Religion & Beliefs

Latkes, donuts… what’s the big damn deal?

Hanukkah wouldn’t be a Jewish holiday without its own special (and incredible heavy) cuisine. So if you ask an average Jewish six-year-old about the holiday, he or she will tell you about all latkes, gelt, and donuts. But Latkes aren’t … Read More

By / December 18, 2006

Hanukkah wouldn’t be a Jewish holiday without its own special (and incredible heavy) cuisine. So if you ask an average Jewish six-year-old about the holiday, he or she will tell you about all latkes, gelt, and donuts.

But Latkes aren’t really that special in any religious sense. Certainly, potatoes aren’t native to Israel, and we probably just borrowed the recipe from our Polish neighbors at some point. The same is true of sufganiyot, which is actually a Greek word, and was likely borrowed (much earlier) from our Mediterranean neighbors (though there’s a fabulous little site here with all kinds of cool information on the sweet treats!).

Neither of these delightful holiday treats is actually an original “Jewish” invention… though our hunger for greasy oily foods in winter, our desire to recall the miracle of the oil by gaining a few pounds and breaking out… is a Jewish impulse.

But as we’ve mentioned before here at Faithhacker, the importance of food in our religion is interesting. There are 26 religious laws guiding the way we prepare and consume food. And we’re always supposed to pray before and after we eat, even when snacking! Because we’re supposed to be aware, at all times, of the goodness of God, who provides such yummy greasy bounty.

But we aren’t, are we? Aware of our good fortune? I know I don’t think about God when I’m tossing back an overcooked garden burger. More often than not, I’m bitching that I’m sick of garden burgers. Because I’m spoiled.

So the question is… how to turn our noshing into something more meaningful… since most of us don’t actually observe kashruth, and most of us don’t pray at the Burger King.

Especially at the holidays, when food feels important, what can we do to turn our cultural/secular Jewish love of food into something bigger?

THIS BOOK seems to be on the right track! Because part of eating is thinking about how our recipes came to be. Its one thing to say, “we eat greasy fried hash-brown cakes because that’s what people did in Poland” and another thing to think about our grandparents, imagine their lives in Poland. To think about how grateful they were for God’s bounty.

Our cultural cuisine is an archive of sorts, a link to our past. And even when we feel silly thanking God for a box of pre-fab pancake-mix, we can be curious about the roots of the food.

We’re so incredibly fortunate, living in this country, surrounded by food and gifts and friends, and the freedom to pray or not… We should bear in mind as we stuff our faces that food is one way of remembering how new that freedom is. Food is one way we can recall that a few generations back, a greasy fried hash-brown cake was really something to be thankful for!

So tonight, while the latkes are still hot… reach for the family picture album. Drink a glass of wine and ask your parents about the town your family came from. Call your grandma and ask her about her grandma. Turn Hanukkah into a holiday of learning… about your own history.

The latkes will taste better. I promise.