A Little Love for Latkes

We’re thinking about latkes.

Latkes (potato pancakes) usually appear on our dinner table once a year during Hanukkah. Last year Hanukkah started on Dec. 7, so our stomachs are telling us now is the time.

But Jewish holidays drift along the secular calendar. That’s why in 2013 we celebrated Thanksgivukkah, when Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving and the turkey sat right next to the dreidels. This year, Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve, and while our Christian friends might be thinking about eight maids a milking, we’ll be focused on eight latkes a frying. But for now, we have to wait a few more weeks.

You might be wondering why we don’t just make latkes tonight. We could stand alone in the kitchen, grate potatoes and scrape our knuckles, and then make a big oily mess at the stove. But it’s not fun when the kids aren’t home to enjoy them and we’re not lighting candles or having a Hanukkah party.


Instead we’ll spend our time looking up innovative latke recipes like zucchini and carrot or sweet potato. They’re tempting but we’ll end up discarding them because our families like the traditional potato version. And they like to top them with applesauce or sour cream, not the cranberry chutney that we tried out on Thanksgivukkah.

Latke is the Yiddish word for a fried pancake; in Hebrew they’re called levivot. While Israelis do eat potato pancakes on Hanukkah, sufganiyot, jelly-filled donuts fried in oil, are everywhere – and every Israeli bakery sells them in the month of Kislev. The varieties are almost endless; there are different fillings, icings and toppings. Ne’eman’s, which has 40 bakeries throughout Israel, offers bite-size sufganiyot that include varieties filled with cheesecake cream, chocolate custard, marshmallow fluff or date and halvah flavors, to name just a few. They even created a Bamba-flavored doughnut that tastes vaguely like the ubiquitous crunchy peanut butter snack beloved by Israeli kids.

poster from Roladin's Bakery in Israel advertising all their flavors of sufganiyot

poster from Roladin’s, another bakery in Israel, advertising all their flavors of sufganiyot

When we typed “latke” into the Google search bar, it brought up Ryan Lochte, the American Olympic swimmer. Maybe that’s because Lochte got “fried” in Rio and made a big mess.

As we continued our exhaustive research, we discovered that the merits of latkes have been a topic of debate since 1946, when the University of Chicago hosted the first “Great Latke vs. Hamantashen Debate.” Since then, tongue firmly in cheek, academics, lawyers, philosophers and several Nobel prize winners have pondered this weighty issue at seminars at revered institutions including MIT, Mount Holyoke and Harvard, citing sources and offering educated opinions as to the superiority of either beloved food.

University of Chicago philosophy professor Ted Cohen, moderated the great debates for over 25 years until his death in 2014. He concluded that an analysis of philosophical reasoning would lead one to the latke because “a world without hamantashen would be a wretched world …. but a world without latkes is unthinkable.”

Latkes are fried in oil to remind Jews of the story of Hanukkah, the miracle of the re-dedication of the Temple, when a tiny bit of oil lasted for eight days.

Latkes are fried in oil to remind Jews of the story of Hanukkah, the miracle of the re-dedication of the Temple, when a tiny bit of oil lasted for eight days.


In a paper entitled “The Archetypal Hamantash: A Feminist Mythology,” Divinity professor Wendy Doniger wrote that hamantashen are a womb equivalent (because of their shape? because they’re squishy?) and were worshiped in early matriarchal societies.  We’re matriarchs, and we love a good prune hamantashen.


But we can’t take sides. That’s like asking which child you love the most. We love them both. We’re looking forward to frying latkes in a few weeks and eating them with sour cream and applesauce. And when Purim rolls around in the spring, we’ll be baking and eating cherry, lekvar and mun hamantashen.


This entry was posted in Hanukkah, holidays, jewish food, Purim and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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