A Hanukkah at the Crossroads of Ethiopian and Jewish Identity

December 22, 2016

For centuries, members of the Beta Israel community—a small pocket of Jews in Ethiopia—did not observe Hanukkah. They had split and largely existed apart from Jews across the globe, well before Hanukkah's conception in 200 BCE. This only changed in the late 1970s, when they began a mass migration from Ethiopia to Israel.

One of the members of this exodus was Beejhy Barhany, a New York-based restauranteur who owns Tsion Cafe, an Ethiopian and Mediterranean restaurant in Harlem. Tsion's menu reflects the heterogeneity of her own experiences and the many places she's lived throughout her life. She serves lox, a New York Jewish staple, with caramelized onions and injera, for example.

Barhany was born in the Ethiopian region of Tigray before migrating to Sudan in 1980 with her mother at just four years old. Barhany moved from Sudan to Kenya to Uganda to France until ending up in Israel, where she spent most of her adolescence and began observing Hanukkah. In the early aughts, she moved to the United States.

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When she founded Tsion a few years ago, she folded her experiences living in many corners of the world into her cooking. And that resulted in food that fuses Barhany’s family dishes, tethered to the Ethiopian cuisine she was raised on, with flavors she gleaned in Israel and with time-honored Hanukkah traditions.

I spoke to Barhany earlier this week about her Hanukkah celebrations; below, I've transcribed part of our conversation, edited for clarity and flow.

As you may know, Hanukkah is not a major holiday for us Ethiopian Jews. It has no religious significance, especially compared to what it means to many Jews in America and what they make of it. As an Ethiopian Jew, I was basically sheltered from many holidays—Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur—and I would say Hanukkah was not celebrated as much in Ethiopia, either. We of course knew the existence of the Hanukkah legends and miracles of lore. We know about the Books of the Maccabees. Ethiopia is the only place in the world that kept the book of the Maccabees, after all.

I left Ethiopia when I was four. The Hanukkah I came to know was in Israel, where I ended up after a few years. What I recall about Hanukkah as a kid in Israel is that, starting [in] early November, my mother and I would go to special grocery stores and buy the ingredients we’d need to make sufganiyot, doughnuts filled with jelly and topped with powdered sugar, and levivot, or potato pancakes. That is the Hanukkah food I knew.

Here, in the United States, Hanukkah became associated with gift-giving and wrapping. It's very commercial. It’s like we Jews are competing with Christmas. I realized this mostly when I moved to the United States eleven years ago. The way I grew to celebrate Hanukkah... well, right now, it’s funny. I have two kids. We celebrate Hanukkah like anyone else would—we light the menorah every. I actually do something I probably shouldn’t do—I give them a small gift every day for the eight days.

But together, we make sufganiyot and play with dreidels, and tell stories. We make a lot of hot chocolate, basically with Mekupelet, an Israeli rich milk chocolate bar I had a lot growing up. If you boil the milk and put that chocolate in the milk, all of the chocolate melts and creates a mixture that's very nice and rich. We grate a little cinnamon and nutmeg and put it in that mixture and serve it. That is one of our small treats around Hanukkah.

In my house, our Hanukkah has items that are very central to Ethiopian cuisine, too. I make a stew with slow-cooked chicken that sits in a pot for hours. I soak and simmer the chicken in 17 types of Ethiopian spices, from cardamom, clove, paprika, ginger, garlic, all the good stuff. After the slow-cooking process is over, I serve it with some hard boiled eggs and injera. It is a celebratory Ethiopian meal we eat every Hanukkah. We eat any stew with injera. We also bake small Ethiopian bread, like mini challah, we call dabo. It’s a traditional bread that my kids and I make together. Hanukkah is an excuse to make dabo. In a way, every Hanukkah, I've learned to incorporate a little bit of everything.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.