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Without latkes, there is no Judaism

Latkes are crucial to the American Jewish future. Or, something like that.

It has been a rough week, all around. Too many losses. Too many disappointments.

So, let’s lighten up.

Forget the controversy over the settlements.

Forget the controversy over “Who is a Jew?”

There is only one real controversy in the American Jewish community.

Which is the more important Jewish holiday food — latkes or the Purim-based hamantaschen?

This is actually the seventieth anniversary of this conversation, which originated at Hillel at the University of Chicago in 1946 — the latke vs. hamantaschen debate.

Who has participated in this debate, over the years? Its participants have been philosophers, authors, university presidents, scientists, and even Nobel Prize winners.

No less a personality than the Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz has weighed in on this weighty topic.

Professor Dershowitz believed that the ultimate Jewish holiday food was the hamantaschen.

Dershowitz was concerned that the latke only increased America’s dependency on oil.


According to the most recent Pew study, there are about 4.2 million Jewish adults in the United States. The last National Jewish Population Study, dating back to 2001, estimates that 72 per cent of American Jews light Hanukkah candles.

So, let’s say that three million American Jews celebrate Hanukkah. Let us suggest that fifty percent of them make latkes. That is 1.5 million latke making Jews.

A half cup of oil yields 4 to 6 servings of latkes. So, if those Jews have between four and six servings, that’s 500,000 cups of oil – per night of latke eating. That is for all American Jewish latke eaters. (We are not even counting restaurants that serve latkes).

Now, that’s 500,000 cups of oil for one night of Hanukkah. If American Jews make latkes on two nights of Hanukkah, we have 1 million cups of oil for Hanukkah per year in American Judaism.

American Jews consume 62,500 gallons of oil a year — just on latkes.

That would fill up 5208.333 cars. Don’t laugh: I once had .333 of a car.

Wasteful of oil? Perhaps. When there is a Crisco shortage, give me a call and we can talk about it.

But, I disagree with Alan Dershowitz.

The latke is the true national food of the Jews.

First, the shape.

The latke is round, and the hamantaschen is triangular.

OK, let’s hear it for the triangle. God, Torah, and the Jewish people forms a triangle.

But, an inverted yellow triangle symbolizes a “yield” sign.

Let us wonder aloud: on what can the Jewish people yield?

This is a political and moral and even spiritual question.

And the round shape of the latke?

The circle symbolizes the circle of life, and the cycle of the year.

Second, the thickness.

The latke is flat.

Let us go back to the story of the Maccabees.

The Syrians used elephants in their battles against the Maccabees. In those days, elephants were fearsome tools of war, the equivalent of the modern tank.

I Maccabees 6: 42-46 describes the heroism of Eleazar Maccabee, Judah’s brother.

Eleazar saw one of the beasts covered with royal armor and bigger than any of the others, and so he thought the king was on it…He dashed courageously up to it in the middle of the phalanx, killing men right and left, so that they parted before him. He ran under the elephant, stabbed it and killed it. The beast fell to the ground on top of him, and he died there.

Eleazar died as a hero and as a martyr — an ancient Jewish Kamikaze. He was crushed to death under that Syrian elephant.

Modern scholars believe – well, actually, only I believe – that the latke originated as a way of remembering Eleazar, who gave his life for the Jewish people.

Because if you look at the latke, which is flat…..and you think of Eleazar and how the elephant flattened him….you get the idea.

And there is one more reason why the latke is the ultimate Jewish food.

In the 1970s television series, “Taxi,” the late comedian Andy Kaufman played the character of the sweet and goofy mechanic, Latka Gravas.

Latka was an immigrant, whose girlfriend from the old country was played by Carol Kane. Her name was Simka.

We never learn what country Latka and Simka were from.

Latka spelled his name with an “a” at the end, rather than an “e.” This vowel change is irrelevant. Latka is an immigrant, from a nameless or imaginary eastern European country. He and Simka represent the Jewish immigrant experience.

There is an iconic television character named Latka.

There is no television character named Hamantaschen.

In reality, there is no good resolution to this dilemma.

It is one of those ultimate questions that can only be resolved by Elijah the prophet.

Questions like:

How do we maintain Israel as a Jewish, democratic state?

Why is there evil in the world?

And the mother of all unanswered questions:

How, really, do you spell Hanukkah in English?