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”