Nature vs. nurture. Democrats vs. Republicans. Red Sox vs. Yankees. Chocolate vs. vanilla. All of the world’s great debates pale in comparison to the mother of all conundrums: latke vs. hamentasch.
Harold Pollock, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, advocates for the latke at the 58th annual Latke-Hamantash Debate.
Now, just in time for Purim, University of Chicago Hillel has put online videos of the last five years of its annual latke vs. hamentash debate. These hilarious forums feature top scholars using their highly trained academic skills to prove the primacy of the latke or hamentash. Viewers will see world-renowned experts on everything from Assyriology and business administration to medicine and linguistics debate the relative merits of baked versus fried, poppy seed filling versus apple sauce toppping. And don't get them started about sour cream.
See a list of the videos here.
The latke hamentash debate was created by Hillel at the University of Chicago in 1946 and has now spread to campuses and Jewish groups the world over. A history of these debates by Ruth Fredman Cernea was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2006.
Previous speakers have included past University of Chicago president Hanna Holborn Gray, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman and Leon M. Lederman, and essayist Allan Bloom.
Cernea writes that "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."
A source cited widely in academic circles, Wikipedia, reports that the debate has been held annually since 1946, usually on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, with the exception of one year. Both foodstuffs are usually served at a reception afterwards, offering debaters and listeners an opportunity to evaluate primary sources.
Several long-standing customs are observed at the University of Chicago; the debaters must have gained a Ph.D. or an equivalent advanced degree, make a formal entry in academic clothing to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance, and their number must include at least one non-Jewish participant to add gentility to the proceedings.
The debate is said to have arisen from a tradition of spoofing Talmudic study during Purim. It is also felt to offer a humorous relief valve from the university’s rigorous academic program.
The debaters represent a range of academic disciplines. Some of the entries are described below:
• Hanna Gray discusses the silence of Machiavelli on the subject; noting that "The silence of a wise man is always meaningful", she comes to the conclusion that Machiavelli was Jewish, and like all wise people, for the latke.
• Isaac Abella, professor of physics, asserts that "Which is Better: the Latke or the Hamantash?" is an invalid question, since it does not exhibit the necessary property of universality, is culturally biased, implies gender specificity, exhibits geographical chauvinism and appeals to special interests.
• Michael Silverstein, professor in anthropology, linguistics, and psychology, argues that it is not mere coincidence that the English translation of the letters on the dreidl spells out T-U-M-S. He cites this as evidence that "God may play dice with the universe, but not with Mrs. Schmalowitz’s lukshn kugl, nor especially with her latkes and homntashen."
• Professor Wendy Doniger of the divinity school, in a carefully footnoted paper entitled "The Archetypal Hamentasch: A Feminist Mythology", asserts that hamentaschen are a womb equivalent, and were worshipped in early matriarchal societies.
• In the debate at MIT, Robert J. Silbey, dean of its School of Science, has cited Google, which returns 380,000 hits on a search for "latke" and only 62,000 for "hamantaschen". Silbey has also claimed that latkes, not hamentashen, are the dark matter thought to make up over 21 percent of the mass of the universe.
• Allan Bloom posited a conspiracy theory involving Sigmund Freud and the Manischewitz company.
• Developmental psychologist Kenneth Kaye cited Freud's most important works, Constipation and its Discontents and The Goy and the Yid in proving that a latkedikh or a hamentashenlikh personality is determined by an infant's mother's breastfeeding behavior in the first two weeks of life.
• According to literature professor Diana Henderson, "The latke is appropriate for lyric, tragic, and epic forms", but "There is very little poetry in the prune," a common hamentashen filling.
• The physicist Leon Lederman's contribution is entitled "Paired Matter, Edible and Inedible".
• An entry by the economist Milton Friedman discusses "The Latke and the Hamantash at the Fifty-Yard Line".
• Criminal lawyer Professor Alan Dershowitz, during a debate at Harvard University, accused the latke of increasing the United States' dependence on oil.
• When he was President of Princeton University, Harold Tafler Shapiro argued the hamentaschen's superiority by pointing out the epicurean significance of the "edible triangle" in light of the literary "Oedipal triangle."
Hanna Gray has stated for the record that "both the latke and hamentasch are simply wonderful. We welcome them to our diverse, pluralistic and tolerant community of scholars." She has, however, taken a stand with her statement that "Renaissance humanism grew out of the revival of the latke."