“‘[Latkes] were first made with curd cheese rather than potatoes,’ Gil Marks writes in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.” Although they are certainly a traditional holiday food, they are by no means the [only] traditional holiday food. For centuries, as Marks details, Jewish communities around the world have celebrated with other delicacies that acknowledge the role of oil in the Hanukkah story. Greek Jews eat fried fish with ajada, an adaptation of an ancient Mediterranean sauce akin to garlic mayonnaise; they also serve fried apple rings and apple fritters. The Cochin Jews of India enjoy neyyappam, a kind of fried sweet cake containing semolina, almonds, cashews, dates, apricots and cardamom, as well as bonda, fried potato fritters coated in chickpea flour and served with chutney. Syrian and Lebanese Jews celebrate with atayef, cheese-filled pancakes deep-fried and topped with sugary syrup or thick cream, while Sephardic Jews have traditionally feasted on ojaldre, an ancient Spanish form of puff pastry also stuffed with cheese. The Jews of Italy, meanwhile, nibble on frittelle di Chanukah, yeast fritters flavored with anise [and sufganiyot/jelly donuts are a Sephardic/Israeli favorite).” [1]

As children, we’re taught the “simple” Hanukah story of the Maccabees overthrowing the “Greeks” and rekindling the light in the Temple, which burns for eight days. We light the menorah, sing “Ma’oz Tzur” (one verse from it; it’s actually a long poem) and eat latkes. It unquestionably leaves a life-long impression.

But as adults, we can learn that the history of the conflict of which the Maccabees were the “victors” was far more complicated than the simple story we were told. 

We can also learn that far deeper meanings can be derived from the story. 

Asking whether the oil actually burned for eight days is beside the point. Ask instead: What meaning were the rabbis trying to convey by the story? 

I won’t attempt to answer that here — as if there were only one answer. 

Rather, I mention it to point out that our Jewish understanding can deepen if we, as adults, search beyond the simple teachings we were given as children. By “search beyond,” I don’t mean “negate” those teachings. I mean: Search for broader, deeper meanings. In this online era, the information couldn’t be more accessible. Google “Hanukah” (in any of its spellings) and you’ll find article after article.

Which brings me to “latkes.”

Latkes are delicious, of course. But while they illustrate a point about the holiday — the burning of the oil — they aren’t the point of the holiday itself. The above quote from Jennifer Boyer’s article is a glimpse of the many different ways in which the same point is illustrated from (Jewish) culture to culture. 

Latkes are a “custom.” In Hebrew, “custom” is “minhag/מנהג.” 

Every holiday has its customary food. Eating special food on a holiday delineates that day from all other days. It illustrates and emphasizes a major theme of the holiday, whatever it is. We might well enjoy the special foods — but we should not lose sight of the deeper meaning of the day itself. Used properly, latkes and other minhagim (plural of “minhag”) enhance our observance; strengthen our focus on the meaning of Hanukah — a meaning which we can build on each year by looking at articles that are easily available online. 

As an analogy, I’d offer going to a cantorial concert in the Spring and hearing a cantor sing “Kol Nidre.” It might be quite beautiful; a moving performance. Yet — the song has a specific meaning and purpose, attached to a specific day. To hear it at any other time reduces its greatness to mere “entertainment” (which is not to say that one might not be moved spiritually by hearing it sung at any other time). 

The ultimate meaning of any ritual — liturgical or gustatory — is to connect us with God.

We should enjoy Hanukah and its customs.

We should also give special focus to its meaning and the lessons it teaches. 


[1] from an article by Jennifer Boyer