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The Wise Scientists of Chicago Debate About the Latke and the Hamantash

Sunday, November 20, 2011 @ 08:11 PM
posted by Roger Price
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What is it about latkes and hamantashen anyhow? What makes these two foods different from all other foods? Which food is better and which best represents the values and aspirations of the Jewish people?

Since 1946, these and related questions have occupied some of the greatest minds of the Western hemisphere. In that time, world renowned scholars have gathered annually under the auspices of the University of Chicago Hillel to debate the merits of the latke and the hamantash.

As often happens when scholarly pursuits become intense, everybody wants to get into the act, and imitations of the Chicago debates have been attempted at other institutions. But in all these years, no one quite does it like the Maroons, with grand entrances, flowing academic robes and standing room audiences in excess of 1,000 at venerable Mandel Hall.

The professors who have engaged in the exercise have considered the latke and the hamantash from a variety of viewpoints. Trained in literature, history, the arts, religious studies and other disciplines, they have over the years both extolled and demeaned the latke and the hamantash, each according to his or her tastes and the principles of his or her field of study. Papers for past debates, edited by anthropologist Ruth Fredman Cernea, have been collected in the delightfully profound and profoundly clever book, The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate (University of Chicago Press 2006)(the “GD”).

In recent years, the debate has been held on the Tuesday evening preceding Thanksgiving. The debate on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 will mark the sixty-fifth debate in the series. Scheduled debaters include members of the Divinity School, the Booth School of Business and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature. For the first time, the proceedings will be available live via webstream. Tune in at 7:30 pm, CST, at www.jewchicago.org.

What might you learn? Plenty, if the past is prologue.  To have heard University President Hanna Gray argue that the latke was instrumental in the development of the Renaissance because the latke was “flat, juicy, and oval like the Roman Republic” that Machiavelli admired, was to enter a world both savory and not. (GD, at 33.)  To have listened to Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman enlighten about the marginal rate of substitution of one substance for another in the relevant consumer group (GD, at 71-72), well if that did not explain the economic plight of the country, what would?

And yet, from one perspective, the debates are arguably flawed. For all their book smarts, many of the scholars who have debated are not scientists, not data driven and objective in their analyses. Indeed, at one point, physicist and astronomer Edward Kolb blamed the failure of the scholars to resolve the latke-hamantash question precisely on the domination of the debate by social scientists and members of the humanities faculty where, he said, there was much use of “fuzzy, hazy, imprecise language.” (GD, at 144.) To illustrate the importance of the scientific method, Kolb then recounted the possibly first physics experiment which occurred when Galileo Galilei was having breakfast at the restaurant at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Apparently, a strong wind caused a tray of food to fall over the side, and Galileo, according to Kolb, noted that a latke and a hamantash landed at the same moment. This led to Galileo’s first law of mechanics: “‘A pound of latkes weighs the same as a pound of hamantashen.’” (GD, at 145-46.)

All of this was prefatory to the revelation by Kolb that scientists at Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab in suburban Chicago had developed the Superconducting Super Hamalatkatron which could accelerate food at sufficiently high energy, using the “strongest force known, the force of guilt,” to break  up the substances and provide clues as to their most fundamental structure. (GD, at 147-48.) Kolb foresaw that appropriate experimentation would remove the pending issue from those trained in the humanities and leave it to “rational scientific inquiry.”  (GD, at 149.) Was Kolb on to something?

Well, who could be more rational than a couple of mathematicians? As it happened, two mathematicians who participated in the debate both revealed themselves to be pro-latke.  Israel Herstein claimed that the State of Israel supported his choice because the melody for Hatikvah came from “The Moldeau” by Smetana and smetene in Yiddish means sour cream which no one would use with a hamantash. If you follow that proof, then you would have to agree with Herstein’s conclusion “Q.E.D.” (GD, at 64.) While he reached the same end, Simon Hellerstein’s approach was some somewhat different. Hellerstein led the audience in a responsive reading of the venerable acrostic “Homage to a Latke,” which he attributed to one Jonathan Bull, the “Latke Laureate” and “Poet Perfect of the Potato.” (GD, at 91-92.)

