The Latke versus the Hamantasch

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1999,
December 1999

Author: Grace Shackman

Sophisticated debates on a silly subject

The latke and the hamantasch, two traditional Jewish holiday foods, were also the unlikely subjects of debates held at the U-M Hillel Society in the 1960s and 1970s and then at the Jewish Community Center from 1988 to 1994.

"It was absolutely nothing serious," recalls participant Chuck Newman. Each dish had two defenders who would argue for the superiority of their chosen food, often citing evidence from their professions or specialties.

"Sophisticated people arguing in a sophisticated way on a silly subject" is how longtime moderator Carl Cohen, a U-M philosophy professor, describes the events.

The latke, a potato pancake, is often eaten at Hanukkah, a Jewish festival celebrated in December. Because it's cooked in oil, it's considered a symbol of the one day's supply of oil that miraculously kept a menorah burning for eight days after a Jewish army took Jerusalem back from the Syrians in 165 B.C.

The hamantasch, a three-sided pastry filled with prunes or poppy seeds, is eaten at Purim, which falls in February or March. It is meant to resemble the hat worn by Haman, who advised the Persian king Ahasuerus to destroy the Jews; his plot was thwarted by the queen, Esther, who was a Jew.

The idea of-the holiday debate originated at the University of Chicago and quickly spread to other campuses. Herman Jacobs, head of Hillel at the time, introduced it to Ann Arbor in the 1960s.

Cohen recalls that he chose participants for their "willingness to engage in whimsy—flights of fancy—and be downright silly." The debaters lived up to that mission. Computer scientist Bernie Galler remembers that the late James McConnell, psychologist and editor of the Worm Runners Digest, talked of the effects of feeding prunes to his rats. McConnell packed the audience with friends wearing T-shirts with a logo for his side; at an appropriate moment, they tore open their shirts to reveal the logos. The late Bennett Cohen, a professor of veterinary medicine, used slides of animals from his research, with altered captions, to show the allegedly dire effects of whichever food he was against.

Rabbi Robert Dobrusin used biblical arguments to show that the fruit involved in Adam and Eve's fall was really a potato. Rabbi Robert Levy took off his rabbinical robes to reveal a green doctor's coat and offered medical charts that, he claimed, proved hamantaschen were healthier. Surgeon Lazar Greenfield warned that humans have a "grease gland" that could be activated by eating too many latkes, and Lana Pollack, then a state senator, read a Michigan Senate resolution proclaiming that the latke was best.

Chuck Newman ran a negative campaign—"I juggled a latke, showing how it fell apart," he recalls. He also demonstrated how oily the latke was by putting one in a balloon and squeezing out the oil. "But I was faking, because it had oil in it already," he admits.

After a chance for rebuttal and questions from the audience, a vote was taken. The side that received the loudest applause won. The debaters and audience would then adjourn for refreshments—latkes and hamantaschen.

—Grace Shackman

ILLUSTRATION BY WENDY HARLESS