The Christmas Mitzvah: ‘Tis The Season To Be Giving!

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Charity is integral to the Christmas holiday season. For more than 150 years, Americans have attached special significance to giving charity and volunteering on Christmas as ways to fulfill the holiday’s spiritual mission. The act of charity mutually binds the benefactor and the recipient through civic and religious obligation. Charitable organizations and agencies call upon citizens to open their hearts and their check-books to help the disadvantaged during this period.

Christmastime charity in the United States can be linked to two seminal events: the publication by Charles Dickens of his composition A Christmas Carol in 1843, which heightened readers’ awareness to the importance of being beneficent on Christmas; and, New York intellectual and journalist Margaret Fuller’s highly publicized Christmas Day visit to the New York Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in 1844, which turned charitable giving to children into a civic ritual.

Charity among Jews in the United States through the early 1800s was localized in synagogues, organized for the purpose of taking care of newly arriving Sephardi Jews. As a result of the large-scale German Jewish immigration beginning in 1820, philanthropic organizations were formed to assist landsman—fellow countrymen—to establish societies based on town of origin. As the Jewish population grew, charities were filtered through institutional agencies that transcended regional interests. In 1819, Rebecca Gratz, the American-born descendant of German immigrants, established the Hebrew Female Benevolent Association of Philadelphia, the first independent Jewish charity in America. The association offered food, clothing, shelter, fuel, an employment agency, and traveler’s aid to Jews in distress. Another compelling reason for assisting Jews from within the community emerged: during periods of anti-Semitism Jews found it uncomfortable to use non-Jewish charitable organizations because of the intensive proselytizing by agency staff.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community was strong enough to consider joining in the charitable Christmas fever that swept America. Jews, who often sat on the sidelines while their many American neighbors celebrated their December holiday, saw in this outpouring of Christmas charity an opportunity to be part of a new American tradition. Perhaps the earliest written record of Jews performing charitable acts on Christmas Day in America dates to 1884, forty years after Margaret Fuller’s Christmas Day visit to needy children. The Cincinnati Jewish newspaper, the American Israelite, acknowledged in its pages the public Jewish charitable efforts at Christmastime. It cited the example of Hy King, Jr., President of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, who sent a letter on December 22, 1884 to the organizer of a local Christmas collection along with a wagonload of presents:

Mrs. Perry, Dear Madam: As President of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, permit me to tender to you a donation of Christmas presents to gladden the hearts of the poor little ones. Your noble charitable work should appeal to all creeds. I shall only deem it a duty, but also a pleasure, to assist in all your charitable works.”

In an 1885 article printed in The American Israelite, the author acknowledge that Jews had enthusiastically endorsed charitable giving to their non-Jewish neighbors: “It is the custom here, as in other cities to provide a hearty meal for all the poor children of the vicinity during the Christmas holiday…Many of our Hebrew families, recognizing that the movement was to make children happy, set aside all questions of faith and doctrine and contributed very liberally in money and material.”

As early as one hundred twenty years ago, the American Jewish press recognized the correlation between poverty and charitable giving to the poor at Christmastime. A December 1900 article in the Jewish Daily Forward described the charitable giving that was characteristic of the general society at large during the holiday season with the following observation:

Capitalist newspapers boast that this Christmas capitalists have given more to charity than during any Christmas in previous years. This is true. The reason is that there have never been as many poor people asking for charity as there are this year. Many of the Christmas dinners for the poor were attended by thousands of people. The Salvation Army alone served 19,000 dinners on Christmas Day, beginning at 10:00 am. At no other time of the year can one see so clearly the masses of poor, the wholesale poverty, than on that day when the “redeemer of humankind” was born.

This awareness of poverty expressed in the pages of the Jewish Daily Forward was an experience that the poor European Jewish immigrants in New York knew about first-hand.

American Jewish Charitable efforts soon began to focus not just on monetary aid but on relieving fellow Americans from their work so that they could instead spend Christmas Day with family. On December 29, 1927, an editorial in the American Israelite reported on the feelings of reciprocity that pervaded between Americans who celebrated Christmas and the Jews working in the New York City Post Office. Jews agreed to substitute for their colleagues at work during Christmas, and non-Jews offered to work for Jewish employees on the Jewish high holidays. The same reciprocal relationship occurred in hospitals, the military and government agencies. The American Israelite of December 28, 1944 noted that “Jews ask extra duty so Christian buddies may observe Christmas.”