One of Kolb’s fellow physicists, Morrell Cohen, also argued in favor of the latke, observing that both Kepler and Newton owed their major discoveries to the latke, the former because of the ellipsoid shape of the latke and the latter because of his observation of the latke slithering to the floor as he tried to cut it. (GD, at 153.)

But not all physicists reached a hard conclusion. Isaac Abella even challenged the validity of the question as to which food is better. Discussing the Grand Unification Theory, or GUT, he noted that physics does not ask whether the proton is better than the neutron, or the baryon than the lepton. Rather it asks “‘Why?’ or ‘Which is more important or more fundamental?’ or ‘Who published it first?’” (GD, at 153.)

Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman took a similar tact. Observing that particles must be paired, Lederman reminded us that our universe contains numerous key binary systems including nature and culture, the digits 0 and 1, micro- and macro-economics. These are dyadic relationships, he told us, a “two element column matrix,” ultimately connected to Ezekiel’s hit tune “Di-aynnu.” (GD, at 150-51.) Consequently, for Lederman, the debate was irrelevant because one cannot live with only latkes or only hamantashen anymore than one could live with “only north, or only an up quark . . . .” (GD, at 151.)

Perhaps Kolb’s premise was wrong. Perhaps the physical scientists cannot provide the Truth we seek. What about the social scientists? Did they have any valuable insights?

Anthropologist Ralph Nicholas offered a helpful suggestion when he spoke of the semiotic value of latkes and hamantashen. He observed that there were no symposia on kishke and knishes or borsht and schav or knaydlekh and kreplakh. (GD, at 133.) Why then on latkes and hamantashen? Because “(t)hey stand for — or represent– something else.”  (GD, at 133.) But what?

For anthropologist Judith Shapiro the answer was obvious: latkes are circular and hamantashen triangular so latkes are associated with “the female principle and hamantashen with the male.” (GD, at 117.) Based on “(s)ociolinguistic evidence” and cultural anthropology, Shapiro concluded that the “hamantash represents the Judaic tradition in its vengeful patriarchal mode.” (GD at 119.) So she pleaded that all should “leave behind the hamantash of Haman in order to embrace the latke of Queen Esther.” (GD, at 120.)

Sociologist Robin Leidner, however, offered a rare direct response to a presentation. She commended Shapiro for the “usefulness” of her “learned, stimulating, highly original paper” which was “hampered only by its complete wrongheadedness.” (GD, at 121.) For Leidner, gender implications rested on “careful empirical research” not “poststructural mishegass.” (GD, at 122.) This research led her to conclude that the production of the latke, involving peeling, grating and frying was non-egalitarian and oppressive. The hamantash , however, offered more opportunity for “self-realization, egalitarian relations, and social progress.” (GD, at 125.)

What if you took gender symbolism out of the discussion, what then?

Sociologists Elihu Katz and Jacob Feldman compared the latke and the hamantash (and the bagel for that matter) to the shape of ships on a voyage in order to discern the world view that such an adventure might reveal. As the bagel was slippery and curved and dangerous at both outer and inner rim, only the fittest could survive. The latke was flat, dangerous at the edges, but safe in the middle, like a raft. Here outcasts could survive.  The hamantash, however, had a sheltered interior and was safe all over. On the good ship hamantash, all species could survive. (GD, at 67-70.)

Shalom Schwartz, also from the Sociology Department, considered the distribution of power in societies exemplified by the latke and the hamantash (and the bagel). (What is it with the sociologists and their bagels?) He seemed to favor what he perceived as the participatory democratic latke society over that of the “hamantash-oriented elitists” and the “bagel-brained veto groups.” (GD, at 75.)

Given that the debate is about food, shouldn’t the health scientists have been able to solve the problem?

Perhaps surprisingly, nutritional biologist Godfrey Getz favored the latke. He saw the energy content of oil at nine calories per gram reminiscent of the “courage, strength and faith of the Maccabbees.” (GD, at 64.)

Approaching the question from a decidedly different viewpoint, forensic pathologist Robert Kirschner was not explicitly pro-latke, but he was clearly anti-hamantash. Based on his examination of “various sacred and profane texts,” and his consideration of the sharp corners and “hard, blunt edges” of the hamantash, Kirschner concluded that the hamantash was the weapon that Cain used to kill his brother Abel. (GD, at 138.) He buttressed his argument with his report of the spectrum analysis of the Shroud of Purim, recently discovered in the basement of the University of Chicago Hillel. (GD, at 138-40.)

