Most of us are familiar with the story of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, which begins this year on December 24th. The holiday celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrian-Greeks and their rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem with a small amount of olive oil that miraculously burned for eight days and nights. Those of us who have been lucky enough to attend a Hanukkah celebration also remember the festival’s most prominent food fixture, latkes. These delicious potato cakes have come to dominate Hanukkah’s culinary landscape, but did you know there is an epic tale behind these simple fried delights? While Hanukkah is a celebration of a military victory and the retaking of the Holy Temple, there is a little-known story interwoven into the tradition of Hanukkah, the story of the widow Judith and her heroic efforts to save her town and eventually bring about the defeat of the Assyrians.
Judith lived in the town of Bethulia, a small but strategically important village in the Judean Desert. She was despondent over her town's siege by the Assyrian General Holofernes and hatched a plan to save her village and her faith. Judith prepared rich food for the general and put on her finest attire and jewelry. Her plan was to sneak into the Assyrian camp. On her way to the camp, an Assyrian patrol captured Judith and her servant. The men of the patrol were was so taken by the women's beauty, that upon seeing them, they exclaimed, “who can despise people who have women like these among them.” The soldiers took Judith to Holofernes. When she arrived at the general’s tent, he too was taken with her beauty and personality. Judith charmed the general, plying him with salted cheese and accolades until Holofernes’s thirst drove him to drink himself unconscious with wine. Her plan had worked. She quickly grabbed his sword from his sheath and beheaded the general, fleeing to Bethulia with her prize.
Her disembodied trophy had an effect on the morale of both forces, emboldening the Israelites and devastating the Assyrians after finding out a woman had murdered their most prominent general. This act by the brave and clever Judith is said to have turned the tide in the Israelites favor, leading to their eventual victory and the regaining of Jerusalem.
This tale has had a lasting effect on the practice of Hanukkah. The rich food Judith prepared, salted and fried cheese became a staple of the holiday. But when did the fried cheese of Judith’s day turn into the potato latkes so representative of the holiday today? Most point to the famine and poor cattle production which occurred in the Pale of Settlement, an area of Imperial Russia prominently settled by the Jews, which forced the areas residents to switch to plentiful potatoes, eventually completely replacing the traditional fried cheese as the holiday favorite.
The humble potato latke serves a double meaning during Hanukkah. It marks the secret mission of Judith to save her people and religion by seducing a foreign general with decadent food and feminine charm. And serves as a reminder of the miracle of the oil.