a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Latkes are Not Jewish

Posted on: December 17, 2011

I’m sorry, they’re not.  They’re European.

I love latkes.  They’re one of my favorite indulgences.  What’s not to love about fried potatoes topped with sour cream?  It’s perfection in a greasy, wonderful, crispy dish.  Thing is, I had them back in Ohio at a Polish joint and they were just called Potato Pancakes, ’cause that’s what they are.  The potato, like Poles, aren’t biblical-they’re regional.  In fact, simply type “potato” into a search engine and you will find that the potato originated in the New World, in what is now Peru and was only brought to the Old World, ie Europe in the 16th Century.  Before then, the Jews who found their way to Europe, because Jews first lived and originated in the Middle East, probably ate some other vegetables or cheese fried in oil as a holiday food.  Yet, when “people” think Hanukkah, they think Latkes which is unfortunate.

Truth is, latkes only became “Jewish food” for the Jews who found their way to the countries that were already enjoying and eating a fried potato dish.  I’m sure these new Jews to Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, Germany saw their neighbors enjoying fried yummy goodness and thought, Hey!  Another treat for us to enjoy on the festival of lights!  The Jews that stayed in places like India, Syria, Iraq, or countries in Africa probably didn’t and don’t eat latkes on Hanukkah.  Food, like language, culture, ethnicity, and race varies from Jewish community to Jewish community based on the other languages, cultures, ethnicities, races and food the Jewish people encountered on their travels.

From the time of Abraham, excuse me Abram, a convert to Judaism, Jews have encountered different races of people, different types of food, and different cultures.  This is why you will find Jews in India or Syria eating much different types of food and speaking in different languages from Jews in Canada or Mexico.  So when main stream Judaism allows itself to be lumped into one group, one culture, one people and we, as Jews, reflect this homogeneous way of thinking back to the world we are invalidating the Jewish identities of the vast majority of Jews.  Are there Jews that eat latkes on Hanukkah, yes.  I’ll be one of them.

My problem isn’t the latkes, it’s what the latke symbolizes.  It says that Jews are one thing, when we are not.  It’s unfortunate that in mainstream American Judaism we lump Jews into two categories; Askenazi and Sephardi.  We lump everyone who looks white into the Askhenazi subcategory and anyone who’s brown into Sephardi, but it’s not that easy.  For all intensive purposes, I’m Ashkenazi, because that is how I received my Jewish education.  Even the books I chose to read on my own continued to facilitate this notion of Judaism as a dual cultured, dual identified people when the simple fact is that we  are not.

It’s plain ignorant to think that a Torah that names countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Ethiopia multiple times, a Torah that talks about lentils, goat meat, and flat bread as food, a Torah that gives The Negev, The Red Sea, the Dead Sea as geographical markers, a Torah that tells us that Moses had dark skin and that he married a black woman resulted in a people with pale skin and dark curly hair as it’s only people is absurd.

Human migration took us from the land mass known today as Africa to the continents as we now them know.  Through migration our bodies, our skin, our hair adapted to the climates around us.  The food we ate, the languages we spoke, the traditions we maintained changed and adapted as well.  The Jewish people were not excluded in this migration and adaptation.  In fact, it was only when being a Jew was a crime punishable by death that we stopped actively proselytising and converting people (all people) to Judaism.  And now that being a Jew isn’t a crime, we continue to hold onto this notion that we don’t want to let anyone else back in, especially someone who doesn’t mirror back our own reflection.

The only truly, universally Jewish thing that unites the Jewish people is Torah.  Not race, not ethnicity, not culture, and not food.  Torah makes us Jews, not latkes.

Be sure to read the follow-up post, “Latkes Clarified


15 Responses to "Latkes are Not Jewish"

I wasn’t sure where you were going with this until the end. I agree, Torah unites us. (When we let ourselves be united, anyway–I wish we let this happen more.) On the other hand, I think it’s wonderful how diverse we are–our backgrounds, our customs, our languages (beyond Hebrew), our skin colors, and our foods, too. What I especially like about our foods is how we adapt what we have wherever we are to be Jewish. So in that regard, things like latkes weren’t originally Jewish, no. But now they are. Yay!

Just like us 😉

many great points here. but i ask you, ms. davis. how do you respond to the non-torah following jew who does derive a sense of meaning around a potato pancake, and not so much liturgy and prayer?

I agree with Adam. I am a Jew by matriarchal bloodline and celebrate the holidays as family traditions, but do not believe in any G-d (spelled that way out of respect.) I have no problem with people identifying as spiritually/religiously Jewish, but to say that Torah is the only uniting factor is simply not accurate.

Hi Steve-
Thanks so much for commenting!

@Michael-I like to take go all the way around the block, before bringing the message home 🙂 You’re right, latkes have become Jewish, just as we have become Jewish. But what we as converts bring to Judaism is our individual foods, cultures, etc. and they then become Jewish…
@Adam con’td Michael-So yes, food has become part of the Jewish identity and if you’re not a religious Jew or a Jew who takes comfort in the religious aspect of Judaism, and food is your “in” it’s Jewish. It’s not the only way to be Jewish though. Latkes are Jewish because they’re a part of many Jews’ identity, but if that identity becomes thee identity, then we’re discounting other people’s “in”.

I just thought of a question. Erika, do you agree or disagree with the description of Jews as a tribe?

I think I do. I think of us as a global people…Tribes often come with their individual customs, languages, traditions. We’re not united, but we’re a people with a lot of common traditions, etc.

[…] folks are really attached to Latkes.  Again, I get it.  They’re delicious.  I used latkes as a symbol of what is and is not […]

Thanks for this post!

Maybe you’ve made this point implicitly, but I think it’s worth noting that although latkes come from Europe, they were not “Jewish” in Europe. Everybody there ate latkes, herring, etc. I know my Swedish and German Christian ancestors did.

Latkes and the like became “Jewish” in America, I’d guess, because of the timing and demographics of immigration from that part of the world.

Being aware of this might help us keep in mind the distinction between “the Jewish people” and particular Jewish subcultures.

My kids do happen to have Yiddish-speaking, latke-frying, borscht-eating ancestors, and while I want them to learn about their particular cultural backgrounds, I will strive to convey a more expansive, and more correct, sense of what the Jewish “tribe” is all about.

Thanks so much for your comment, Theresa! And for being a kick-ass Jewish mama-those kids are lucky. I hope that when I have kids my partner and I teach them the wonderful traditions that make up who we are, individually and as a people.

Latkes are authentically Jewish. Non-Jews in Europe dont make them

I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one, as a matter of fact. Potatoes are from Peru, not Europe. They weren’t brought to Europe until the 16th Century. Jews settled in Europe WAY before that time and were not eating latkes made of potatoes. Latkes made of other things, sure, but potato pancakes were not originally Jewish food. Jews, as you said, are middle eastern. Potatoes didn’t even leave the “New World” until the middle of the 16th Century, they’re not an “Old World” Food.

Ok, latkes are ashkenasi 🙂 Some foods known as Jewish here are actually common Eastern-European (borshch,etc) and some are Jewish European (latkes, kneidlach, teiglach, etc.), in a sense that non Jews do not make them in Europe

[…] back the things that I’ve written about you, and I know that I hurt your feelings with that Latke post and then that other one.  I want to make amends, though.  I want to learn about you and […]

[…] most holidays we like to enjoy our freedom with yummy yummy foods. As we learned last year, there are many different types of Chanukkah foods from many different ethnic and cultural […]

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