Two pediatricians also tried to make some sense of the situation, but, tellingly, neither did so based on anything medical. Looking to Shakespeare as his muse, Lawrence Sherman argued in favor of the hamantash and eloquently so. (GD, at 21-24.) William Meadow made a purely fanciful argument premised on great works in classical music, e.g., “The Challeh-luyah Chorus” and “Borsht Godunov,” and rock ‘n’ roll. (GD, at 55-59.) Who knew that a braided challeh was the inspiration for “Twist and Shout,” or that the original name of the fellow who found his thrill on Blueberry Hill was “Shmaltz Domino”? (GD, at 57.)

So what does all this mean? Quite possibly nothing, of course. But we do know that the rational scientific inquiry that Professor Kolb anticipated would put to shame those immersed in literature and the arts has not yet fulfilled its promise. The scientists and their scientific method have not agreed on the latke or the hamantash, much less on an experiment that could be replicated so that any conclusion could be tested. Perhaps we need more information, more data. Maybe we will know by the time the debates reach 120.

Or maybe, just maybe, sociologist and bioethicist Paul Wolpe had it right. If, in true scholarly style, one challenges the assumption underlying the exercise, perhaps the fundamental Jewish cuisine is neither the latke nor the hamantash, but the herring. As Wolpe persuasively argued, the herring is acceptable to both Sephardim and Ashkenazim,  is unlimited by historical events or theological constraints, and, even better, is pareve so it goes with anything. That argument was fittingly grounded, of course, in the record of the debate between Hillel and Shammai concerning the great fish in the Jonah story, as well as a commentary on herring by the Ba’al Shem Tov. (GD, at 61-62.)

To be sure, Wolpe’s argument could itself be a red herring. But I doubt it. His concluding proof was too delicious. Wolpe detailed his Shabbat morning ritual of “spreading my herring in cream sauce on challeh, and licking the dribbings from my fingers. My kids absolutely refuse to watch me eat it. And that is how it should be.” (GD, at 62.)

Q.E.D., indeed.

Roger Price

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2 Responses to “The Wise Scientists of Chicago Debate About the Latke and the Hamantash”

  1. Although I am not a scientist, it is obvious that this debate pits chemical elements and Jewish nutrients of one type against the other. It manages to break into the core of the Jewish soul by making us choose.

    Since 1978 I have lived in Israel and experience a confusing additional aspect to this issue: SUFGANIOT (loosely translated as donuts). The Israeli addition to the Hanukkah festival makes it even harder to choose. Another problem is that SUFGANIOT are filled with jam or jelly (usually not poppy seeds though), which bring them close to the internal structure of hamantashen.

    Obviously the common chemical process of frying SUFGANIOT in oil cements their relationship to latkes and Hanukkah. Isn’t that what this holiday food debate is all about? Those who desire to fry burned up over those who prefer to bake.

    Variant traditions of Sephardim and Ashkenazim or Hillel and Shammai have not made the decision easier to make. In Erez Yisrael it probably will be decided on the basis of weight gain and that will always go to those who fry…twice as many high caloric dishes for Hanukkah than for Purim!

  2. Larry Kaufman says:

    I first attended the Great Debate probably in 1949. The debater I particularly remember was Professor Ralph Marcus — his opponent may have been Professor Herman Finer. Rather than a standing room only crowd in Mandel Hall, the standing room only crowd filled the living room of the Hillel House at 5715 Woodlawn. And the debate point that brought down the house was Prof. Marcus’s response when asked how egg foo yong fit into the equation — egg foo yong is nothing but a latke that caught a slow boat to China.

    Some twenty years after that debate, I happened to be a dinner party where one of the other guests was Prof. Marcus’s widow, and when I mentioned having been present when he debated the latke vs. the hamantasch, Mrs. Marcus immediately responded, You mean the slow boat to China?

    And now, b’yameinu, in our time, I am proud to have participated last year in the more nuanced debate on the Reform Judaism blog (www.rj.org) as to whether applesauce or sour cream is the appropriate garnish for the latke.


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