of working in technology management positions, he turned his zeal to creating Roy Chocolate. He operates a factory, a flagship store in Tel Aviv and another in Ramat Gan’s Ayalon Mall. Greshon also supplies franchises in Rishon L’Zion, Afula, Cinema City, Haifa and Jerusalem with more than 100 flavors of pralines, truffles and intense liqueurs in innovative bottles. There are also fun gifts galore: chocolate hearts on cinnamon sticks ready to melt into hot chocolate, LoveCakes filled with ganache, gorgeous French macaroons, cupcakes topped with chantilly cream, chocolate lollipops with romantic sayings and much more in pareve, dairy, and lactose- and sugar-free varieties. Each week, Gershon also conducts several workshops around Israel.


In Gush Tel Mond, in the Lev HaSharon industrial area near Netanya, Ornat considers itself the grandparent of Israel’s handmade chocolates. Established in 1987 by the La’or and Ronat families in the tradition of Dutch chocolate making, it ships pralines around the world, personalizing them for special events and corporate clients. The Ornat company operates a visitors center. Guests ages 6 and older are welcome for tours and chocolate-making workshops.

Max Brenner

Though once handcrafted, Max Brenner’s “Chocolate by the Bald Man,” was acquired in 2001 by Strauss Group, which, in 2004, also merged with Elite, Israel’s leading mass-market brand. The bald man is a composite creation of founders Max Fichtman and Oded Brenner. Visit their Willy Wonka-inspired Chocolate Bar in Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall and other locations around the world for signature products such as high-impact “cigarette packs” containing almost equally addictive wafer-thin bars and chocolate-covered caramelized pecans in colorful, reusable gift tins simply labeled “Nuts.” Of course, there are also pralines in a wide variety of flavors, including sea salt, as well as truffles and scrumptious creamy/crunchy “Feuilletine Fingers.” Innovative menu items include chocolate pizza topped with milk and white chocolate (and optional banana slices, melted marshmallows and whipped cream), a speckled “Cookieshake” of Oreos, carmelized pecans and white-chocolate creme, a “cappuccino of milk chocolate” and the not-to-be-missed, pudding-like Italian hot dark chocolate. Worth every calorie.,

The Greatest Game

We sat at my sister-in-law’s kitchen table, 11 of us from three generations of my husband’s family, absorbed by a wicked game of dreidel on the fifth night of Chanukah, howling with abandon and anticipation at each seemingly endless spin. My 10-year-old daughter, the youngest present, was killing us all, amassing huge quantities of chocolate gold.

But this typically Jewish gathering was really something quite different than what it might have seemed at first glance. We were in one of the least Jewish places in America, in a farmhouse on the icy plains of eastern Iowa. Twinkling Christmas lights lit up the front of the house, and a tree burned bright in the living room just beyond where we were sitting. The table was laden with a mix of beautifully crafted traditional holiday cookies, and my daughter was taking more than her share of the green wreath-shaped ones. The people, too, were not what you might expect — everyone other than my husband, my daughter and I was a devout Catholic.

This year my nuclear family — the three of us — had gathered together with my husband’s family, and we were taking advantage of the odd coincidence that overlapped Chanukah so directly with Christmas. It was the first time my husband’s family had ever seen a dreidel. Before this night they’d never tasted a latke, let alone a piece of gelt.

The Jewish rituals are now familiar to Richard, my husband of 15 years, although he sometimes still feels a bit new to all of it. He takes nothing for granted in his dreidel game, now that he’s gotten pretty comfortable with the Hebrew letters and their designations. As we lit the candles on the menorah we’d brought with us from Los Angeles, he was the one to translate the prayers for his family — taking care to explain the meaning behind the Hebrew words we’d chanted, because he especially knows what it means to not understand.

Richard is in the process of converting to Judaism, a step that’s been a long time coming, although he long ago moved away from the heartfelt faith his heartland family sought to instill in him. It’s been a big move; he knew of only one or two Jewish families growing up in this region, where the most popular museum features John Deere farm equipment, and a local chain of ice cream shops is a main attraction. As we laughed through this Chanukah evening together, it was easy to understand how much he respects and loves his German, Scots-Irish family, who have stayed close to their Midwestern roots, even though they no longer till the land. His decision to change religions has been a very careful and prolonged one.