During the 1960s and continuing until the present, this generosity of spirit intensified and extended to helping those outside of one’s immediate work environment. Jews began to volunteer individually and communally in hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, senior citizen facilities and other charitable venues. The Christmas Mitzvah (coined in my book A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish), Jews engaging in charitable acts of volunteerism on Christmas, has become a widespread phenomenon throughout America. The Christmas Mitzvah is a distinctly Jewish response to Christmas–Jews in America volunteer and engage in charitable acts that enable their fellow Americans to celebrate Christmas.

 

 

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Meet You At the Movies on Christmas Eve: The Origin of a Jewish Tradition

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Jews in America, particularly during the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, employed a multitude of strategies to face the particular challenges of being outsiders to Christmas and to overcome feelings of exclusion and isolation. These strategies include attending events that concentrate on bringing family and friends together in temporary and public settings, thereby providing not only a safe haven but also opportunities to positively identify as Jews and as Americans. Going to the movies certainly falls within this category. However, rather than being a modern cultural innovation, the concept of Jews going to the movies on Christmas Eve and Christmas day is steeped in long-standing tradition.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, even though most commercial establishments were closed on Christmas, immigrant Jews frequented entertainment venues that catered to Americans who did not celebrate Christmas. Jews residing in New York City were fortunate in being surrounded by a world of entertainment consisting of Yiddish theater, movies, arcades, dance halls, cafes and vaudeville houses to which, in fact, Jews contributed as store owners, actors, movie theater proprietors, and audiences. The fact that Jews lived in crowded conditions in the Lower East Side meant that entertainment centers catered to a built-in constituency that clamored for diversion from their long and difficult living and working conditions. Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan became avid purveyors and consumers of commercial leisure. Eastern European Jews, who spoke Yiddish, enjoyed attending performances of the Yiddish theater, which stayed open on Christmas. As early as 1917, theater advertisements for plays being performed on Christmas Day appeared in the Yiddish press; some plays actually opened on Christmas.

According to Jewish film scholar Judith Thissen, who has extensively researched Jewish patronage of the movies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a film that generated significant controversy at that time was entitled “The Jew’s Christmas.” The narrative involves a rabbi who sells his copy of the Torah to buy a Christmas tree for a poor little girl. It is ultimately revealed that this little girl is the Rabbi’s granddaughter and the film ends happily with the family reunited around the Christmas tree. According to Thissen, Moving Picture World documented that a large delegation of rabbis witnessed the projection of the film and was satisfied with the story and its treatment of Jewish ceremony and custom. The rabbis did, however, look with disfavor on the title of the film. Thissen then asserts that the film was viewed with less tolerance by Tageblatt finding the last scenes particularly offensive.

On a broader scale, the Lower East Side saw the expansion of the nickelodeon, a moving picture of short-duration accompanied by illustrated songs. The price of admittance was a nickel.  This medium was very popular among Jewish residents; nickelodeon shows ran in a continuous loop from morning until evening. People went from one theater to the next: “It is heaven and earth and moving pictures,” reported the Forward in May 1908. There were more nickelodeons situated in the Lower East Side than anywhere else in New York City. Andrew Heinze notes that nineteen nickel theaters were scattered along the Second and Third Avenue streetcar lines of the East Side. By 1908, forty-two were located in or adjacent to the Lower East Side and ten were in the uptown area branded as Jewish Harlem.  Adolph Zukor was the first nickel theater entrepreneur in Manhattan who opened in 1904 a modest theater above his penny arcade that was accessible through a glass staircase beneath which water cascaded over lights of changing hue.  On Jewish holidays, the nickelodeons and Yiddish theaters attracted big crowds.

The high attendance levels of Jewish audiences in movie theaters did not go unnoticed. Christian authorities apparently were distressed by the fact that Jews went to the movies on Christmas Eve in New York. Resultantly, Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. ordered the closing of all New York City nickelodeons on December 24, 1908, believing that the new medium degraded community morals. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures was founded in 1909 to protest the Mayor’s censorship. Its lobbying effort was successful in facilitating the opening of nickelodeons once again on Christmas.

Which brings us to today! According to one Long Island Native, now living in San Francisco, “there seems to be an unwritten law that Jews in New York have to go to a Chinese Restaurant and then a movie on Christmas Eve.”

