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A hidden Hanukkah tale of a woman, an army and some killer cheese

This Hanukkah lamp, made in Italy in the 19th century, depicts Judith holding a sword in one hand and the severed head of Holofernes in the other.
The Jewish Museum, New York / Art Resource, NY
This Hanukkah lamp, made in Italy in the 19th century, depicts Judith holding a sword in one hand and the severed head of Holofernes in the other.

At Hanukkah, many Jewish families celebrate with foods such as latkes and donuts that are fried in oil. The tradition honors the story of the miracle that occurred when a one-day supply of oil burned for eight days inside a temple under siege by the enemy .

Some Jews also eat dishes like kugel, cheesecake or rugelah that all share one ingredient — cheese. But how did cheese make it onto the holiday menu?

It starts (as many of these tales do) with a woman. This woman was Judith.

Judith was said to be a beautiful widow who lived in the town of Bethulia in Israel during the sixth century B.C. An army set siege on the town, and Judith went into the enemy camp to meet with their leader, Holofernes, a general for Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians. Holofernes was so charmed by the widow that he drank too much wine and passed out, after which Judith took his sword and cut off his head. The severed head inspired the Israelites to attack, and the Assyrians fled.

The story may sound familiar to Catholics, as the book of Judith is included in the Old Testament of their Bible. But Judith didn't make it into the Tanakh, a collection of Jewish scripture that includes the Torah. By the Middle Ages, though, Jews were telling a Judith tale. "It could be Jews were taking back their Jewish heroine," says Susan Weingarten, a scholar of Talmudic food in Israel and a contributor to the book The Sword of Judith.

Lemon and dried blueberry blintzes, filled with creamy ricotta cheese, provide a tasty way to serve dairy and honor Judith for Hanukkah.
Larry Crowe / AP
Lemon and dried blueberry blintzes, filled with creamy ricotta cheese, provide a tasty way to serve dairy and honor Judith for Hanukkah.

By that time, the story of Judith had become associated with Hanukkah, despite her story occurring centuries before that holiday miracle of the oil was thought to take place. In Jewish versions of the story, passed down orally through the centuries, Judith often became the aunt or daughter of Judah Maccabee, the hero of the Hanukkah oil story. Her addition may have served as a parallel to that of Esther, who saves the Jewish people from a death order in Persia and is the heroine of the spring holiday Purim, says Weingarten.

The Jewish tales of Judith also made their heroine clever. In the original story, Judith brought what Weingarten calls a "doggie bag" of food with her to Holofernes' camp — items like dry fig cake and bread — so that she wouldn't have to eat the food of the enemy king. But in some of the Jewish stories, she shared her food with the general. And there was a salty item guaranteed to make her enemy thirsty enough to get drunk; that was cheese. One version of the story specifies that the cheese was cooked into a pancake.

"By the 14th century, there's quite a strong tradition that people eat cheese on Hanukkah and it's associated with Judith giving cheese to the enemy to make him drunk," Weingarten says.

A commentary from that time, by Rabbi Moses Isserles, on the Shulchan Aruch, the Jewish Code of Law, even recommends eating cheese on the holiday in honor of Judith.

During the Middle Ages, that cheese would have likely come from a goat or a sheep, as cow's milk cheese was rare, Weingarten says. And it was often cooked into a pancake — which brings us to another potentially shocking revelation: The original latkes were cheese latkes, not potato — which combined the tradition of eating cheese with the tradition of eating foods fried in oil.

The potato, after all, didn't come to Europe until well after Columbus came to America. Potato latkes were a 19th-century invention, says Gil Marks, author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. The cheese tradition may have died out in part because in northern and eastern Europe, where frying was often done in chicken fat (that is, schmaltz), putting cheese into a pancake wasn't allowed by Jewish dietary laws. They ban the mixing of dairy and meat.

So why aren't many modern Jews telling tales of Judith and munching on cheese latkes? Even Weingarten didn't eat cheese for the holiday until she had studied the Judith story. (She has since created her own recipe for cheese latkes, which she's shared with us below.)

Marks says in the U.S., where December is dominated by Christmas, Hanukkah changed from being a minor holiday to a much bigger celebration marked by gift giving. And along the way to this transformation, the story of Judith, and the tradition of cheese eating, was largely forgotten.

"A number of Jews lost trust with their European roots," Marks says.

In Rome, though, Jews still make pancakes with ricotta for Hanukkah, Marks says. And many Jews in Israel, particularly from Orthodox families, continue to carry out the Judith tradition.

Even in the U.S., Marks notes, many of the foods that Jews eat for the holiday contain cheese or milk. Cream-filled donuts honor both the dairy and fried traditions, for instance. And "many homes will have a noodle kugel or blintzes or cheesecake for dinner," Marks says. The reason why has "just been forgotten."

Susan Weingarten's Levivot (Latkes) With Cheese

3/4 cup matzo meal

1 cup milk

2 eggs

100 to 150 grams hard cheese (Edam or mozzarella or even an unripe Camembert)


Oil for frying

Cut the cheese into 1-centimeter cubes. Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan until it is just beginning to smoke.

Mix the matzo meal, milk and eggs until it looks like thick but liquid cream. If the batter is too thick, add more milk.

Add the cubes of cheese and mix well — they have to be covered in the batter.

Add the batter to the hot oil with a large spoon or ladle. Check that the levivot are not sticking to the frying pan, and turn them over when you see a brown line around them.

Take them out with a slotted spoon to drain off as much oil as possible.

Eat hot.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah Zielinski