“The Miracle of Oil”: Jewish Identity, Assimilation, and Whiteness.

Chanukah is the festival of lights
 Instead of one day of presents
 we have eight crazy nights
 -Adam Sandler, Chanukah Song

For the secular American Jew, the smell of cooking latkes is often the closest to God you ever get. Deep fried in oil, the shredded potatoes and onions can perfume a home for days on end. It was this tradition, of making latkes and celebrating Hanukah while my classmates in school were decorating pine trees and eating Christmas ham, which informed my first understanding that my household was different from others. According to cultural anthropologists such as Mary Douglas (1966), Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966) and Sidney Mintz (1996), food offers a unique perspective into identity, since identity is built on recognizing what is different about you compared to everybody else, and every different culture eats in different ways. Thus, it was this potato pancake which truly began my relationship with Jewish identity.

That being said, while my Christian peers certainly were not eating Latkes or lighting candles, Hanukah was hardly an alien idea to them. During the winter months, my classmates learned Hanukah songs like Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel and Hanukah oh Hanukah in the same week as we learned Frosty the Snowman and the Twelve Days of Christmas. We Jewish kids got presents just like the Gentiles did, we lit up our houses just like they did, we had special parties just like they did, and like them, and we ate special meals. The Latke may not be a part of American national cuisine, but it was hardly any different from the hash browns served in the cafeteria, which are an uncontestable staple for the American child. Indeed, one year we ate latkes during the annual winter festival, and I can’t recall any objections from the gentile children. We Jews were different, sure, but we were hardly alien.

My school did not, however, teach the Christian children about Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, or Passover, which are all very important high holy days in the Jewish calendar, and I doubt that my classmates would have responded as positively to charoset and marror, or gefilte fish. I argue that the acceptance which I saw towards Hanukah was not reflective of a newfound appreciation of Jewish Culture, but rather a celebration of the effective assimilation of Jews into American culture. This was done by way of erasing key elements of Jewish identity, thus incorporating Jews into Whiteness.

Dreaming of a White Hanukah: Jewish Racial Identity and Assimilation.

Jews have long felt the repercussions which came as consequence to their failure to assimilate, being dubbed the “perpetual historical outsider” (Jacobson 1999). In America, for much of its history Jews occupied a space of racial and cultural other. While there has been much discourse on the origins of Jewish food restrictions (Douglas 1966; Harris 1985) it is clear that they have served to create a culture of alienation from gentile neighbors, and thus built that alienation into the culture. This began to change over the course of the 20th century, particularly during the post-holocaust period, as Jews more effectively assimilated into American society. As they became more accepted, they transformed from a racial sub-group into a group that is by and large considered White (Jacobson 1999). While these privileges are lucrative, they should present something of an identity crisis for Jewish people.

Jewish identity is constructed around the constant escape from and resistance towards the oppressor. Every year, Jews gather to tell the story of the Exodus out of Egypt. Egypt, in Hebrew, is called Mitzrayim. The root of this word, depending on which scholars you ask, comes from either the root metzeir — meaning to border, to shut or to limit — or it comes from the root tzar, meaning bind, tie up, be restricted. It is widely agreed upon that one of its meanings is thus oppression (Young 2008). Essentially the term for Egypt is not one built around geography, but rather the spiritual nature of that space. This gives particular import to the oft recounted Talmudic passage “In each and every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Mitzrayim” (Pesachim 10:5). Considering the quite long list of atrocities committed in the name of Whiteness, an institutional identity which is fundamentally structured around the oppression of others, we can see that the history of Whiteness is hardly compatible with a culture which holds in its structure an embedded resistance to oppression. Thus, in order for the Jew to become White, they must exchange their birthright for safety, since by benefiting from White privilege one becomes inherently complicit in its violence (Hedges 2017).

The Jewish Diaspora sent Jews into every corner of the world, and it was only through their resistance to assimilation that Jewish culture was preserved. One of the primary ways in which Jewish culture was preserved was in fact through their food practices. Complex laws of kashrut have long kept Jews apart from their gentile neighbors and forced their communities to stay close knit and publicly supportive. These Jewish foodways have long also been considered part of what made Jews undesirable and untrustworthy to those same gentile neighbors. Moses Marcus in his proto-ethnographic account of Jewish ceremonies in the early 18th century writes:

“The most obvious, and perhaps most troubling Ceremony of the Jewish law, is that about their eating. For by their manner of killing the animals which are clean to them, and particular way of dressing their Meats, they are not only distinguished from all the rest of Mankind, but also debarr’d from the pleasure of eating with any other but their people.” (The Ceremonies of the Present Jews 1723)

This sentiment was mirrored by many ethnographers of the Jewish people in early modern Europe, and for many it was viewed as the primary evidence to show their idiocy and their immorality, with the 16th century German writer Margaritha commenting:

Jews are prohibited from eating blood and thus salt and rinse the slaughtered meat. In contrast, they have no compunctions against sucking the blood of Christians by means of charging them interest (Der gantz Judisch Glaub 1530).

