About one hundred years ago around this time, the Confino family home at 97 Orchard Street would have been filled with the sounds of talking and laughter, the smell of delicious treats, and the warmth of family. It was more than a party, it was a merenda—a traditional Sephardic Jewish celebration marking the end of Hanukkah.
The Confino family, who immigrated from Kastoria (in modern-day Greece) to the Lower East Side in the 1910’s, were a little out of place in their new home at 97 Orchard. First of all, the family spoke Ladino, a language derived from Spanish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, which was not widely spoken among the Eastern European Jews in the neighborhood. Second, the family was Sephardic, rather than Ashkenazi, like most Lower East Side Jews.
Victoria Confino, (in the middle of the back row) and friends around 1917.
Sephardic Jews trace their roots back to pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal. Their customs slightly differ from those of the Ashkenazi – including the ways in which they celebrate Hanukkah.
In the Sephardic tradition, on last day of Hanukkah, families would throw a merenda, or a potluck dinner. The Confinos would have asked friends and family to bring special dishes – giving everyone a chance to show off their culinary skills (and use up leftovers!) Some of the dishes included Sephardic delicacies like fried cheese balls and bumuelos, or light donuts fried in oil. (A delicious sounding recipe for bumuelos can be found here and other Sephardic Hanukkah recipes can be found here.)
Bumuelos are so delicious, they inspired a song! The joyous song Azeremoz una Merenda (which means “Let’s Make a Party” in Ladino), describes the making of, and celebrates the anticipation of eating the bumuelos, can be heard on YouTube here. The first line of the song is, “Let’s make a party! What time?” Any time for donuts sounds good to me!
Sephardic families like the Confinos would make sure to invite people they’d disagreed with with in order to make amends during the merenda. In the Sephardic tradition only the head of the household lights the Hanukkah oil (this differs from the Ashkenazi tradition where any member of the family can light candles on a menorah), so each night, Abraham, the patriarch of the Confino family, would light the oil to represent another night that the sacred oil lasted.
To learn more about the traditions of Sephardic Jews, visit the Tenement Museum for our Victoria Confino tour! You’ll meet with a costumed interpreter portraying Victoria Confino, and talk about the Confino family’s immigrant experience.