"Can you guess, children," asks Sholom Aleichem in his short story, "Chanukah Gelt (Money)," "which is the best of all holidays? Chanukah, of course . . . You eat latkes every day . . . Mother is in the kitchen rendering goose fat and frying pancakes."

Sunday evening, Dec. 24, or the 24th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, Jews in the Washington area and throughout the world will light the first Chanukah candle.The holiday commemorates the Maccabean victory over Antiochus of Syria 2,100 years ago, and the miracle of finding enough sacred oil to light the Temple menorah for eight days.

For each of the eight nights an additional candle will be lit from right to left until an eight-candled memorah is aglow. After the candle ceremony it is traditional to sing songs, play with the dreidel (or spinning top), to open presents and to eat latkes or fried pancakes.

Today latkes are prepared in many delicious ways with potatoes as the main ingredient. But originally they were simple griddle cakes made from flour and water. They serve as a reminder of the food hurriedly prepared for the Maccabees as they went to battle. The oil in which the pancakes are prepared symbolizes the cleansing and rededication of the Temple after it was defiled by the Assyrians.

The latkes have a third meaning, added in Mediteval times. When the Assyrian general Holofernes wanted to seduce the widow Judith and to conquer the Jews, she fed him so well and gave him so much wine that he soon fell asleep. She then cut off his head, thus delivering her people from his tyranny. The latkes represent the food Judith gave Holofernes, contrasting the victory of her modesty and humility over his lust and pride

For centuries Chanukah was a minor festival. In the late Middle Ages it evolved into a major family occasion of joy where fasting and mouring were forbidden, singing and rejoicing encouraged. Eventually the gastronomic side of Chanukah emerged with the eating of the symbolic pancakes fried in oil.

The many varieties of fried foods reflect the wandering of the Jews throughout the world. Greek Jews prepare loukomades , deep-fried puffs dipped in honey or sprinkled with powdered sugar, Persian Jews eat zelebies , snail-shaped deep-fried sweets, and Israelis prepare sufganiot , raised jelly doughnuts.

Latkes are today the most popular Chanukah dish eaten in the United States. They are a relatively recent delicacy, coming from 17th-century Russia. Since boiled potatoes were the staple of the Russia Jews, a pancake made with grated potato, onions, egg and breadcrumbs, or matzah meal fried in rendered goose fat was a special treat. Jews in surrounding countries varied the basic latkes with cheese, parsley, apples, carrots and even zucchini.

Moria Rofiah, a well-known hostess in Israeli-washington circles (and wife of Zvi Rafiah, congressional liaison at the Israeli Embassy), always serves latkes to her family and friends for the first night of Chanukah. Her daughter Hill grates the potatoes, a tedious job but one worth the bruised knuckles . . . once a year. (If using a food processor the blade will make a fluffy smooth consistency ; the grater prodcues a more textured one.)

Moria Rafiah insists that old potatoes are essential for latkes because of their starch content. To avoid blackening the mixture, the potatoes should be mixed with grated onions. Speed is essential in keeping them hot from the frying pan to the dinner table when cooking for a large crowd. Latkes can be served with sugar, appleasauce, yogurt or sour cream. If Rafiah has leftovers, she makes a pashtida , a large skillet-fried potato pancake.

Potato latkes are so versatile that you can serve the following recipes for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner or as cocktail fare.

POTATO LATKES

(8 to 10 servings) 10 medium potatoes 2 medium onions 2 large or 3 medium eggs 1/4 cup unbleached all-purposed flour Salt and white pepper to taste Vegetable oil for frying

Peel the potatoes and store them in cold water until ready to prepare the latkes. Then start grating the potatoes on the smallest holes of a grater. The steel blade of a food processor or the grating blade are less painful ways of grating the potatoes and the onion. If using a grater, alternate potatoes with onions. Press out as much liquid as possible and reserve the starchy sediment at the bottom of the bowl. Return the sediment to the mixture. Blend potatoes with eggs, flour, salt and white pepper.

Heat an inch of oil in a frying pan. Drop about a tablespoon of mixture onto the skillet and fry, turning once. When golden on each side and crisp inside, drain on paper towels. Serve with yogurt, sour cream, sugar or applesauce.

PASHTIDA

Pan-Fried Potato Latke Leftover potato latke batter from the preceding recipe. Handful of raisins Dash cinnamon Vegetable oil

Squeeze the water from the leftover potato mixture. It probably will have turned black overnight. Discard the water. Add raisins and cinnamon. Heat oil in a medium frying pan and cover with potato mixture. Cook until golden. Then cut through the diameter and gently turn each half to brown on the other side.

The amount this recipe feeds depends on the number of latkes eaten the night before: Pashtida can be eaten as a starch with the meal or as a dessert. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, Copyright (c) 1978, Bonim Books, "Potato Pancakes All Around" written annd illustrated by Marilyn Hirsh