I just got Gil Marks’ new book, “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.” In the Hanukkah entry, there is an explanation of how Hanukkah was once celebrated with fried cheese pancakes and other dairy dishes over the centuries. The dairy tradition is linked to the story of Judith who fed an enemy Assyrian general salty cheese. When the cheese made him thirsty, she gave him wine –which, in turn, caused him to pass out. She beheaded him with his own sword, causing his army to panick and flee.
One source in the 1500s mentions the tradition of eating cheese during Hanukkah to commemorate the miracle that was done through milk. The original latkes were cheese pancakes which fulfilled the two predominant Hanukkah customs of eating fried foods (miracle of long-burning oil) and dairy (miracle of triumph by cheese). In the Maghreb, on the seventh day of Hanukkah (the new moon of Tevet), women gather together to sing, dance, and eat dairy foods along with other regional specialties. They even drink buttermilk!
Marks’ book came in the mail today. Without knowing about the cheesy “ladies night,” I served cheese last night – on the seventh night of Hanukkah – at a Hadassah/Yiddish Club meeting in Bayonne, New Jersey. The cheeses I had came straight off the mainstream dairy shelf – President Brie log (Tablet K) and Chavrie goat (OU D).