It’s Not Hanukkah at My House Without Cheese Latkes

Hanukkah's dairy tradition dates back thousands of years.

My sister-in-law once said that if I had born 100 years earlier, I would have been a suffragette. I didn’t disagree. My mom, a strong, passionate woman, taught me that women were equal to men and could achieve just as much. I passed that message on to my own two daughters and then to my granddaughters.

That’s why the story of Judith is an important part of our family’s Hanukkah celebrations, and why it would not be Hanukkah for us without eating cheese latkes

Judith played an important part in the Maccabee victory over the Assyrians. While her story is not included in the Old Testament (you can find The Book of Judith in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles, and the Protestant Apocrypha), Judith became increasingly important in the Jewish oral tradition over the centuries.

The basic story is that Nebuchadnessar, the Babylonian king who reigned from 605 to 561 BCE, sent Holfernes, his Assyrian general, on a mission to conquer Judea. There he met and fell in love with the beautiful Judith, not knowing she was a Maccabee, and asked her to dine with him. During the meal, Judith gave him great quantities of cheese, which made him so thirsty that he drank too much wine, causing him to become drunk and fall asleep, whereupon Judith cut off his head with his own sword! She got word to the Maccabees that the enemy general was dead and the Assyrians fled, leaving the Jews to rededicate the Temple and light the candles with only enough oil to last for one day but, miraculously … everyone knows the rest of that story.

Gil Marks (Encyclopedia of Jewish Food) tells us that the first recorded mention of her association with Hanukkah came in the 14th century, but by then there was already a well established tradition of eating dairy products, especially cheese, during Hanukkah to celebrate her heroism. 

What kind of cheese, exactly? In The Sword of Judith, authors Kevin R. Brine, Elena Ciletti, and Henrike Lahnemann tell us that the food Judith served Holofernes might have been a fried cheese pancake.

A latke. Of course! 

There is no recorded recipe of how cheese latkes were prepared in those days, but we do know that most people cooked flat pancakes and folded in a type of fresh, non-aged cheese made from the milk remaining after skimming off the cream. This fresh cheese — known as “cottage cheese” — was readily available and less expensive than aged cheese. Even today, it is still the top choice for Hanukkah latkes, although I have also used pot cheese or farmer cheese, which are similar. 

For centuries, Hanukkah latkes were made with cheese, not potatoes. We know that because potatoes, which are indigenous to South America, were unknown in Europe until the 16th century, when Pizarro conquered Peru and brought potato plants back home. After potatoes were planted and flourished throughout Europe, it made good sense to use them instead of cheese, especially in kosher households. Potatoes were always much cheaper and more available than cheese, and besides, you can fry a potato latke — but not one made with cheese (because of kosher law) — in schmaltz, which had widespread use in the Jewish community. 

By the 18th century, the cheese latke tradition fell by the wayside for most Ashkenazim (although ricotta pancakes are a featured Hanukkah food for Italian Jews).  

Not at my house, though. We always eat sweet, lemon-scented cheese latkes, although, on occasion, I have switched to a savory version, leaving out the lemon peel and sugar and adding crumbled feta cheese and scallions, sun-dried tomatoes, or black olives. I serve both the sweet and savory versions with thick, tangy sour cream or whole milk plain yogurt. This year, I’m thinking of using crumbled goat cheese, chopped red onion, and/or arugula. We’ll see.

But there will be cheese latkes. Because I wish to honor Judith. And I will retell her story to emphasize not just good food, but to reinforce the truth that women are strong and smart, and must always celebrate those who have been our role models and heroines. 

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