When asked why latkes are his annual Chanukah bestseller, Schlesinger’s Deli owner Allan Domb echoed Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“It’s tradition,” Domb said.
Other deli owners in the Philadelphia area said the same thing. To nobody’s surprise, latkes, or potato pancakes, are their best-selling item during Chanukah each year.
Jeremy Thomas, the owner of Manny’s in Holland, sells thousands of them during the Festival of Lights. This is triple and sometimes quadruple the number he sells in a normal week.
The same thing is happening this year, too, according to Thomas and other deli owners.
Chanukah started on Nov. 28 and will continue through Dec. 6.
“This is the latke holiday,” said Robin Foy, the cashier coordinator at Murray’s Deli in Bala Cynwyd.
It’s not the latke holiday every night, though. Among the eight nights of Chanukah, the first two see the most potato pancake orders, according to Foy. Thomas said, regardless of when they fall during the holiday, the weekend evenings see the most latke orders.
On those nights, families are not just asking for individual servings, either. They are calling in party trays.
Murray’s customers ask for between 20 and 25 latkes during the Festival of Lights. Manny’s patrons have called in for stacks of 15, 24 and 32.
“Sometimes it’s for the family. Sometimes it’s for big parties,” Foy said. “This is a holiday where we give them quantities.”
Like all Jewish traditions, though, latkes are not just something we do. They have an origin, too.
Since potato pancakes are cooked in oil, they symbolize the miracle of Chanukah.
At the beginning of the Maccabean revolt against King Antiochus, Jews lit a candle in the Second Temple. It only had enough oil to burn for one night, but it lasted for eight.
Local delis also have a second-most-popular item during Chanukah — sufganiyot — and it has the same origin. Jewish jelly donuts, like potato pancakes, are fried in oil.
“Fried food symbolizes Chanukah,” said Josh Bray, the manager of The Kibitz Room in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
So, like many Jewish traditions, this one comes back to food. But it’s not just food, Bray said. It’s good food.
“People do the same thing because it’s good,” he said.
But on Chanukah, the Jewish food tradition is a little different than on other holidays. Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and even Shabbat are all based around meals.
The Festival of Lights, on the other hand, doesn’t have a big meal at its core. Latkes and sufganiyot are sides.
As Bray explained, Chanukah is “not really a dinner holiday.” It’s more of a festival among family members with games and gifts.
Hors d’oeuvres pair perfectly with this environment, Bray said.
“Spin dreidel, eat jelly donuts and potato latkes,” he added. “Exchange gifts and eat good food.”
This is not to say that Chanukah parties do not have main courses. They do.
Manny’s sells meat and sandwich trays during Chanukah, Thomas said. Murray’s and Schlesinger’s get a lot of brisket orders, Foy and Domb said.
Latkes and sufganiyot are not the only popular Chanukah hors d’oeuvres. Deli owners mentioned matzah ball soup, blintzes, hamentashen and Jewish apple cake as other common orders.
Latkes, in particular, are not even just a Chanukah delicacy. Local delis do pretty well offering them year-round, often as a side to meals.
But once a Jewish food ritual takes root, Jews cultivate it for eternity.
Chanukah means latkes, and latkes mean Chanukah.
“It’s what we grew up knowing throughout the years,” Bray said. “It keeps going and going.”
But, as Bray explained, while Jews do love traditions, modern Jews are not maintaining all of them. That’s why it’s important to keep the holiday food rituals, including latkes on Chanukah, alive.
“A lot of Jewish things are going away in this day and age,” he said. “It’s nice to keep some of the holiday traditions going.”
Early in this holiday season, Domb, who is also a city councilman, has noticed a new vibrancy to the old Chanukah tradition. In Schlesinger’s at least, more people are both ordering latkes out and dining in than they did in 2020 when the pandemic was raging.
So, Jews are not just ordering Chanukah food or getting together out of habit. In many instances, they are getting together after 21 months apart. They also seem much happier to do it than they did two years ago, Domb said.
“Many grandparents lived to see their grandchildren,” the owner concluded.