Thus we can see that these gastronomic customs have long been a centerpiece on the mantle of Jewish alienation. Unlike the food practices which were being looked at as the epitome of Jewish otherness by these writers — such as ritual slaughter and food restriction — no aspect of the Latke is imbued with the complex rules and symbolism that would be customary of many other elements of Jewish cooking. The foods which are generally important in Jewish tradition have been crafted around the laws of kashrut, and through that process have become more important as cultural artifacts, much like a sonnet gains beauty through adherence to a strict form. The latke circumvents this process, because it has little to do with any real Jewish culinary tradition. In fact the latke is most likely a dish borrowed from gentile neighbors in Eastern Europe (more on this later).

Abandoning kosher foodways and assimilating is seductive, and many Jews have done just that, but as I explained above, this goes contrary to the fundamental values of the Jewish people. Food like the latke becomes particularly effective at helping Jews to assimilate because they carry some degree of Jewishness, without the commitment of other food practices which alienate neighbors. In fact, we can clearly see through an analysis of the history of both Hanukah and the Latke how these traditions erode important Jewish values, and transform Jewish identity from being anti-oppression into a complicit relationship with White atrocity.

The Origin of Hanukah: from Apocrypha to Americana

First, it is important to understand a little more about Hanukah itself. The holiday is based on the writings of two apocryphal texts, known as Maccabees I and Maccabees II, each written by different authors with slightly different perceptions of the events. During the 2nd century BCE, the Jewish people living in Israel were embroiled in a vicious civil war against the Syrian empire. The Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes had invaded the Judean lands, killing many Jewish people, desecrating the temple in Jerusalem by looting it, and then erecting an altar to Zeus in the temple where he ordered pigs to be sacrificed, ultimately culminating with the wholesale outlawing of Judaism. In response to this, a group of Jews calling themselves the Maccabees rebelled against him, eventually managing to expel the occupying force around 165 BCE. It is important to note that while this is the story I grew up on, and the one portrayed in Maccabees I, Maccabees II actually frames the conflict not as Judea against foreign oppressor but rather as a civil conflict between Judaism and Hellenism, where the Maccabees were actually an extremely radical group of religious zealots who purged Judea of the secular and Greek influenced Jews (Dolansky 2011). Whatever the nature of the conflict, upon his victory, Judah, the leader of the Maccabees, ordered the temple to be reclaimed. Jewish law and customs required that in the temple the Menorah must be lit night and day, burning nothing but pure unadulterated olive oil. Finding after the war that their supplies had been depleted, only enough oil for one day could be found. This paltry days’ supply of oil managed to burn for eight days, just long enough for a new supply of kosher oil to be made. This Miracle of Oil is what is celebrated on Hanukah, by lighting candles in a special menorah every night for eight nights, and of course, frying potatoes. Notably, this miracle does not appear in either Maccabee I or II, but rather in Talmudic writings about 600 years later (Dolansky 2011).

Unlike the other festival days in the Jewish year, such as Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, Hanukah is not a holiday called for in the bible. Instead, it is found referenced primarily in a number of apocryphal texts such as Maccabees I and Maccabees II, as well as several other ancient sources such as the writings of Titus Flavius Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian. While the celebration of Hanukah has been a longstanding tradition, with its customs and laws recorded extensively in the Talmud and in the Septuagint, it was still a relatively unimportant holiday, and was likely ignored by most practitioners, beyond perhaps a few lines in the Shabbat service on whichever week it fell upon.

According to Shawna Delansky, co-author of The Bible Now, it was not until the 20th century that Hanukah became the Jewish mainstay that it is today. She describes the newfound postwar affiliation with the holiday in this way:

“As the early pioneers in Israel found themselves fighting to defend against attacks, they began to connect with the ancient Jewish fighters who stood their ground in the same place. The holiday of Hanukkah, with its positive portrayal of the Jewish freedom fighter, had deep meaning in the psyche of the early Zionists who shaped their lives and identities in accordance with the message of national independence and religious freedom. This meaning deepened in a post-Holocaust world in which awareness of oppression and issues pertaining to freedom of religious expression remain part of Jewish identity. And in an increasingly secular and commercial world, Jews in North America have sympathized with Hanukkah for similar reasons of maintaining their identity against a dominant culture at the time of year when Christmas trees and carols are inescapable. (The Truth(s) About Hanukkah 2011)”

This is particularly interesting because we can see that the social pressures that faced Jews during the post war period manifested in the creation of Hanukah as an institution. This is doubly of note, because it is ostensibly these same social pressures which were causing Jewish people to begin the process of becoming White (Jacobson 1999). It is strange then to consider that the holiday meant to celebrate Jewish resistance to assimilation has become fundamentally involved in the process of assimilation. Shouldn’t Jews, given the message of Hanukah, celebrate in ways which are, well, a little more Jewish? With the exception of the prayer for the menorah, there is hardly any Hebrew in the ceremony, and the most popular songs are in English. I would argue that Hanukah is practiced as a kind of “differential consciousness” (Counihan 2013) where the story of Hanukah is fundamentally concerned with resistance to assimilation, while the traditions which have become embedded around it serve as a way to embrace the newfound Whiteness of Judaism. Thus Jews can reject their White identity by focusing on themes of Jewish nationalism, perseverance, and Zionism presented in the allegory of the Maccabees, while also simultaneously reinforcing their White identity by celebrating in a secular, Americanized way. Hanukah allows them to perform both assimilation and alienation, without necessarily critically engaging with either, much like the differential consciousness described by Psyche Williams-Forson (2013) in her critical analysis of Black American comedy.

