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November 29, 2005

Debate collection preserves eternal conflict between Jewish holiday foods

It goes without saying that the University of Chicago has something of a reputation in the academic world for doing things, well, a bit differently than other schools. The University experience begins with the Uncommon Application, then proceeds through a tour de force of madcap antics such as Scav Hunt and the Polar Bear Run. If one is very lucky, it also includes the fabled Latke-Hamantash Debate, which takes place each Tuesday before Thanksgiving in Mandel Hall—and, as a matter of pride, almost never comes to a conclusion about which food is superior.

The debate began in 1946 as a way of allowing faculty and students to form a sense of community, discuss Jewish life, and, of course, eat Jewish food. The debaters originally defended their positions from the Hillel House; however, the event quickly outgrew its intimate confines and was relocated to Mandel Hall, where it now attracts more Jewish students than High Holy Day services, and many others as well. Inclusion in the panel is strictly delineated, as befits the University’s prestigious academic reputation: All participants must hold a Ph.D. or equivalent degree, and frame his argument in the terms of his academic discipline; the panel must also include at least one non-Jewish participant each year.

While the debate has already passed by this year, there is still a way to savor the oratorical fireworks. The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate, published by University of Chicago Press, is due out December 1. Within the covers of this slim volume—perfect for reading on winter nights by the light of a menorah—some of the gems of debates past gain new life. Despite the risk of getting too intellectual, this book also illustrates how the symposium is a microcosm of the University’s mindset toward learning as a whole. The lectures in Debate combine what is, to me, the essential spirit of the University—rigorous academic and intellectual passion and a finely tuned sense that there is a poetically absurd aspect to that passion. Or, in other words: “Oy vey, do we understand the importance of laughing at ourselves or vat?”

Debate was written to appease those already familiar with the symposium and newcomers alike. In his introduction to the collection, Ted Cohen, a former debater and long-time master of ceremonies, addresses the history of the event at the University and its spread to other schools, as well as explaining the Jewish holidays of Purim and Hanukkah to the uninitiated. From there, the book is divided into sections ranging from “Metahamantashen, of Shooting Off the Can(n)on,” to “Shrouded in Mystery: Spinning Latkes and Neutrinos.” After each set of lectures, there is something very Jewish indeed: a small section of “Noshes,” or funny tidbit paragraphs of speeches that didn’t make it into the book in their full form. An example from David Malament’s “The Logic of Latkes”: “I shall prove categorically, once and for all, that latkes are superior to hamantashen. Second, I shall prove that latkes exist necessarily, i.e., in all possible worlds. Finally with what time remains, I’ll discuss God.” The quote continues; I will not.

While the book seems to contain a latke-heavy bias (it is round, free-form, humanistic, and of the earth, to name a few contentions), it does a nice, well rounded—sorry—job of showcasing the debate over the years. Distinguished faculty from all academic milieus appear in these pages, arguing for their chosen food between the latke and the hamantash, or, often, refusing to reach a conclusion at all, but rather offering proof for other arguments entirely (the two favorites in this category seem to be proving famous contributors to various fields were Jewish—Shakespeare and Machiavelli, for instance—or putting forth a food to champion that is neither latke nor hamantashen, such as bagels).

Like the event itself, The Great…Debate offers a chance to witness serious academic minds using the tools of their trade in the service of humor. The book’s main weakness is one of genre. The spectacle of watching the debates in person from a seat in Mandel Hall is unparalleled, especially given that many of the lectures over the years have relied on sight gags, costumes, or figures to work their full persuasive power. That said, this is not a book to miss. Ruth Fredman Cernea, the collection’s editor, has made a concerted effort to tailor her lecture choices to those that are best served in print. The results are often hilarious, and definitely worth reading—aloud and in high oratorical style, if possible.

And if you’re curious, I voted for latkes.