Hanukkah is associated with the bravery of the Maccabees, the group of heroic Jews who rebelled against the Greek-Syrian empire, defeated it against all odds and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem. They lit a menorah with a little oil that lasted for eight days, sentencing us to centuries of eating fried food to excess.
But there is an interesting feminist alternative to this male-dominated and oil-laden narrative. For some, Hanukkah is a time to celebrate the courage of a Jewish heroine, a woman who defeated, against all odds, a powerful enemy with her wit, daring—and some salty cheese.
This is the story of Judith, a rich and beautiful widow who lived in the Judean town of Bethulia more than two and a half millennia ago. When the army of Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar led by Holofernes invaded, Bethulia was put under siege. As the water in the walled town began to run out, citizens decided it was time to surrender. But Judith was not one to give up. She left town with her maid and entered the enemy camp to meet Holofernes himself. Fearless Judith told him the town was about to surrender and that she’d rather side with his people. Enchanted by her beauty and charm, Holofernes fell for her. That was when Judith went to work. She prepared him a meal featuring a salty cheese. The cheese made Holofernes so thirsty he drank enough wine to pass out. Judith then cut the warrior’s head off with his own sword, wrapped it in her bag and ran. When the Assyrian army discovered the body of their headless leader, they fled in panic and Bethulia was spared.
But why celebrate Judith during Hanukkah? Frankly, there is no one convincing explanation. According to some traditions, Judith was a daughter—or an aunt—of Judah Maccabee. This could explain the connection to Hanukkah, except for the pesky fact that the Maccabees lived in the 2nd century BCE, while the story of Judith is from the 4th or 6th century BCE. Other traditions and medieval rabbis suggested that the connection stems from the similarities between the two stories: In both, outnumbered, weaker Jews defeat strong warriors who are on the verge of overpowering them.
The Book of Judith never made it into the Jewish canon, and the original Hebrew version, probably from the first or second century BCE, was lost. But the story itself was passed on, and Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages noted the custom of eating cheese during Hanukkah and attributed it to the story of Judith’s bravery. The Catholic Church included the story as part of the Old Testament, but the Greek and Latin versions made no mention of cheese. Instead, Judith carried fig cakes, barley, oil and bread to the enemy camp.
In her book Medieval Hanukkah Traditions: Jewish Festive Foods in their European Contexts, Susan Weingarten of Tel Aviv University writes about Megillat Yehudit (The Scroll of Judith), a 1402 version of the Judith story written in Provence by an unknown writer. In this version, Judith feeds Holofernes levivot (Hebrew for latkes) made with cheese. “She said to her maid: ‘Cook me two pancakes so I can eat at your hands.’” She salted the pancakes heavily and then mixed them into a pot with cheese. Judith then brought the salty fritters to Holofernes’s room. At the time this version was written, levivot were probably flour pancakes fried in a pan.
A similar dish—ricotta pancakes—was introduced in Rome by Jews who were expelled from Sicily in 1943. Called cassola, it is still a Roman-Jewish specialty served during Shavuot. (It was also adopted as a Christmas dish by the Catholics.) From Rome, according to Gil Marks’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the cheese pancakes, now called latkes, spread to Central Europe and to the Ashkenazi communities. And although the tradition of eating cheese during Hanukkah appeared in Hasidic writings, no real culinary tradition developed around it—for a very prosaic reason. “Hanukkah is not the ideal time to eat dairy in Central Europe, so for most Ashkenazi Jews this was an expensive, hard to get option,” explains Israeli chef and food historian Shmil Holland. Rather, ingredients were determined by what was available: Until potatoes became popular in Europe in the late 18th century, latkes were actually fried dough, and during Hanukkah, the time of slaughtering geese and rendering their fat, home cooks would fry latkes in goose fat and add goose gribenes (crispy skin cracklings) into the dough.
No Jewish community took the celebration of Judith more seriously than that of Tunisia. On the seventh night of Hanukkah, which falls on the first day of the Jewish month of Tevet, Tunisian women used to celebrate the Festival of Daughters, or the First of the Month (Rosh Chodesh) of Daughters. Year-round, the first of the month is considered a women’s day of rest, but on Hanukkah even more so. In honor of Judith, women in the community would gather for the full day of cooking, singing and dancing. Some would eat cheese and drink wine. On the menu were trays of sweets, such as makroud (date-stuffed semolina cookie), yoyo (a small doughnut), debla or manicotti (deep-fried, flower-shaped dough soaked in sugar syrup). In some communities, men engaged to marry would send their fiancées gifts that day. Yael Baruch, a Tel Aviv publisher of Tunisian descent who wrote about the women’s holiday in her doctoral thesis, notes that in some Tunisian communities, the men would buy dairy food, including cheese pastries and couscous in milk, and serve it to the women. “One of the reasons behind that custom was the fact that most Tunisian Jewish households did not keep a set of dairy dishes and never cooked dairy at home,” says Baruch. Eating dairy foods was a special treat.
Baruch remembers celebrating the Festival of Daughters as a young girl in Israel. “My family lived next to other Tunisian families, so we could all celebrate this community holiday together.” As people moved away and assimilated, the holiday was forgotten. But in the past ten years Baruch says there has been a resurgence. The World Federation of Tunisian Jewry in Israel, as well as organizations such as the Israeli Orthodox feminist organization Kolech, have revived the tradition of celebrating the Festival of Daughters in large community events. Women who still remember the holiday from Tunis and younger women who grew up in Israel come to celebrate the spiritual and physical strength of Jewish women together. Cheese and wine are complimentary.
Polish/Russian cheese latkes (Syrniki)
Yields 15 medium latkes
Syrniki are popular in Russia and Poland, mainly as breakfast treats, much like pancakes. These delicate latkes were originally made with Russian tvorog or Polish twaróg cheese, very similar to farmer’s cheese that’s widely available in America. You can find tvorog and twaróg in Eastern European or Russian supermarkets, use farmer’s cheese, or strain ricotta to reduce its water content, as I do in the recipe below.
1 lb. ricotta cheese, farmer’s cheese, or tvorog (see note above)
¼ cup flour, plus more for dusting
2 eggs, lightly beaten | 2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons olive oil (you can substitute half with butter)
For serving: powdered sugar, jam, sour cream
1. Skip this step if you’re using farmer’s cheese or tvorog. Set a fine sieve or folded cheesecloth inside a colander over a bowl and spoon ricotta into sieve. Let stand at room temperature for 1-2 hours to remove excess water.
2. Put strained ricotta, farmer’s cheese or tvorog into a food processor, add flour, eggs, sugar and salt and pulse to create a smooth batter. Don’t over-process the mixture. Transfer to a bowl, cover in plastic and let chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour (and up to 4 hours).
3. Sprinkle a rimmed baking sheet with flour; then use two tablespoons or medium-size scoop to scoop 1½-inch mounds onto the baking sheet. Sprinkle the batter mounds with flour and use your hand to lightly press them down to create flatter, round-shaped pancakes.
4. Line a baking sheet with two layers of paper towels.
5. Heat olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. When oil is hot, use a flat spatula to gently move half the pancakes from the baking sheet into the pan. Fry until golden, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined sheet. Continue with the rest of the pancakes.
6. Serve immediately or at room temperature. You can sprinkle pancakes with powdered sugar and serve with a side of jam and sour cream.