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Developing a Taste for Chanukah

Long after the soldiers in Judah the Maccabee’s army struck oil in the holy Temple of Jerusalem, Jews, both of Ashkenazic and Sephardic descent, struck oil in the kitchen. Wishing to commemorate the Hasmonean victory in the best of taste, gourmands realized that the time had come to be creative. Accordingly, lahtkes and pontshkehs became the food for the festival, in that oil was the necessary ingredient for both. As we celebrate the Festival of Lights, the following vocabulary of Yiddish words ought to whet our appetite.

Boimel (oil). Although the English language does not differentiate between oil that goes into food recipes and oil that comes from wells in places such as Texas and Oklahoma, the Yiddish language does. Boimel can be extracted from corn and canola, peanuts and olives. Nahf, however, is extracted from wells and is sold by the barrel.

Gepregglt (fried). As a people, we may not be able to take credit for inventing fried foods, but we seldom miss an opportunity to take out the skovroda (skillet) to fry up food such as a prezhenitzeh (scrambled eggs) or chremzlech (fritters for Pesach). Gepregglteh essen (fried food) is particularly popular come Chanukah.

Kahrtoffel (potatoes). Taken from “kahrtoplya,” the Ukrainian word for potato, kahrtoffel became a Chanukah staple for our Eastern European ancestors. While it is highly doubtful that Judah the Maccabee or any of his family ever saw a potato, much less tasted one, potatoes were readily available and relatively inexpensive once they were introduced into Europe.

Lahtkehs (pancakes). Common folk wisdom maintains that lahtkeh is derived from the East Slavic “oladka” meaning small pancake. Personally, I believe that lahtkeh is a diminutive of latteh, the Yiddish word for patch, in that a lahtkeh resembles a patch. Among my many pet peeves are those who insist on pronouncing lahtkehs as lahtkees. It grates on my nerves as much as when out-of-staters insist on pronouncing the name of the Garden State as New Joizy. What makes lahtkehs an excellent Chanukah food is that lahtkehs are fried in oil. Although I do not consider myself to be a halachic authority, I would put a kibosh on lahtkehs prepared in an air fryer.

Zoodik (piping hot). No self-respecting Chanukah celebrant would entertain the thought of lahtkehs served at room temperature. Furthermore, it is that dollop of refrigerated sour cream atop a stack of zoodikeh lahtkehs that heightens the experience of indulging in a delicacy associated with Chanukah.

Pontshkehs (doughnuts or pastry puffs). Taken from “pontchik,” the Russian word for doughnut, pontshkehs became a Chanukah favorite, in that pontshkehs were also fried in oil. I could be wrong, but I have absolutely no childhood recollection of eating doughnuts during Chanukah. The only choice I had as a child was the type of topping I would prefer on my lahtkehs. Methinks that pontshkehs made their appearance in Israel courtesy of immigrants from Eastern Europe prior to making their mark as Chanukah food in this country.

Whether one prefers pontshkehs or gepregglteh zoodikeh lahtkehs prepared from chopped kahrtoffel sizzling in a boimel-lined skovrodeh, it would be wonderful if we could first digest the story of “few against many” before savoring the taste of the festival.


Rabbi Shawn Zell has recently returned to New Jersey, after serving at a pulpit in Dallas. He possesses certification in teaching Yiddish. Rabbi Zell is the author of three books.

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