December 7, 2012

Latkes remind congregants of miracle of oil

PLATTSBURGH — Randi Davis learned how to make latkes, potato pancakes, from her mother while growing up in the Bronx.

For the past two decades, she has been a part of the crew that makes latkes for Hanukkah at Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh.

“We are making them for up to 100 people,” Davis said. “We use 30 pounds of potatoes. We combine eggs, potatoes, some flour, onions and put it in a food processor. Some people grate potatoes by hand. We don’t do that when we’re doing 30 pounds of potatoes.”

Between 18 to 24 eggs, white onions and flour are added to the potatoes. The latkes are seasoned with salt and pepper before frying.

“You have to get the consistency right so when you fry it, it won’t fall apart. Sometimes, we add carrots to them. You take spoonfuls and cook them in deep oil. We use vegetable oil. You fry them for a few minutes until they’re golden brown, and flip it over.”

Cooking time is dependent on the type of cooking pan used and the oil temperature.

“The oil represents the oil from the lamp from the legend of Hanukkah,” Davis said.

Hanukkah derives from a Hebrew word meaning to dedicate. Also known as the Festival of Lights, it is an eight-day Jewish commemoration of the rededication of the Holy Temple after the Maccabean Revolt in Jerusalem. 

“The latkes are eaten because of the oil,” said Rabbi Kari Tuling of Temple Beth Israel. “They are an oil food. The reason for the oil (is) we’re trying to remember the miracle of the oil after the temple had been desecrated.”

In 165 B.C., Judah Maccabee, a great Jewish warrior, led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire based in Syria and Mesopotamia.

“They are trying to rededicate the temple,” Tuling said. “They had only enough oil for one night. When they lit it, it burned for eight nights. That’s the miracle of the oil and why we eat things with oil like latkes.”

This is a custom of European Ashkenazi Jews. Today, traditional oil lamps are used as well as candles.

“The Jews from North Africa, southern Europe and the Middle East; they eat doughnuts (sufganiyot) instead,” Tuling said.

At Temple Beth Israel, the latkes are paired with applesauce.

“People like applesauce or sour cream,” Davis said. “We only serve with applesauce. We don’t mix our meat and our dairy.”

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