The Jewish Chimera: The Latke as Symbol of Assimilation.

The Latke itself is a perfect allegory for the assimilation of Jews. The dish as we know it today, in all of its oily and starchy grandeur, was first found in Eastern Europe in the early 19th century (Appelbaum 2015). While it was typically eaten by Jews around Hanukah, it was a common food among the gentile community as well, and its consumption was hardly limited to festivity. While it was then typically served with Schmaltz — rendered chicken or goose fat which was the go-to oil for Ashkenazi Jews who were unable to use the lard which was used by their gentile neighbors (Ruhlman 2013) — it has proved to be an extremely flexible dish. My grandmother would typically have used Crisco which was popular in America in the mid-20th century, but as people worried more and more about health concerns surrounding fat, it became more common to use olive or canola oil as my parents always did; now the New York Times advises using the iconic health food fat of coconut oil (Nathan 2015).

This is certainly not the first makeover that the latke has undertaken. The spiritual origins of the latke lie in 14th century Italy, where Jews living in the ghettos of Venice would celebrate Hanukah by making a fried ricotta cheese pancake (Appelbaum 2015). This was meant to symbolize the miracle of oil, as well as a story recounted in the lesser known text the Megillat Yehudit, or The Book of Judith, where Judith tricks an invading general Holofernes into eating cheese and drinking wine, and then as he falls into Postprandial somnolence, or more colloquially, a food coma. Judith then takes his sword and chops off his head, once again showing that Hanukah, even as a relatively unimportant holiday was focused on the defense of the Jewish people from invading forces (Weingarten 2010). That being said, could there possibly be a food more iconic of Italian cuisine than fried ricotta cheese? In the Middle East among Sephardic Jews, there was a similar fried pancake dish eaten for Hanukah, only instead of potatoes it was made of lentils and barley flour. Ethiopian Jews didn’t typically celebrate Hanukah, but we can easily imagine that there latke would have had more to do with Injara than with fried potatoes, just as if Jews had made it to Asia during their diaspora they would have been making latkes out of rice. Perhaps this is simply a product of Jews being from so many different places, and the fact that our traditions are by and large separate from any particular region or climate (Nabhan 2004).

Unlike other holiday foods like Matzoh or other kosher food which has precise preparatory guidance in the bible, the latke is a chimera, a chameleon of foods, which holds onto the barest of traditions and then incorporates the ingredients around them. The latke is representative of the differential consciousness of Jews in American diaspora; it carries the most barebones elements of Jewish tradition, while also taking on the flavors of the dominant culture, all of it symbolizing the sentiment: ‘death before assimilation.’

I realize that in my critique I may appear to be something of a Jewish separatist, but that is not my intention. The purpose of this critique is not to say that Jews must remove themselves from the scope of American culture and into the spiritual shtetel of the old world. Nor do I mean that in order to be Jewish you must keep kosher and avoid all gentile foods. Rather I hope to reframe the idea of what it means to be Jewish in America, particularly for secular Jews who might not connect with the more esoteric elements of Judaica.

Jewish culture is fundamentally structured around being both victim and outsider; while that has brought hardship on us, it is also the root of all of our art, literature, culture and spirit. I return to the passage from Pesachim, that we must view ourselves as if we have just entered out of Mitzrayim. Reflection on the nature of oppression must be integral to the study and celebration of Judaism, and most of our holidays do facilitate that discussion. By allowing these traditions to be upstaged by the flashy, capitalist, assimilative holiday that is American Hanukah, we allow ourselves to forget what Jewish identity is fundamentally about. If we allow ourselves to partake in Whiteness, then we no longer can live as if we have left slavery in Egypt, and instead of being diametrically opposed to all processes of oppression, we are complicit in them. This is especially true now, for it has become clear that we are not yet out of danger of oppression. Hate crimes against Jews are on the rise, and an avowed anti-Semite is holding the ear of the president like Haman and King Ahasuerus. By allowing Hanukah to mirror White systems of celebration, we may in fact forget that we are only White by the good graces of the dominant culture, and that is not a safe space in which to be.

I do not mean to say that we must necessarily abandon Hanukah altogether, but I do mean to say that in my conception of Judaism, it is imperative that we resist the seduction of White privilege, for the processes which built that privilege are the same ones which built the pharaohs palace. The latke represents a selfish “I got mine” form of Jewish freedom, which abandons the struggle against the proverbial Mitzrayim, and sells its identity for comforts of the dominant class. I argue not for a Jewish identity which is based on personal freedom from oppression, but for a Jewish identity which fights all oppressors, and I do not see the latke as a vessel for that struggle.

Works Cited

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