Surprise! You’ve Been Doing Chanukah Wrong!

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We Jews are often the first to admit it; it can be hard for humble little Chanukah to hold a candle—or even eight of them—to the joy to the world juggernaut that is Christmas. They’ve got Santa. We have Judah Maccabee. They’ve got sweet-smelling wreaths and tinsel-ringed fir trees. We have menorahs. And when it comes to which holiday boasts the better sweets, let’s not even get into that foil wrapped, pseudo-chocolate substance known as gelt.

That being said, Chanukah has always had at least one major calling card—its celebrants get carte blanche to gorge on deep-fried potato pancakes for over a week. Or so we thought. In an effort to delve deeper into the latke origin story this year (besides that familiar yarn revolving around the miracle of the oil, that burned for eight straight nights), we were pretty shocked to discover that there isn’t one. At least, not really.

Because you see, potatoes weren’t even introduced to Eastern Europe until the 19th century, which doesn’t exactly jibe with the accepted timeline of Hannukah (i.e., around 167 B.C.; just a thousand some-odd years earlier). That brings us to the tale of Judith, which some historical scholars believe refers to the actual military events that led up to the famous festival of lights. In order to save her village from the invading Assyrian army, the beautiful widow plied their general with lots of wine and plenty of cheese until he passed out drunk. She then beheaded him with his own sword, and the Israelites were able to launch a surprise attack—and emerge victorious—against the leaderless battalion. Hooray! And so in actuality, in addition to the miracle of oil, the true story of Hannukah is all about the power of cheese. Which means that the truly traditional centerpiece to a holiday table is pancakes made, not with potatoes, but with ricotta, a delightful stroke of culinary innovation introduced by a rabbi living in Italy in the 1300s.

Now, we’ve got to admit that our grasp of the Torah is, at best, tenuous, so it was entirely possible that this niggling but otherwise universally known detail had somehow managed to slip right by us. So we ran, as we often do, to our favorite expert on Jewish food, Peter Shelsky of Shelsky’s Smoked Fish, and he was suitably surprised by our ricotta revelation. Score! So the moral of this story is, if you’re really looking to get in touch with your roots this holiday season, give potatoes a pass and eat your weight in deep-fried cheese instead. For eight straight nights. Take that, Christmas!

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Great post ! Though I’m a returnee to the fold I too just found out that just like Shavuot when we received the Torah and didn’t know about mixing meat & milk together so we eat dairy then that there is a custom on both holidays to eat dairy. I bet a lot of Yidden in all streams are unaware of this awesome tradition. Thanks for “illuminating” 🙂

    Seth Braunstein

  2. The tradition of eating latkes (potato pancakes) on Chanukah, like eating donuts, is because they are cooked in oil. The potato part is not what’s important – it’s the oil, because it was the one day’s worth of oil that kept burning for eight days that is the miracle of Chanukah.

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