For an in-depth discussion of this phenomenon, see Chapter One of A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) entitled “Coming to the New World: Can The American Jew Keep Christmas?”

For an in-cinema experience: see Seth Rogan’s recently released film: The Night Before.

For a listing of recommended movies, old and new, to view on Christmas Eve via NetFlix, see: http://www.buzzfeed.com/louispeitzman/jewish-movies-to-watch-on-christmas#.xgYymgxlP

 

 

The Mensch Who Saved Christmas!

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Perhaps the most interesting and ironic form of Jewish volunteerism during Christmas-time is the phenomenon of the Jewish Santa Claus. In a limited sense, this title is bestowed on Jewish volunteers who act generously, very much like Santa Claus would.

A celebrated case of acting like Santa Claus was the response of Aaron Feuerstein, the Jewish owner of the large textile factory Malden Mills in Methuen, Massachusetts. His factory burned to the ground in 1995, two weeks before Christmas. Aaron Feuerstein decided to continue to pay salaries to and health benefits for his twenty-five hundred employees until partial production resumed at the mill. He also gave them Christmas bonuses. When asked where he obtained strength and inspiration after the devastation, Feuerstein cited an ancient Jewish quotation that served as his motto: “When all is moral chaos, this is the time for you to be a mensch.” For his exemplary efforts, Feuerstein was labeled by the news media as the “Mensch who saved Christmas” for his employees.

As was recently reported in Ha’aretz, the cost of reconstruction and later downturns in the economy twice forced Malden Mills into bankruptcy. The second filing resulted in a distress sale of the company, its renaming as “Polartec” and the outsourcing of production overseas. Feuerstein was later characterized as someone whose naïve sentimentality after the fire led to significant economic loss, including loss the his family business. A  2011 essay at the website ethix.org, published by Seattle Pacific University’s Center for Integrity in Business and cited in Ha’aretz, suggests not blaming Feuerstein’s mensch-like behavior for Malden’s subsequent problems: “Yes, his decision to rebuild at a cost $150 million higher than the payout from his fire insurance definitely started Malden on the path to bankruptcy, but more significant were three unseasonably warm winters in the years following the reconstruction. And what American textile company hasn’t faced difficult challenges in recent decades, starting with the relocation of much production offshore?” Ultimately, the Ha’aretz article concludes (again citing ethix.org) “[The] market situation, not his kind heart, is what ended Feuerstein’s run as a textile industry leader.”

Aaron Feuerstein is now 90 years old. In a recent Boston Globe article, Feuerstein said: “I go on living with gratitude and humility. I’m happy with my life. I do the best I can.”

Kudos to Aaron Feuerstein!!!

see http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/this-day-in-jewish-history/.premium-1.691072

 

Hanukkah Harry Comes to Town!

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Santa Claus, a folk hero of the Christmas season, is readily available to most American children, Jewish children, however, had no corresponding hero with which to identify. Then came Hanukkah Harry!

Hanukkah Harry was first introduced in a 1989 episode of Saturday Night Live in “The Night Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas” as a positive figure who had earned a reputation as a trustworthy Jewish Santa.  So well-respected was Harry that when Santa became ill just prior to Christmas and was unable to fulfill his duties, he called upon Harry to take his place. Hanukkah Harry ably substitutes for Santa until the non-Jewish children he visits realize that Harry has distributed practical gifts—slacks and socks (typical presents for Jewish children)—and not the gifts that they had hoped to receive. After their initial disappointment, the children realize that Hanukkah Harry was only trying to help out under difficult circumstances. They ultimately appreciate Hanukkah Harry’s willingness to assist Santa, in the same manner as fellow Americans are thankful to Jews who willingly volunteer to substitute and perform their jobs on Christmas day. As for the Saturday Night Live episode, while Santa may have had the better gifts, Hanukkah Harry had the altruistic motive, teaching that holiday spirit is more appealing than the crass commercialism to which many children, Christian and Jewish, are subjected.

