It’s fried, it’s crispy, it’s greasy, it’s delicious…and Hanukkah wouldn’t be the same without it. The latke (a fried potato pancake) is one of the most common foods served during Hanukkah. But what makes this precious pancake so incredibly fascinating is the crazy history of the latke and where it came from.
Let me take you back to biblical times, where it all starts with scripture. You see, the Bible and the Torah are such common religious books that have a rich history on their own. The Hebrew Bible (also known as the Tanakh, or the Old Testament), has undergone many ancient variations and versions throughout time … and, to my amazement, other books and texts that aren’t commonly known. Found in the Bibles of Catholic Europe, as well as a Syriac version of the bible, are the the books of Judith, Maccabee I, and Maccabee II. These books are where the history of Hanukkah comes from, as well as the history of the latke.
First, let’s start with Hanukkah, which has to do with the Maccabees; a group of warriors lead by the priest Mattathias and his sons in 168 BCE. After a victorious battle stopping the Syrian-Greek King, Antiochus, from defiling the Temple of Jerusalem, the Maccabees cleared the temple of all idols that defiled their sacred place. In order to give them light, they lit a menorah with a bit of purified olive oil that they found, which was originally supposed to be enough for one evening. It lasted eight.
This, of course, makes sense to why people celebrate Hanukkah for eight days, and eat oil-fried foods to celebrate.
Now for the latkes. Latkes come from the story of Judith, a fearless woman who is known as a Jewish heroine for beheading the Assyrian army’s general, Holofernes. How did she do it? Fed him some salty, cheesy pancakes and went in for the kill when he passed out drunk on her wine. After presenting his head to her people, the Israelites were then able to lead a surprise attack on the Assyrian army’s camp, which helped them to save their land.
Some believe that these two events correlate with the other (Judith beheading a general during the time of the Maccabean revolt), but other historians feel that these events took place hundreds of years apart. Either way, fried ricotta-cheese pancakes were soon a popular Hanukkah tradition after the story of Judith and the Maccabees were passed down through Medieval Jewish communities.
So why potatoes and not cheese? The reason for frying potato pancakes instead of cheese are a result of crop failures that took place in Poland and the Ukraine, resulting in mass planting of potatoes. Since it was easier at the time for people to make potato latkes versus cheese latkes, it soon became a passed down tradition.
All in all, there’s one very important message to get from the history of Hanukkah and the latke. Judith is a #girlboss who took some serious action on making things right for her people, and eating fried food is a way of celebrating miracles.