The Latvian Latke Contest

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Latvia is a country located in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It was one of the 10 countries that joined the European Union on May 1, 2004 during its largest expansion. With a population of about 2.2 million people, it is one of the least populous members of the European Union. The capital and largest city is Riga.


For the greater part of modern history, Latvia was not an independent state. Due to the strategic location of the area, it was frequently occupied by major powers in the region. The longest period of external hegemony began in 1710, when the Russian Empire took control of the area. Under Russian rule Latvia became one of the most developed areas in the empire. After the Russian revolution Latvia managed to become an independent state.


Its independence was recognized by the international community in 1921, but it didn't last very long. During World War II, the country was first incorporated into the Soviet Union, then invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany and finally retaken by the Soviet Union in 1944. It took almost 50 years, until Latvia regained its independence in August 1991 during the period of Soviet liberalization under Mikhail Gorbachev.


For many centuries, Latvia had been a multiethnic country. According to the famous census conducted by the Russian Empire in 1897 - the first and the only census carried out in the Russian Empire - the Latvians formed 68.3% of the total population of 1.93 million; Russians accounted for 12%, Jews for 7.4%, Germans for 6.2%, and Poles for 3.4%. 


Together with the Swedish City Umea, Riga will be the European capital of culture in 2014. 


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During the 20th century, the two World Wars and the emergence of an independent Latvia led to major shifts in the ethnic composition of the country. During the first half of the century, the number of Latvians continued to rise, whereas that of other groups declined. This was often a result of emigration, but the most dramatic changes were caused by the events of World War II.


A first change happened as a result of the secret agreements outlined in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. In this non-aggression pact, the Baltic States were assigned to the "Soviet sphere of influence". One of the main conditions that Hitler posed to Stalin, however, was the transfer of all ethnic Germans living in Estonia and Latvia to areas under German military control. Tens of thousands of ethnic Germans - registered as "Volksdeutsche" by the Nazis - were relocated within the borders of the German Empire, mostly to today's Poland. After Latvia was incorporated into the USSR 10,500 more Germans left. Find out more about the history of the Baltic Germans.


Many of the Baltic Germans were evacuated once again by the German authorities - or simply fled - when the Soviet Union invaded Poland and Germany towards the end of World War II. Many were on board of the KdF Ship Wilhelm Gustloff, which was sunk by a Soviet submarine in January 1945. More than 9000 people died, which means that this was the most disastrous maritime catastrophe in history.




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The Jewish population was also a long-established minority in Latvia. They had been living in Latvia since the 16th century and by the turn of the 20th century, the Jewish population numbered more than 140.000 people (ca. 7% of Latvia's total population). At the beginning of World War II, about 100.000 Jews were living in Latvia. This article explores the Jewish history of Latvia in more detail.


When Latvia was occupied by the Germans during the first weeks of the German-Soviet war in July 1941, about 15.000 Jews managed to escape to the Soviet Union. The rest of the Jewish population was wiped out. An estimated 70.000-80.000 Latvian Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Read this article about the Holocaust in Latvia.


This document presented at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, shows that at that time only about 3.500 Jews were still alive in Latvia. The German name for Latvia is Lettland. 


Of the fourteen synagogues that existed in Riga before World War II, only one - the Peitav Sul Synagogue in the Old Town - still exists; today, it is the only functioning synagogue in Riga. On this homepage you will find more information about the Riga Synagogue on Peitavas Street.


After the war, the Jewish population in Riga increased to about 40.000 by the late 1960s. With the mass exodus of the Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Jewish population of Riga dropped to around 8.000 in the early years of the 21st century. However, at the same time, Jewish life was revived in independent Latvia and now there are two Jewish day schools, a community center, a Jewish newspaper, and Jewish hospital in Riga. Today, Latvia has about 10.000 Jewish citizens. Read more about the Jewish history of the Latvian capital Riga.

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The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (also known as JDC) is the world's leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. Headquartered in New York, the organization is non-political and describes itself as "the 9-1-1 of the Jewish world-a trusted, dependable partner and lifeline to communities in need." It sponsors and develops social and community assistance programs for Jewish people and communities in over 70 countries.


The JDC was established in 1914, when the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau Sr., sent a telegram to Jacob H. Schiff, a well-known Jewish-American philanthropist, asking for $50,000 to feed starving Jews in Palestine who were caught in the throes of World War I. Money was raised and through the collaboration of three American Jewish relief organizations determined to aid Jews in war-torn Europe and Palestine, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was born. Here you can find an image of the original telegram.