Just when one is left to believe that Hanukkah Harry had reached a modicum of success with his appearance on Saturday Night Live, the rivalry between Santa and Harry reached epic proportion in the minds of imaginative comedians. Some have envisioned Harry winning in a combat between the two giant holiday superstars. Hal L. Singer’s 2002 music release on compact disc “I Saw Hanukkah Harry Beat up Santa” offers one such episode and a motive of jealousy for the fisticuffs that are about to ensue.  Harry instigates the rivalry by “haunting Christmas like the ghost of Christmas past.” Santa “bashes in Harry’s Caddy” and “Harry jumps in his Caddy and he was mad as heck,” resulting in his taking “off after Santa to break his jolly neck.”

Without any pretext, Hanukkah Harry gets even with Santa Claus for Santa’s control of the Christmas airwaves. The scene takes place in front of Morrie’s deli, presumably so that Hanukkah Harry will have support and justification for his retribution on Santa. His use of a Cadillac car to inflict harm hearkens to a time when this automobile was considered to be a status symbol among immigrant Jews. The message is that Santa’s hubris will ultimately contribute to his undoing.

These two roles of Hanukkah Harry, supportive and combative, are recorded as entries in the Internet Urban Dictionary, a source of humorous definitions found in the urban environment. The first definition of Hanukkah Harry is that of a “very funny guy that helps Santa Claus and lives in Israel.” His brother, Santa Cohen, helps as does his sister, Yenta Claus. The siblings have a cousin named Schmanta Claus and they all love Hanukkah. The second definition posted in Urban Dictionary for Hanukkah Harry is “the Jewish equivalent of Santa Claus” when “Hanukkah Harry wipes Santa Claus’s ass.”

As portrayed in American Jewish popular culture, Hanukkah Harry illustrates that Hanukkah is just as important as Christmas. Once this parity was achieved through the humor of Jewish artists, satire became the vehicle of choice. In the fantasy world facilitated by the then new YouTube internet medium, a Hanukkah bird drops presents from his high vantage point, along with bird waste. Introduced through YouTube, in 2006, the comedian and rapper Eric Schwartz (aka Smooth-E) presented a scene centered upon a bird dressed in blue that delivers presents over the course of eight nights from his home in Boca Raton, Florida. Apparently, Hanukkah Harry trained him. The bird’s sole recognizable trait is his “blue and white turd,” although a news helicopter sights the bird sporting a yarmulke. Reminiscent of Big Bird, the beloved television character of Sesame Street fame, this Hanukkah bird is considered cute and responsive to children’s needs. The cuteness is undermined, however, by the bird’s limitations. He does not talk and he cannot be seen.

Eric Schwartz’s message in this rap, as well as in his other YouTube entries (“Chocolate Coins” in 2006 and “Hanukkah Hey Ya” in 2008) is that Jewish children have no reason to envy Santa. They have so many “cool” rituals, games, and gifts that they deserve to be called heeb hoppers. Unlike children who celebrate Christmas, they never have to worry about whether they were naughty or nice nor need they request any presents directly from a Santa while seated on his lap. This Hanukkah bird can neither read a gift wish list nor be seen by children. But the presents for all eight nights continue from an endless and miraculous source of gifts.

Both Hanukkah Harry and the Hanukkah bird now appear in popular cultural celebrations during the month of December. Beginning in 1994, every year on a specified weekend date in December in cities throughout the United States and the world, thousands of young people sporting Santa costumes converge on a central gathering place. The name of the event is Santacon.The focus of Santacon is multi-fold:  rooted in a flash mob and featuring both spontaneity and creativity, the participants meet to publically parade, to rove and to barhop, clearly having a good time all the while spreading good, albeit bawdy, cheer and goodwill. A website called SantaCon.info provides information about several of the gathering sites in the Northeastern United States, as well as historical context and the prospect of purchasing cheap Santa suits and other Santa paraphernalia.  In New York City alone, thousands of Santas converge from all directions at one (secret) previously -designated place. This street gathering always includes a few people dressed in blue and white robes as Hannukah Harry and as Mrs. Hanukkah Harry. Occasionally, dreidel and menorah costumes appear and even, on rarer occurrences, a person surfaces dressed as a blue and white bird, a clear reference to the Hanukkah bird featured in the Youtube rap of Eric Schwartz (aka Smooth-E).

This year SantaCon has shared its route in advance. They will meet at 10 a.m. at McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Starting at 11:00 a.m., parties will be hosted at Verboten and the Hall. In the middle of the afternoon, the Santa crowd will head to the Lower East Side, near to the Delancey and the DL. Late afternoon will find the Santa crowd in the East Village with events hosted at Solas, Bar 13 and at 230 Fifth, near Madison Park.

