Ruth Fredman Cernea, a cultural anthropologist best known to the students as the editor of a collection of speeches on the University’s annual Latke-Hamantash Debate, died March 31 of pancreatic cancer in Coral Gables, FL. She was 74.
The mock debate, held annually on campus before Thanksgiving holidays since 1946, invites prominent University faculty to humorously argue the respective merits of two foods commemorating Jewish holidays: the latke, a potato-pancake served during Hanukkah, and the hamantash, a three-cornered pastry served during Purim
“The things that make [the debate] what it is are so deep in the Jewish tradition: being able to laugh at yourself, being able to laugh at the seriousness of life,” Cernea said to The New York Times in an interview for the book’s release in 2005
“In Jewish tradition, scholarship is serious, but it’s also irreverent. Challenging the text, making fun of the text, is encouraged,” she said, relating the tradition of the debate to the universities across the country that have since adopted it
Cernea attended Temple University in Philadelphia for both undergraduate and doctoral studies. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1956 and a doctorate in cultural anthropology in 1982
Upon earning her doctorate she served the Hillel Foundation, a national Jewish campus organization, as its director of research and publications until 1996. She was also a former president of the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists.
Cernea’s work focused primarily on Jewish culture. Among her most popular works are “Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma,” “The Passover Seder,” an ethnography of the Jewish holiday’s rituals and symbols, and “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate” on the University tradition
Cernea is survived by Michael M. Cernea, her husband; three children, two stepchildren, and 11 grandchildren.