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Why All the Oil and Cheese (and Potatoes)?

Why All the Oil and Cheese (and Potatoes)?


It seems a bit odd, really, this mixture of cheese, thirst, decapitation, potatoes, oil, pancakes and joy. But as often happens, the more you look into something, the more sense it makes (often, not always). When asked to research latkes (Yiddish for pancakes), I found that it did. Up to a point. But Yehudis (Judith) is amazing. I wish there was more space to tell her whole story. But then, it might be more meaningful to discover her yourself—and in the discovery, look upon the magic of Chanukah in a completely different light.

The tradition of eating latkes on Chanukah derives from two events. First, foods cooked in oil commemorate the miracle of the Chanukah oil; second, cheese latkes recall the brave heroine Yehudis, who (in 164 BCE) helped save her people by slaying the vicious Greek general Holofernes with the help of a little cheese.

Holofernes had brought the Jews of Bethulia to the brink of death by seizing the town’s only spring of water. The people grew desperate as they began to weaken from thirst. Then the beautiful Yehudis stepped forward and asked to see Holofernes.

Taken by Yehudis’ loveliness and charm, Holofernes invited her to an al fresco banquet á deux. Yehudis declined to eat his food—it wasn’t kosher, after all—but she had brought her own, and a large wineskin to share with him. Charmingly, she plied him with salty cheeses; then, as he grew more and more thirsty, she offered him great quantities of wine to slake his thirst.

When Holofernes fell into a drunken stupor, Yehudis borrowed her host’s sword and cut off his head. She calmly returned with it to Bethulia, where the stunned townspeople hung their oppressor’s head on the wall.

When Holofernes’ soldiers found his body, they were so demoralized that they fled in panic. The town of Bethulia was saved, along with the rest of Israel.

For many generations, Jews celebrated Chanukah by eating cheese pancakes fried in oil. So, make some latkes this Chanukah to keep the tradition intact—and as you eat them with family and friends, tell the story of the great Jewish heroine who saved her people with a great deal of courage—and a little cheese.

When and why potato latkes came to replace cheese latkes, no one seems to know, but our research revealed that they could not have been around for more than some 400 years. We welcome any historical information on potato latkes from our readers.

Since its discovery by the Western world in 1532, the potato has been blamed for everything from lust to leprosy. It is rumored that the Scots at one time refused to eat them because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible. The Incas, on the other hand, thought the potato made childbirth easier, and used it to treat injuries.

The Spanish conquistador Pedro Cieza de León, in his Chronicle of Peru, recorded the first information about potatoes in 1553. Although the conquistadors didn’t find the gold they were seeking, they discovered a virtual gold mine in potatoes. Potatoes soon became standard on Spanish ships when it was observed that they helped prevent scurvy.

They were sold in Seville, Spain, as early as 1573. At first, the strange tubers were fed primarily to livestock. Around 1620, the British governor of the Bahamas sent a gift of Solanum tuberosum (white “Irish” potatoes) to the governor of the Virginia colony—and the potato arrived in North America to stay.

Its introduction to Germany at this time helped popularize the potato among Ashkenazi Jews; in fact, Frederick the Great ordered his people (despite their suspicion of them) to eat potatoes as a solution to famine. Potatoes quickly became an integral part of the European diet—and soon (we assume) they became latkes!

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Ian Mednick Brooklyn December 7, 2015

Was Yehudis Jewish? Reply

Israela Italy November 18, 2014

Potatoes theory I was born in Romania and perhaps, just like in Russia, potatoes are the main surviving aliment available to common people. It may be an influence of the immigrants but that I can't tie together. Reply

grown with casha Finland December 8, 2012

to the one from 'Ukraine "Blintzes were popularized in the United States by Jewish immigrants who used them in Jewish cuisine. While not part of any specific religious rite in Judaism, blintzes that are stuffed with a cheese filling and then fried in oil are served on holidays such as Chanukah (as oil played a pivotal role in the miracle of the Chanukah story) and Shavuot (when dairy dishes are traditionally served within the Ashkenazi minhag)." but the buckwheat is called tattar in st Petersburg area, Estonia and Finland and it is dark. Reply

Anonymous December 5, 2012

Potato latkes ? Growing up in Ukraine we always ate latkes. Not on the daily bases, after all who can eat so much fried stuff, but often enough. However, we have never had them for Chanukah, I mean never. My family was not observant or religious by any stretch, but the Jewish holidays we celebrated to the best of our knowledge and ability. For Chanukah my grandfather would come to the kitchen and prepare buckwheat pancakes or latkes if you wish. That was real once a year treats. Potato latkes as the Chanukah food were introduced to me only when I came here to the States. I have been trying to reproduce my grandpa’s pancakes but to no avail, I guess I will just have to stick to potatoes latkes. Reply

Travis Canada December 4, 2012

Jehudith was that late in history? I am interested to see a reference to research to that effect. I presumed she lived during the time that the Royal House of David hamMelekh was exiled to Bavel, in the temporary absence of a Prince of that sort, when a Levite of distinction might have served for a Prince. Reply

Elana New York, NY December 9, 2010

Potato, Potah-to... To Patricia:

I suspect that you are generally right about why we eat fried potatoes on this holiday (cheap, filling, easy to make), but the practice far pre-dates WWII. My great-great grandparents came to New York from what is now Poland in the late 1800s, and potato latkes were a custom from the "old country." Reply

Patricia Lodge Mashpee, MA December 9, 2010

Potato pancakes or Latkes I'm not sure, this is my opinion about where the use of potato came from. During the world war II, potatos were the most food that could be found, and there wouldn't be many . Women would find a way to make the potatos they did have streach so that everyone in her family could have some. When they were forbidden, to celebrate.

I was not born Jewish but have a great love for God's people. Reply

Allison New York, NY December 6, 2010

Fascinating! I just love this online magazine. Thank you for the article! I knew the story of Judith, but not how it related to our customs at Chanukah. I will share it at our family dinner tonight, along with cheesy latkes that the kids will love! Reply

Elena Karacharova London, UK November 24, 2010

Latke: long joney of Oil (Greek) to Pancake Origin: 1925–30; < Yiddish < East Slavic; cf. Byelorussian (g)latka, dial. form of aladka kind of pancake, ORuss oladǐya (Russ oládʾya), prob. < Gk elá(i)dion, deriv. of élaion oil
Latke<Aladka<Oladiya<Elaidion<Elaion - Oil Reply

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