For more on our thoughts about SantaCon, see prior blog postings: “Here Comes SantaCon (and AntiCon)! on Decembr 13, 2013, and “You Better Watch Out…!!!! on December 16, 2012.

A Rejoinder to “Hanukkah Sucks”

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When Emma Green of The Atlantic magazine contacted me to discuss Hanukkah for an upcoming article in the on-line magazine, I was initially excited by the prospect. She approached our discussion, which was quite enjoyable, with an open mind. We talked at length about the holiday’s symbolism and underpinnings. What struck me at the time was a statement made by Emma that Hanukkah was “theologically thin.” While I agree that Hanukkah is based on an historical foundation that later on incorporated a theological concept of a miracle, I should have been more attuned perhaps to Emma’s preconceived stance. The result of our conversation was my pop-in inclusion in an article in The Atlantic online that attacks American Jews’ celebration of the holiday while ignoring the thrust of my interview. [See Green’s Hanukkah, Why? Cultural Critics Often Blame Christmas for the Festival of Lights’ Commercialized Kitsch. The Real Story is Much More Complicated.]

Green’s article is deeply flawed.  I certainly did not fare as poorly as other scholars cited in the article; however, I am dismayed that the article failed to discuss the duel underpinning for Hanukkah’s ascension in the American vernacular. In my interview with Green, I repeatedly emphasized that the singular way to understand Hanukkah in America today is in connection with its juxtaposition to Christmas and its contemporary connection with religious liberty. In writing about and discussing Hanukkah, it is imperative to compare and contrast Hanukkah and Christmas on both a particular and a general level. I emphasized to Green that Hanukkah is the festival of light during what has been characterized as the season of light. Hanukkah is a holiday that has come to symbolize the fight for religious freedom, which coalesces with an important American value. Green chose to disregard this. Instead Green chose to highlight Hanukkah as a holiday of kitsch and “celebratory of violent nationalism.”

Perhaps the internet citation for the article signals the author’s preconceived perceptions:(http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/12/hanukkah-sucks-amirite/419649/) An interesting corollary is the search heading, which reads “How American Jews Ruined Hanukkah.” Perhaps these are merely attention-grabbing devices. Perhaps they are a reflection of the subversive irony of hipsterism. The Atlantic magazine article fails to portray the individual perceptions and behaviors of American Jews vis-a-vis Hanukkah.

I have written a direct email response to Green. It reads as follows:

I read your article again just now. To me it seems that while your reasoning is interesting, it is also flawed. As I write in my book, A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012), Hanukkah (in America) can only be considered and analyzed with respect to its contextual relationship to both Christmas and the December holiday season, both generally and particularly. Hanukkah, in fact, is certainly one of the strategies American Jews employ to respond to (and mitigate the effects of) Christmas. This is Hanukkah’s true importance to the American Jew. Your article avoids a discussion of the juxtaposition, correlation and interaction of the two holidays. If you read (or reread) my book, each chapter represents a different strategy of response, all of which are interconnected. Basically, your treatment of Hanukkah is in isolation of its historical and contemporary context to (and its magnification because of) the December holidays.  Lastly, for most American Jews, Hanukkah connotes a joyous affirmation of Jewish identity and religious liberty (as I mentioned to you in our recent discussion) during the month of December.

 

Naughty or Nice? A Santa in Maccabee’s clothing!

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Maccabee-Santa chocolateA Hanukkah Brouhaha: Jennie Rivlin Roberts, owner of ModernTribe, an-online purveyor of holiday accouterments, gifts and treats, had an inspired idea: to order chocolate renditions of Maccabees to sell on her website at Hanukkah-time (or as HEEB called them “chocobees.”) When she removed the foil wrapper to taste the chocolate, what she found, instead of a Hasmonean, was….a chocolate Santa!

According to an online piece in the Forward, Rivlin Roberts stated: “The next thing I did was call our supplier, who are way more observant Jews than I, who basically said, ‘Yeah, what of it?’ They said they couldn’t afford to purchase a new chocolate mold and chose, instead, to use the chocolate company’s Santa mold. His question to me was, ‘is this blasphemous or offensive to someone, what’s the big deal?’”