It wasn’t easy for me to enter his family, either; at least the anticipation of it was intimidating for this East Coast-born, deeply ethnic Jew. In 1989, I made my first trip to the Quad Cities, along the banks of the Mississippi at the border of Illinois and Iowa, and I was scared. I feared that Richard’s family would see me as an alien being — an aspiring intellectual, art-loving liberal. These were interests, I presumed, that they knew little about.

I was afraid they’d reject me because Catholicism is so important in their lives; it wasn’t just of passing interest that I was not one of them. Just as we Jews hope to preserve the sanctity of a Jewish family, they believe in their traditions and the need to perpetuate those beliefs. Mary, the oldest of my husband’s three sisters, is a nun; one of his brother’s sons studied to be a priest for a while. I’d had Catholic friends my whole life, but Richard’s family was somehow more Catholic, more devout and more lovingly committed to their faith than any I’d ever known.

Yet from our first hug when they met me in the airport on that first trip, they’ve never let me down. That embrace was the first of many, and I can no longer even imagine them rejecting our ways. Their early misgivings about their Richard marrying a Jew — and even about his gradually becoming a Jew — have not stopped them from accepting us for who we are. Over time, my mother-in-law has let us know that she is concerned first that we have faith in God. As for their granddaughter, she brings home stories not from a Catholic school, nor a public school, but a Jewish day school. Both of Richard’s parents joyously take in these tales like the doting grandparents they are; and they have come to Los Angeles to visit her and see her school performances.

So there we were in Iowa, playing with a dreidel because Christmas and Chanukah coincided and because this family of Catholics is always ready for a good game. As Richard patiently taught them the Hebrew letters on the dreidel — it took some effort, as those little squiggles all seemed to baffle them — I cooked the latkes with the help of my two 4H-proud nephews. Good food is a universal language. My mother-in-law knows this, too. As dinner was being prepared, she surprised me with a kugel she’d made, inspired by a recipe she’d gotten years ago from my father’s mother.

As the game ended, Mary picked up a couple of pieces of gelt to take home to her monastery. There was a picture of a menorah on the coin, and she wanted to share it with the sisters.


Chanukah Rights

Growing up, I was one of the few children that did not
receive Chanukah presents. My family gave gelt, the money that children
traditionally receive on the holiday while gambling over the
game of dreidel, the spinning top.

My parents wanted to make the holiday as different from that
green and red one that sometimes falls at the same time. An easier task then, I
suppose, than now.

But isn’t that what the Festival of Lights is really about —
making sure we stay different? The Israelites resisted Hellenization; can the
American Jews resist Christmasization?

 From Adam Sandler to “The Hebrew Hammer” to the ultimate
public display of Chanukah — Chabad’s giant chocolate menorah at Fashion Island
in Newport Beach — we Jews have managed to procure equal Chanukah rights for
all, thank you very much. Maybe that’s not a good thing.

One nice thing about my time living in Israel — aside from
avoiding overly sentimental holiday songs and films — was the fact that most
people I knew didn’t have a lot of money. Most of us couldn’t afford to buy
everything we ever wanted, so we stuck to buying the things that we needed,
like toilet paper and shoes.

As an anonymous Yiddish author wrote in “A Treasury of
Jewish Humor,” which was compiled in 1967: “To have money is not so ai-ai-ai!
But not to have money is oy-oy-oy!”

There is no going back in time to when we were less
affluent, to when we gave a few pennies for gelt instead of gifts, to when
Chanukah and Christmas weren’t often synonymous for “the holidays.” And that’s
a good thing in many ways, I suppose.

But can’t we Jews bring something more to the holiday table?
Don’t we have more to offer this season than a giant chocolate menorah and
eight gifts instead of one?

In Judaism and in life, the world presents two inherent forces
competing for every person’s soul: gashmiyut (materialism) and ruchaniyut
(spirituality). We don’t shun one in service for the other; the tradition
understands that the material world has a place, too: our spiritual leaders
don’t take vows of celibacy — they marry.

A person who chooses to be a nazir (an ascetic) can only do
so for 30 days. The Jewish tradition teaches that wealth should be used to
enhance spirituality: avodah b’gashmiyut. Worship through materialism.

