Latke or Hamantash? The Debate Rages On

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Click photo to download. Caption: University of Chicago's Prof. Austan Goolsbee (recently the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers) looks at the hamantash-latke issue from an economics point of view during the school's 2007 debate. Courtesy Daniel J. Libenson.

What is so interesting about debating two different types of Jewish food? Plenty.

The place to find out is the University of Chicago. Since 1946, the Latke-Hamantash Debate has brought together scholars from the university, including two Nobel Prize winners, to verbally joust about the merits of the fried potato pancake and the triangular cookies filled with jam. 

Tradition, culture, and comedy play their parts in this popular get together. Latkes are traditionally eaten on Hanukkah and hamantaschen are prepared for Purim.

According to the late Ruth Fredman Cernea, Hillel House held the first debate in the winter of 1946. Cernea, editor of The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate (University of Chicago Press, 2005) was one of the experts on the event, but that torch has been passed to Professor Ted Cohen. 

“It was a time when scholarly life discouraged an open display of Jewish ethnicity,” Cernea wrote of 1946. “The event provided a rare opportunity for faculty to reveal their hidden Jewish souls and poke fun at the high seriousness of everyday academic life.”

Professor of philosophy, friend of Cernea’s, and a former debater, Cohen has been involved in the debate for 25 years and wrote the foreword to Cernea’s book. The debate was held again this year and Cohen was the moderator. 

“Making fun is serious business,” Cohen told JointMedia News Service. “When I participated in the debate years ago I actually settled the question. I proved conclusively that the latke is better. But there were dimmer lights around here who weren’t persuaded by that, so the debate goes on year after year.” 

Because the debate’s popularity increases each year, the 2011 event was held in Mandel Hall, the university’s largest venue. 

Involved in the debate as a function of his position as executive director of the University of Chicago Hillel, Daniel Libenson opens the event every year by trying—and failing—to resolve the question from a Jewish point of view, often using numerology (gematria). 

“Because Jewish approaches are indeterminate, we have to turn to the secular knowledge of University of Chicago faculty,” Libenson told JointMedia News Service. “The debate allows the university to poke fun at itself by applying the methods of academia that are usually taken so seriously here in an unserious way. In essence, this is the function of Purim: to have a day in which we can poke fun at the things we take so seriously the rest of the year.”

Click photo to download. Caption: University of Chicago's Prof. Aaron Dinner with his Latke 2010 potato gun at the school's latke-hamatash debate that year. Courtesy Daniel J. Libenson.

Libenson said the debate functions as the University of Chicago’s Purim, and it is also a chance for Jewish students, alumni, and faculty to enjoy being Jewish and to share a Jewish experience with non-Jewish friends.

“It offers an evening of fun and laughter at a very serious and intense place, which is why I think the debate is so beloved among Jews and non-Jews at this university,” Libenson said. “The Latke-Hamantash Debate—an overtly Jewish event sponsored by a Jewish organization—has become one of the highlights of the year at a secular institution of higher education, which is remarkable.”

The debate started in a room in the Hillel building that could not have held more than 50 people, and this year Libenson estimated the audience at over 3,000—1,000 attending in person and over 2,000 watching live on the Web.

In the aftermath of World War II, three men hoped the Latke-Hamantash debate would help foster a sense of community among Jewish students and faculty. The trio—Rabbi Maurice Pekarsky (then director of Hillel), historian Louis Gottschalk, and anthropologist Sol Tax—was the brains behind the first debate.

At that time, Cohen says, “American Jews didn’t exactly lie low, but they didn’t make a demonstration of their Jewishness.”

So, which is it, latke or hamantash? The answer isn’t so clear-cut, says Malynne Sternstein, an associate professor in Slavic languages and one of this year’s debaters at the University of Chicago.

“I was invited to speak in the debate last year, had to be at a conference, was asked again for this year, and agreed,” Sternstein told JointMedia News Service. “I have been a big fan of the debate for many years. The answer to the question, ‘latke or hamantash,’ is a lot more difficult than it may seem.  My presentation was based on a pretended mishearing of the word ‘latke’ as ‘vodka.’ As a Slavic Studies professor, I had a lot of room to move on this assumption, so I played with the place of vodka in Russian culture, and then demonized the Hamantash.”

Libenson must maintain his objectivity, so that Hillel can maintain its position as the neutral convener of this event. 

“As I said this year, the Latke-Hamantash Debate, like the debate of Hillel and Shammai, is a debate for the sake of heaven and, therefore, according to the Mishnah, it will endure forever,” Libenson said. 

The Latke-Hamantash Debate is no longer exclusive to the University of Chicago; other schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and many others have hosted such debates. 

Now an institutional mainstay, the debate is held the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in Chicago. The basics remain the same: distinguished professors take turns exposing their inner comedian, often neglecting to come down on either side of the question. Then presenters and audience decamp to a reception to base their choice on primary sources.

Some researchers opt for the latke. Fried in oil and accompanied by applesauce and sour cream, the comfort food commemorates the miracle in which a day’s worth of oil illuminated the temple for eight days.

Others prefer the hamantash. Hamantashen are associated with the spring festival of Purim, when Queen Esther and Mordecai saved the Jews from the evil Haman, who wore a three-cornered hat. 

To this day, the debate on the merits of these foods continues. Why?

“The debate offered a really positive way of expressing Judaism publicly on campus,” Libenson said. “This may account for the debate’s continuing appeal. It is a moment when being Jewish is simply joyous.”

Posted on December 13, 2011 and filed under Features, Hanukkah, Special Sections.