Rallying the chocolate troops, Yo Semite asserts that Hanukkah “deserves better than second-hand Christmas mold….In the midst of this supposed ‘War on Christmas’ I keep hearing about, it looks like Christmas just launched an ICBM (Inter-religious Chocolate Ballistic Missile) preemptive strike against Hanukkah.” ” (HEEB, November 11, 2015)

The counter- opinion appears to be “so what?!  Yo Semite himself says: “Of course, delicious milk chocolate is gonna be delicious milk chocolate, no matter what seasonal holiday it’s molded for.”

The comments to the HEEB posting range from “oy, oy, oy!” to it’s a “Shanda!” to “Two. Two. Two holidays in One!”

Thank you to Rabbi Deborah Prinz for bringing this issue to our attention! For more on the historical nexus between Jews and Chocolate, see: On The Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals And Recipes To The Magic Of Cacao.

No Maccabee Ever Saw A Latke !

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Russ & Daughters Latkes

Photo: Russ & Daughters, Lower East Side, New York City

So what actually makes a potato pancake a latke? To us, American Jews, it is more than a pancake that we make from potatoes—it is a pancake imbued with symbolism, a pancake layered with the flavor of both tradition and history.  Latkes, so central to the celebration of Hanukah (which began this year last night on Sunday evening, December 6th), have a multi-faceted origin, one not necessarily rooted in Hanukkah cuisine.

Hanukkah commemorates, and in fact celebrates, the triumph of the Maccabees over the capture of the Israelites by the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus in 168 BC, who had plundered and defiled the holiest site of the Jewish people, the Temple in Jerusalem. The term “Maccabees” derives from an acrostic of the Hebrew “Mi Kamocha B’Elim Adonai” (Who among the mighty is like you, God?).

After the battle, the Maccabees purged the temple of idols and, finding a small amount of purified olive oil, lit the golden menorah. The oil, ostensibly enough to burn for just one day, lasted for eight days. According to tradition, this was a miracle. To commemorate the Miracle of the Oil,  Jews throughout the world eat foods fried in oil on Hanukkah.

Over the centuries, a spectrum of recipes has been developed using local ingredients reflective of local cuisines. Jews living in Mediterranean countries or in the Middle East had freshly-pressed olive oil available to fry their holiday foods, which coincided with the end of the olive-pressing season. Greek, North African and Turkish Jews also developed several kinds of olive oil-fried dough-based desserts.

Food historian Gil Marks credits the origin of latkes to somewhat modern times: “The Maccabees never saw a potato, much less a potato pancake.” Potatoes were brought from South America to Europe, where they were slow to be adopted as a food into the various cuisines. According to Marks, the concept of a pancake began with Italy, where Italian Jews fried pancakes in olive oil. They were later associated with Hanukkah by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus in the thirteenth century. Pancakes at the time were ricotta cheese-based. After the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily in 1492, the pancake travelled to other locales, and, along the way, became firmly associated with Hanukkah because of its successful combination of two traditional food types—dairy and fried. Because of the reluctance to fry cheese in the traditional animal fat and, during winter months the scarcity of milk products in northeastern Europe, substitutions for the cheese were made. Most involved local grains. In the meantime, the potato was slowly gaining in popularity and reach. Eventually, the potato became incorporated into German cooking and, later, after crop failures in Eastern Europe in the early 1800’s, into the local cooking of that region.

The word “latke” is Yiddish in derivation, a German-based language fused with Hebrew and Aramaic, oft-spoken by East European Jews. For the Jews of the shtetl villages in Eastern European countries such as Russia and Poland, potatoes comprised the most abundant of crops. Grating and frying the potatoes, often in chicken fat (schmaltz) was the culinary vernacular. According to Tel Aviv-based food writer Phyllis Glazer, who researched the word “latke,” certain sources “claim it derives from the Old Russian oladka, and is a diminutive of olad’ya, from Greek eladia, the plural of eladion, which means ‘a little oily thing’ and comes from elaia, which means ‘olive’.”

Let’s face it, everyone has their own recipe, idea or version of what a latke should be. Family history and food traditions come into play here. Latkes can take form from coarsely or finely grated potatoes. Flour or matzah meal can be the binding agent. As creativity prevails, latkes can be made from potatoes with a bit of onion, or may take form from sweet potatoes, beets, carrots or even zucchini and feta cheese.

It is the method of cooking, the frying in oil, that renders a latke a latke!