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The Sufgania That Made Me Feel At Home In a Place That Rarely Felt Like One

New York’s sufganiot were delicious—at once airy and rich—but they were never quite right. No matter how many sufganiot I tried, I could never find the sufganiot of my Israeli childhood, the ones that my father bought for a couple of shekels in the local bakery and brought home unexpectedly one damp Hanukkah night.

A couple of years ago, I urged my Jewish friend to taste two different sufganiot, and asked her which one was more authentic. She stared at me for a moment, took a bite out of each, then shrugged and said that they were both perfectly good. At home, she said, they’d only had latkes with apple sauce for Hanukkah. She hadn’t known about sufganiot until she moved to New York for a job in her 20s. She confessed that, growing up, Hanukkah had always seemed like a poor man’s Christmas, and there was little about it that she missed.

I called my mother and asked her about the sufganiot we had in our hometown, Kfar Saba. “Ah, yes of course,” she said in Russian, “those sufganiot were not good for my diet.”

“What was special about them? Nothing. They were just ordinary ponchiki s vareniem, jelly doughnuts, like the ones we sometimes had at the cafeteria in St. Petersburg.”

I tried to recall if I ever had ponchiki as a child, in Russia, but all I could remember were the profiteroles with whipped cream that my mother bought—or even baked—on special occasions. Those flavors, I thought, were lost for good, locked in a too-distant past, at the remove of two immigrations.   

*

Though in Israel Hanukkah had nothing to do with Christmas, it was still a lackluster holiday. Arriving as it did in the middle of our gray, soggy winter, it promised only a few days of vacation, and a small present, if my parents could afford it. Maybe because of the weather, or because my parents didn’t get any time off from work, we almost never traveled. Instead, we’d spend the holiday in our shabby fourth-floor apartment, going out only to one of the city parks that broke up the dense housing blocks.

On the first night of the holiday we would always light the Hanukkiah, saying the proper prayers and setting it on a piece of tinfoil on the dining table. We meant to do the same on the other nights, but we’d often forget, and instead have our dinner in front of the T.V. as usual. Around that time—I was about 11 or 12—I was beginning to realize that no matter how carefully I follow the rituals I’d learned at school, for my classmates and teachers, I’d always be Russian, never a true Israeli.

But some Hanukkah nights were different. On those nights my father would come home a little later than usual, carrying a large white box filled with freshly-baked sufganiot. Almost immediately the smell of fried dough would fill the apartment, and we would rush to the dining room, fling open the oil-stained cardboard, and bite into the soft, jelly-filled pastries. While all of us sat or stood around the table, eating silently or exchanging banter, there was a sense of warmth, of togetherness, and that elusive feeling that everything was just as it ought to be.   

I can still remember the bakery where my father bought the sufganiot. It was a small, brightly lit place that offered the usual fare: white rolls, plain white or ‘gray’ bread, burrekas, challahs on Fridays. When I passed it in the mornings and on the way back from school, the smell was intoxicating, and yet I rarely went in. Why hadn’t I? Was I intimidated by the loud, pot-bellied shopkeeper behind the counter? Or mindful of my parents’ endless admonitions not to waste money?

Years later, I realized that my parents were also uncomfortable in those cramped neighborhood shops; that they never felt at home in our neighborhood, continuing to dream other lives. Yet on one of the nights of Hanukkah, after a long bus ride, my father would go into the overheated bakery, and wait while the gruff shopkeeper tossed two dozen sufganiot into a cardboard box. Then for that one night, we would feel a little more substantial, more rooted, almost as if we really belonged.

I don’t think that I’ll ever find the sufgania of my childhood, but somehow I can’t stop looking. Who knows, maybe somewhere in the nether reaches of Brooklyn or on a bus line in Queens there’s a sufgania that tastes just right, that taste the way it used to—back in the place I couldn’t quite call home.