Tamar Ben-Yosef sits at her kitchen table, surrounded by glittery paper, glue and scissors. With her two-year-old son Yoel on her lap, she cuts out the shapes of menorahs and stars.
They're making Hanukkah decorations. She focuses on rounding the edge of a sparkly, polka-dotted dreidel. Each side of the spinning top bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, forming the acronym for "a great miracle happened here."
"Mommy, sing with me," Yoel says as the dreidel takes shape.
The two sing together, a sweet blend of Ben-Yosef's melody with the harmony that only a child can provide.
"Oh -- dreidel, dreidel, dreidel
I made it out of clay
And when it's dry and ready
Then dreidel I shall play!"
Yoel giggles, holding the toy.
Tamar Ben-Yosef and her husband Noam Schulgasser were both born and raised in Israel with American parents. Like many Jewish holidays, they said, Hanukkah involves lots of food.
Fried food. Preferably in olive oil.
No wonder Americans went wild celebrating what was referred to as "Thanksgivukkah" this year. The beginning of the Festival of Lights overlaps with Thanksgiving, Nov. 28, this year. It was a momentous (and delicious) event that, according to an estimate from physicist and blogger Jonathan Mizrahi, won't happen again until the year 79811.
During the eight days of Hanukkah, it is customary to indulge in deep-fried sweet and savory dishes, like latkes (hash-brown pancakes) and sufganiot (jelly doughnuts). Foods fried in oil are eaten symbolically, to remember the military victory of a small band of Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, over an occupying empire's army. They only had enough oil to last one night, but miraculously it burned for eight days. This is why the holiday is celebrated by lighting eight candles on a menorah.
In the Ben-Yosef-Schulgasser household, Hanukkah is more about the food and community than religion.
Celebrating Thanksgivukkah with good friends, they planned a few twists on traditional Hanukkah dishes. Latkes became sweet potato latkes, and golden braided challah bread became pumpkin-flavored challah bread. The cookie-like rugelach were rolled up with pecan filling as an homage to pie.
The sufganiot traditionally eaten at Hanukkah are smaller than a typical American doughnut, and have a lighter quality.
"They're much fluffier," Schulgasser said.
No bakeries in town make them, but Ben-Yosef put in a special order with Golden Donuts on Tudor: unglazed and filling-free. The kind without a doughnut hole. She is planning on making a few types for her Hanukkah party this weekend, piping in her own fillings of strawberry jelly or Nutella and dusting them with powdered sugar.
Not quite authentic, but they'll do.
Food culture in Israel is really a blend of influences that changes depending on where immigrants were from when they arrived in the country. For Schulgasser, the foods on his plate growing up were North-African-influenced. For Ben-Yosef, whose father is from Bulgaria, meals were more similar to Eastern European cuisine.
A fortuitous meeting in Austin, Texas, brought the couple together, leading them to spend a summer in a tent in Seward before settling down in Anchorage.
Eight years later, they are the owners of downtown hot-spot Urban Greens, creating masterpiece salads with homemade dressings and gourmet subs.
You'll find Schulgasser there, with a smile behind the counter. Ben-Yosef is an account executive at a local public relations agency.
Cooking is important to them, and even when they've worked together in the restaurant all day, they still make meals at home. "Our food is simple, not fancy," they both emphasize. "Lots of vegetables."
At home, both speak Hebrew, and try to speak the language to their son as much as possible.
Though she's lived in the States for over a decade, Ben-Yosef strongly identifies as Israeli, where her formative years were spent. "My personality was shaped there," she says.
"I'm an American citizen, but my culture, my identity, is as an Israeli."
Being Jewish in Alaska is different than in Israel -- but it's something to be thankful for.
Ben-Yosef smiles. "I'm thankful for a healthy and happy family and for a wonderful community of friends who make up for not having most of our family nearby."
Hanukkah is a holiday that brings together old and new family traditions for celebration. It's a time to be thankful for family, for community, and of course, for latkes.
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.
By SHANNON KUHN
Daily News correspondent