Donuts: The ‘hole’ Jewish story

What’s so Jewish about donuts?

DonutsHannukah image
Babka sufganiyot—just in time for Chanukah season. (Credit: Marissa Wojcik.)

What's so Jewish about donuts?  

No, this isn't a joke from Seinfeld, it is a question that I was recently asked!

Let me start the story by telling you a bit about myself--and why I have donut judging authority! I grew up in Skokie, just down the road from the kosher Dunkin' Donuts on Dempster street. Going to get a donut always felt like a community event because no matter the time of day, I would run into someone I knew. In fact, it was statistically impossible to just run into Dunkin' Donuts and grab a snack. We walked in. We ordered. We schmoozed. And after about 30-45 minutes, we finally left with our treat to bring home. The donuts became as synonymous with my Jewish community as the schmoozing. But was there anything traditionally Jewish about this delicious fried ball of dough?  

I had to find out. 

Mass produced donuts, as we know them today, would not exist if not for a Jewish immigrant named Adolph Levitt who arrived in the United States in the early 20th century.   

A Russian by birth, Adolph Levitt, fled his homeland sometime before 1917, and quickly rose to fame in his new home of New York City. In 1920, he began selling his donuts in his Harlem donut shop. His main customers were soldiers who had recently returned home from fighting on the frontlines of World War I. The soldiers were longing to find a snack similar to the fried dough that they grew to love while in Europe. They found this in Levitt's donut shop and word quickly spread.  

Word spread so quickly, in fact, that in order for Levitt to keep up with the demand, he invented what we know as the modern day donut machine. The machine would form the donut, drop the dough in the piping hot oil, flip it in perfect time so that each side fried to the ultimate golden brown, and then would push them out to be sold to hungry waiting customers.  

The New Yorker reported on their first time watching the machine in action, they were astounded as the "doughnuts float[ed] dreamily through a grease canal in a glass enclosed machine, walk[ed] dreamily up a moving ramp, and tumble[d] dreamily into an outgoing basket." 

With the invention of this donut making machine, the soft pillows of dough grew to be one of the most popular snacks in the United States, ultimately being crowned the "featured fare" at the 1934 Chicago World's Fair.  

The Chicago World's fair in 1934 was also called the Century of Progress International Exposition. The theme of the fair was technological innovation, and seeing donuts produced automatically made them the perfect "featured food" of the future!  

This Chanukah, as we retell the story of the Maccabees defeating the mighty Greek army, let's also take a moment to remember the story of Adolph Levitt, a Jewish immigrant to the United States, who brought the humble doughnut to the forefront of American society. Without him, there would be no kosher Dunkin' Donuts for me to reminisce about!  

In his honor, I will be making my babka sufganiyot this Chanukah, and while I don't have the capacity to mass produce these (yet!), maybe one of you will be able to help me create an automated babka sufganiyot machine!  

 

Babka Sufganiyot  

Babka dough 

½ cup milk, warmed 

2 ½ tsp instant yeast 

1 egg 

1 egg yolk 

¼ cup sugar 

½ tsp. kosher salt 

2 cups flour 

7 tbsp. butter at room temperature 

Babka filling 

Blueberry preserves 

Lemon zest 

 

  1. Whisk egg, egg yolk, sugar, and salt in a large bowl until smooth and slightly pale in color. Whisk in warmed milk and yeast until combined. 

 

  1. Mix in the flour until almost fully mixed. Add butter (make sure it's at room temperature!) and mix until incorporated. The dough should be smooth and slightly sticky. 



  1. Turn out the dough and knead for just a few minutes until very smooth. Transfer to a greased bowl and let rise for 1 ½ - 2 hours until doubled. 

 

  1. Punch the dough down and divide into 8-10 even balls. Take one of the balls and roll into an oval. Spread the blueberry preserves over the dough and sprinkle 1-2 teaspoons of lemon zest over the preserves. 

 

  1. Roll the dough towards yourself to create a log. Cut down the center of the log and twist together. Pinch the ends together to form a circle. 

 

  1. Complete with the other portions of dough. Heat 2-3 inches of oil in a Dutch oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. 

 

  1. Cook each donut for 3 minutes on each side. Take out of the oil and place on a wire rack to drain the excess oil. Toss in sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons of lemon zest. Serve immediately. 



 
Marissa Wojcik is the founder of the Jewish baking blog North Shore to South Bay ( northshoretosouthbay.com ), where she creates modern and updated versions of beloved Jewish classics.  

 


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