Who doesn’t love some latkes during Hanukkah? These crispy potato pancakes fried in oil have become one of the most popular and delicious Hanukkah traditions. There are a few different stories which purport to explain how latkes became an integral part of the Jewish tradition, but the exact historical origins of these mouthwatering fried cakes is hazy. Some trace latkes back to the historical time of the Maccabees, others to the story of Judith, and still others to crop failures in Eastern Europe in the 1800’s. Investigating the tales surrounding the origin of latkes is almost as delightful as eating the dish itself.
Maccabees and Oil
The history of Hanukkah itself goes back to the 2nd century B.C., when the Syrians were repelled from Jerusalem by the Maccabean revolt. After cleansing the temple, Judah Maccabee and his followers rededicated it by lighting the menorah, though they only had enough oil to keep it going for one day. To their surprise, the menorah kept burning for 8 days until they were able to procure more oil to keep it permanently lit. Some tie latkes back to this Hanukkah origin story by saying that the oil used to fry the pancakes serves as a reminder of the first Hanukkah celebration when the temple was restored.
Judith and Cheese
This is where things can get a bit sticky. The first latkes were probably made around the time of the middle ages by Jews in Italy, but they were made of cheese instead of potatoes for the connection between cheese and Hanukkah. What was the reason for this? It has to do with the story of Judith, and some trace the story’s events back to the time of the Maccabean revolt. The story goes that Judith played a huge part in the Maccabean victory over the Syrians because she entertained the Syrian general Holofernes, plied him with cheese latkes and wine, and cut off his head. For whatever reason, this story became popular with Jews in the middle ages, and they commemorated Judith’s purported role in Hanukkah by making cheese latkes.
Eastern Europe and Potatoes
So what about potatoes? How did today’s latke tradition get established? Jews in the Maccabean time were certainly not eating potatoes, since they are a New World crop and didn’t come to Europe until the 16th century during the Age of Exploration. It is a much more recent tradition. Some find its roots in the 18th century, specifically in the crop failures in Eastern Europe where there were a lot of Jewish citizens. Potatoes, much easier to grow than other crops, were planted en masse and became the most readily available starch. Thus, Jews began to make their latkes with potatoes, and today’s tradition was born.
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