As a child living in New York, Arthur Burack enjoyed eating halvah regularly, when his parents brought the sesame paste-based candy home from a local store as a sweet treat. When Burack moved to Maine in 2000, he relied on family and friends to send him the occasional bar of halvah, which is hard to find in this area.
As the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah approaches, Burack finds himself too far away from either Maine or New York to enjoy halvah whenever he wants.
Thanks to Bangor’s Congregation Beth El, however, Burack will have his fill of halvah. The 48-year-old Bowerbank resident and Army reservist who is currently deployed to Afghanistan, has already received care packages containing the sweet, rich, nutty candy just in time for the eight-day holiday which begins sundown on Sunday, Dec. 21.
Halvah isn’t a traditional Hanukkah food — potato pancakes fried in oil, known as latkes, are most often associated with the holiday — and halvah’s roots are Turkish, not Jewish. But halvah was Burack’s top request when Beth El members asked Burack what he wanted in his care packages, he wrote recently by e-mail from Kabul.
“The only specific item I really craved was the halvah,” Burack wrote. “I [knew] I would miss those tastes of home and it does give me a sense of comfort being downrange in Afghanistan.”
Burack’s craving for halvah is a way to bring a small part of his own traditions to his post overseas. Beth El rabbi Darah Lerner said the fact that someone would crave halvah around Hanukkah, even though the candy isn’t connected to the holiday, makes sense on a number of levels.
“Here’s a young man in a difficult situation, and of course he’s going to be asking for things associated with his culture, things we remember. It makes him feel connected. It speaks to him,” said Lerner, who also noted the connection between Burack’s celebration of Hanukkah while serving in the military, and the military aspects of the Hanukkah story in which a group of resistance fighters more than 2000 years ago drove out the ruling empire which forbade Jews from practicing their religion.
Halvah usually comes in the form of a brick, a candy bar-shaped log or in a can. It can be used in recipes, sprinkled on ice cream, or eaten on its own. It comes in a few flavors, including chocolate, vanilla and a marble swirl. Halvah also is sometimes sold enrobed in chocolate, which is Burack’s favorite. It has a rich, sweet, nutty flavor and a sandy, delicate texture.
“My favorite thing about eating halvah is the way the soft granular candy melts in your mouth,” Burack wrote. “The dark chocolate [covering] is great when peeling it off the halvah and eating it separately.”
The challenge Burack faces is keeping the halvah cool in the heat of Afghanistan, where he has been since late October.
Burack is a sergeant first class in the Bangor-based 391st regiment. He is serving with 34 other soldiers in his detachment with whom he trained last summer at Fort Riley in Kansas.
Since arriving in Afghanistan, Burack has been training the Afghanistan National Army in operations and logistics.
Although halvah isn’t tied to a Jewish holiday, one of the ways in which joy is defined in Judaism, Lerner said, is through sweetness of food. Typically, synagogues host post-Sabbath service social gatherings which usually include coffee and refreshments, called Oneg Shabbat. The phrase, Lerner said, means joy of the Sabbath.
Many Jewish celebrations do have a sweet food connection. Apples and honey are eaten at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, in hopes for a sweet year. Sweet cakes called hamentaschen, which have fruit or poppy-seed fillings, are eaten at Purim, which is a celebration of Jewish triumph over an oppressor. Hanukkah has its sweet treat too, in the form of sufganiyot, which are jelly doughnuts fried in oil.
References to halvah date back as far as 3000 B.C., according to www.joyva.com, the Web site for Joyva, a Brooklyn-based company that has been producing halvah since 1907. The word halvah literally means “sweet meat” in Turkish — and was thought to be a symbol of immortality and life and to promote fertility and sexual response.
Burack’s own love affair with halvah goes back to his days living in Brooklyn, when as a 5-year-old, his parents would buy halvah at King’s Delicatessen on Flatbush Avenue for family nights in front of the television. In later years, the family moved to Long Island, where halvah was also easy to find.
At this time of year, those halvah memories are linked with thoughts of childhood Hanukkah celebrations.
“Around Hanukkah my dad would get his holiday bonus from work,” Burack recalled. “We [my brother and sister] would be specific [in] our list for Hanukkah. Just around the corner from [his father’s] work was a store called Discount City on Bedford Avenue. They had anything a kid would want for Hanukkah. Of course our menorah was always placed in our kitchen window sill.”
Burack’s more recent Hanukkah memories revolve around Congregation Beth El’s traditions, as well as his 5-year-old daughter, Myra, who lives in Dexter.
“Myra loves halvah, too,” he wrote. “All flavors.”
Burack has already received some care packages — with halvah, of course — from Beth El. Congregation board member Andrew Matlins, who is the family services coordinator for the Maine Air National Guard, coordinated the effort to send packages to Burack.
“I thought, if we can do it for people I barely know, I can do it for him,” Matlins said.
Now that Burack has his halvah, he’s been sharing it with colleagues in Afghanistan who were unfamiliar with the candy.
“I have been bringing a serving during our meetings and so far [the halvah has had] very good reviews,” he wrote. “Halvah tastes better when you share it with others.”
Halvah isn’t easy to find in the Bangor area, although the Natural Living Center in Ban-gor carries several flavors. If you can’t find what you want in the stores, just make your own. This recipe is adapted from “From My Grandmother’s Kitchen: A Sephardic Cookbook” by way of “The New York Times Jewish Cookbook.”
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1¾ cups sesame paste (tahini)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 egg whites
1 cup shelled pistachios, preferably unsalted
1. Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook to the hard-ball stage (a few drops of the syrup, when dropped into a small basin of cold water, will form a firm ball that will not flatten on removal) or to a temperature of 234 degrees. Set aside.
2. Put the sesame paste with its oil in the container of an electric mixer. Add the vanilla and blend thoroughly.
3. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff and fold them into the sesame paste. When thoroughly blended, gradually add ¾ cup of the syrup, stirring. When completely blended fold in the nuts and the remaining syrup.
4. Pour and scrape the mixture into a loaf pan. Smooth over the top. Cover closely and refrigerate three days before unmolding. This halvah will keep for six months in the refrigerator.