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Our Ancestors Didn't Know from Latkes

On Hanukkah we traditionally serve holiday dishes cooked in oil to commemorate the miracle of a single vial of oil lasting eight days.

But oil as the Hanukkah food of choice was not always so. One thousand years ago, in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa, the Hanukkah specialty dish was a cheese latke (pancake), which commemorated Judith's heroic efforts to save her people during the second century B.C.E. As the story (told in the Apocrypha) goes, the Syrian General Holofernes was sent to Bethulia (due east of Caesarea) by King Nebuchadnesser to annihilate the Jews. To make him thirsty, the beautiful Judith fed him salty cheese, followed by wine. The more he ate, the thirstier he became-and the more wine he drank. When the general passed out, Judith beheaded him, and his troops fled in fear. Thus did Oriental Jews come to associate cheese pancakes with the Maccabean victory of their ancestors.

In Eastern Europe, where the climate was considerably colder, Jews did not have easy access to dairy products, so for Hanukkah celebrations they turned to the foods at hand. Raising geese was a Jewish occupation at the time, and in December fattened geese provided meat and fat for cooking. Potatoes, too, were readily available and cheap-and that is how a crisp, golden potato galette cooked in goose fat became a Hanukkah favorite.

In Amsterdam in the late 16th century, stewed vegetables became the Hanukkah dish of choice in commemoration of the Dutch military victory over the invading Spanish army. At dinner time on October 3, 1574 the Dutch launched a surprise attack on the Spanish military encampment in Leyden, forcing the Spaniards to flee-and abandon simmering pots of stewed vegetables with meat. Associating the siege of Leyden with the Hasmonean victory, Dutch Jews established the tradition of serving a mashed stew of vegetables with kielbasa on Hanukkah.

Whichever foods you choose to enjoy in celebration of Hanukkah, eat in good health!