Since then, the JDC has played an important and often life-saving role in the most crucial events of 20th and 21st century Jewish history. Today, the JDC focuses on the countries of the former Soviet Union and Israel, where they offer support to the elderly, to children and youth at risk, to the disabled and to other needy populations. Here you can read a brief history of the JDC and the press statement for its 95th anniversary in 2009.

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Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday. It lasts for eight days and starts on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December. Originally, Hanukkah is one of the less important Jewish holidays but is has become much more popular in modern practice because of its proximity to Christmas.


In Hebrew, the word "hanukkah" means "dedication." The name is a reminder of the fact that this holiday commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE. According to legend, the Greek-Syrian king who ruled over Israel had outlawed the Jewish religion and desecrated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews rose up against their oppressors in the so-called Maccabean Revolt and recaptured the Holy Temple. But because the temple had been looted, there was just enough untainted olive oil left to keep the candles of the menorah, i.e. a seven-branched candelabrum, burning for a single day - but the flames continued flickering for eight nights.


Although every community has its unique Hanukkah traditions, there are three traditions that are almost universally practiced. Eating fried foods - like Latke - is one of them, as well as lighting the hanukkiyah and spinning the dreidel.


The hanukkiyah is a special, nine-branched menorah. It is customary to commemorate the miracle of the Hanukkah oil by lighting candles every night for eight nights. You can learn more about the hanukkiyah in this article.


A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top, with Hebrew letters written on each side. To begin the game, each player should have about 20 pennies, or chocolate money called "gelt". At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the center pot. Then each player spins the dreidel once and, depending on which side is facing up when it stops spinning, they give or take game pieces from the pot. The game ends when one player has all the coins or candy. More information about the dreidel - including instructions on how to construct your own - can be found here.


There’s more than one way to spell “Hanukkah”. It is also known as Chanukah, Chanukkah, Hanukkah, Hanuka, or Channuka. The reason for lies in the linguistic differences between English and Hebrew; so all of these spellings are basically ‘correct’, although some are ‘more correct’ than others. The band The LeeVees even wrote a song “How Do You Spell Channukkahh” about this confusion.


This tutorial called “How to spell Hanukkah” offers a complete etymology of the word and the historical details.

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because Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil, it is also a tradition to eat fried foods such as sufganiyot and latke during the holiday. "Latke" is one of the most famous of Jewish dishes. It is a type of shallow-fried potato pancake, usually consisting of grated potatoes (or other root vegetables), some type of starch (usually flour or matzoh meal), eggs, onions, and, of course, oil. The pancakes are served with applesauce and sour cream.


Originally, latkes could not have been made of potatoes, as potatoes are a New World food and thus only have been availably in the "Old World" for about five centuries. Probably, the first latkes were made from cheese or starch and a variety of vegetables or fruits, depending on the available local ingredients and food ways of the various places where Jews lived.


Here you can find a recipe for latke. And in case you don't like the "regular" latkes, take a look at this website, where you can find recipes for sweet potato latkes, green latkes, cheese latkes... and many more.


The Latke–Hamantash Debate is a humorous academic debate about the relative merits and meanings of these two items of Jewish cuisine. Hamantash is a triangular wheat-flour pastry with a sweet filling, traditionally eaten on the holiday of Purim. The debate originated at the University of Chicago in 1946, but has since then taken place at several other universities. Milton Friedman, Steven Pinker and Allen Bloom are only some of the people who have debated the issue through the years. In this book, you can find some of the contributions to the Latke-Hamantash-Debate.

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The movie mentions that the children perform the play “Fiddler on the Roof”. This famous musical takes place in the Jewish village of Anatevka, in Tsarist Russia, in 1905. It centers on the character of Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman, and his daughters' marriages. Originally a Broadway musical, the 1971 film adaptation of "Fiddler on the Roof" won three Academy Awards. The title stems from the painting "The Fiddler" by Marc Chagall.


The music for this Centropa film was composed by Paul Shapiro. This Jazz saxophonist, who has played with everyone from Lou Reed to Ben Folds Five, reinterprets Jewish traditional music from a jazz perspective.



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More photos from this country

Itsik Margolis with his wife Libe Leya Margolis and their relatives in  the synagogue of Riga
Revekka and David Epshteyn
Revekka Blumberg

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