This week, as Chanukah and Christmas collide, instead of
unrealistically calling for a moratorium on spending (who would listen?),
perhaps we should look to our tradition to see how we can enhance our values
through materialism: avodah b’gashmiyut.

We can use our spiritual — and hopefully, emotional — wealth
to give to others: to donate our time, our services, our money.

But we need to do more than co-opt the “holiday spirit,”
that somewhat superficial niceness that descends on everyone, for say, two
weeks out of the year. Chanukah shouldn’t be completely Americanized, neutered
of all spiritual meaning, with candles instead of a tree, latkes instead of
fruitcake (as if that’s a fair choice).

The Festival of Lights, of course, is about a battle that
was won by the few against the many and the miracle of the Temple menorah’s oil
that lasted eight days instead of one.

Perhaps this year, some will draw a parallel of the
Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks to the United States’ capture of Saddam

To me, Chanukah is about the survival of the Jewish people.
How do we do it? Julie Gruenbaum Fax writes this week about how some movements
are looking to conversion as a route to survival. Many stories in this issue
testify to the ways we continue: from Tom Teicholtz’s article on the revival of
Yiddish (The “always dying but never dead” language) to Rabbi Eli Hecht’s tale
of his feisty bubbie’s stolen menorah. Survival is apparent, too, in our own
community, where the Orthodox Union held its annual West Coast Convention, just
days after the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra gave a masterful performance at
Disney Hall and the next day went to Milken High School to visit with student

What does it take to survive? Strength, courage and, yes,
even adaptability and change. If the victory against the Greeks was about
withstanding assimilation and taking on foreign ways, perhaps this Chanukah we
remember that some of our greatest gifts come, already unwrapped, from our very
own tradition.  

Got Gelt?

Chanukah gelt seems like a simple tradition. A grandparent, parent, aunt, uncle, or family friend hands the children a few coins as they watch the Chanukah lights flicker. Money goes from one generation to the next, expressing love and delight that speaks to the child in endless possibilities.

Yet teaching the next generation about money — its value, what to do with it, how to use it — is not such an easy task.

There was a time in America, at the beginning of the 20th century, when the vast majority of Jews lived in poverty. They survived in crammed tenements, performed back-breaking labor, and were met with hostility from the outside world. During those years, a coin to a child was a magnificent gift, sure to be met with surprise, delight, and a strong sense of responsibility.

Today, while there are those who still struggle financially, many, thankfully, do not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. It is even safe to say that many can afford to go out to eat every once in a while and give their children a new gift each of holiday’s eight nights.

Do the lessons we once taught about money still ring true in a time when many of us have a little extra to burn?

The theme of scarcity lies at the heart of the Chanukah story. The oil was scarce, but miraculously it lasted for eight days. For our ancestors, oil was as central to everyday life as money is to ours: it was the source of heat and of light, it was used for cooking and preserving food, and it was, in many ways, their sustenance.
While the story of Chanukah speaks of scarcity, the celebration is about abundance. The act of lighting a menorah is a pure act of enjoyment, an acknowledgment that we are blessed with enough oil to burn.
In times when oil or money was sparse, we told a story about hope, about the miracle of finding abundance in that sparseness. Now that we live in a time of plenty, we add a new chapter to the story.

As we stand with those we love and watch the lights flicker, we couple our deep sense of gratitude with a challenge to turn our abundance into a blessing. Ultimately, to celebrate a surplus means to enjoy it, to give thanks and to invest in ways that change the world for the better.

At CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, we believe that this new era of abundance often calls for new understandings of traditional Jewish practices and rituals. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for your celebration.

First, try a new way to give your children gelt this Chanukah: one coin or bill to enjoy, one coin or bill to give away and one coin or bill to invest in the future.

After giving the gelt, you could ask them how they want to spend it or take them to a local mall, restaurant, museum or bookstore. You could talk to them about giving some of it away and the difference they could make with their gifts. And maybe they’ll even come to understand the multiple ways they can invest in the future, to help themselves and others.

What emerges is the lesson that we feel less controlled by money when we understand that it can fulfill only some of our desires. But more importantly, it can provide the means to bring light into the world.

That’s the miracle of Chanukah.

As you celebrate this season with your family, take time to live out the Talmudic teaching: “One who acquires wisdom should study the way that money works, for there is no greater area of Torah study.”