Where do Latkes come from?

A lovely young Irish woman told her mother that she would be attending her first Hanukkah celebration and latkes would be made! Her mother said, “As I understand it, latkes have something to do with potatoes. You’ll be fine!”

I’m not Irish and I’m not particularly fond of potatoes. So my latkes include parsnips and carrots. But you may wonder how did a story (Hanukkah) sent in the Middle East get involved with potatoes? Luckily Rabbi Larry Milder from Beth Emek is here to enlighten us!

From Rabbi Milder


Where Do Latkes Come From?
For many, latkes are the ultimate Jewish food. Yes, bagels and lox are culturally Jewish, and chicken soup is the Jewish contribution to medicine. But latkes have religious significance!

Of course, we eat latkes as a reminder of the miracle of the oil, spoken of in the Talmud. When the Maccabees entered the Temple, only one cruse of pure, sanctified oil, could be found; just enough to light the Menorah for one night. But a miracle happened, and the oil lasted for eight nights, that is, until more pure oil could be produced.

The real story of Hanukkah is that the Temple had been in Syrian-Greek hands during the holiday of Sukkot. When the Maccabees purified the Temple, they were able to celebrate the eight days of Sukkot (plus Shemini Atzeret) two months after its designated time. The legend of the oil only appears later as an explanation for what had become a new annual celebration lasting eight days.

So, on Hanukkah, we eat something fried in oil, to remind us of the miracle described in the Talmud.

But why potatoes? Our ancestors didn’t have potatoes. Potatoes didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century. What did they fry before then?

In southern Europe, Jews fried cheese in oil. Not only did this remind them of the legend from the Talmud; the cheese had its own significance. The Apocryphal book of Judith tells the heroic story of how Judith fed the invading general Holofernes salted cheese, causing him to drink and fall asleep, after which she did him in. Way to go, Judith.

The shift from cheese to potatoes is a function of Jewish migration. Olive oil was not readily available in Eastern Europe, and Jews were accustomed to frying their foods in goose fat, aka schmaltz. But schmaltz is fleishig, that is, a meat product, and so it is not kosher for use with cheese. Enter the humble potato, recently arrived in Eastern Europe and a staple of Jewish diets (and everyone else’s) ever since. Potatoes fried in schmaltz go with a meat meal. (If you are a vegetarian like me, cheese fritters can be a tasty main course!)

Soufganiyot? Jelly donuts? Feh! Who needs all that sugar? How many can you eat, after all? But a plate of latkes? No problem!
Happy, savory Hanukkah.
Rabbi Larry Milder