November 23, 2004

Cohen stops being PC, admits latkes are superior

Ted Cohen, a philosophy professor in the College, has been teaching almost exclusively at the University since 1967. Almost as long as his tenure here has been his involvement in the annual Latke-Hamentash debate, now in its 58th year, which has been held on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving since 1946. Sponsored by the Newberger Hillel Center and held at Mandel Hall with a reception at Hutch, the mock debate has increased in size and popularity. Other debates about the Jewish holiday foods have also been held at Yale, Princeton, and MIT. Cohen, who's been the moderator of the debate for almost 30 years, sat down in his office in the west tower of Harper for an interview.

Professor Cohen, you have been a participant of the debates for about 30 or so years. How did you get involved?

Well, Rabbi Daniel Leifer, the old rabbi of Hillel, asked me to be a panelist one year. I had never been involved before and I didn't know about it until I was asked. So I did it, and then a year or two later he asked if I could be the moderator. Back then, the moderator just read intros of the speakers that the people wrote themselves. I saw that some of them were longer than the others, so I just added stuff about the panelists while trying not to make things up. I wasn't trying to be funny with the intros, but you could say vicious. There's not that much point to satire without drawing of some blood. Rabbi Leifer liked what he heard and then decided that I should be moderator from now on. And I have, for the past 25 years.

How has the latke-hamentash debate grown or changed over the years?

First it used to be that the rabbi had to pick the moderator with the panelists, now it's just me, who writes a good bit of the introductory notes each time. Second, the debate has been kind of a parody since the beginning. The thing has had a feeling of a real debate, but the classical debate format itself has atrophied. Now the speakers say what they feel, and its not always equally divided for latkes or hamentashen.

How does a symposium about Chanukah potato pancakes and Purim cookies help promote the intellectual atmosphere at the U of C? More importantly, has this been a great way to promote understanding of Jewish culture?It must have represented some willingness and desire on the part of those people (the founders of the debate) to acknowledge and connect with their traditions. The debate does the rhetorical thing—make Jewishness public. In the 1940s, in most public places, Jewish professors and students weren't particularly demonstrative about their religion. Many thought that being subdued about their Jewishness was critical to their careers. Now in the last 25 years you get any cultural group together as the minority, and they think its best to articulate their cultural heritage. It's been changing for the good. Its main achievement is to make fun of the overly sober character of the University's academic activities.  I suppose it also shows that Jews are not only characteristically given to humor, but that they are more than able to laugh at themselves.How are the panelists chosen? Do they get sincerely involved in their arguments? What were some of the most memorable lectures given?

Rabbi [David] Rosenberg [of Hillel] makes the selections, with a little help from me and others. Everybody who performs at the debate has to be a faculty member. Remember, the U of C is a very high-power research university; most professors here have the continuing experience of writing papers and doing lab projects. For most who participate in the debate this is a somewhat difficult and stress-inducing thing to do—doing comedy. There's no doubt if they're either laughing or they're not—that's the prospect debaters face. All these debaters are having fun proving all this intelligence isn't just sober. Every speaker is making fun of their own discipline for a preposterous purpose.

There are now many latke-hamentash debates all over the nation, held during Purim or Chanukkah. How does that make you feel? It would make me feel that the University of Chicago is unique and is leading the way, if I did not already feel that way. It spread to some places because people who went here as students and faculty then went to somewhere else and had a debate. Other people heard about it and then had their own debate.Just for the record-your own personal opinion? Latke or hamentash? It is not my opinion. It is a fact:  hamentashen are pretty good, but latkes are perfect. I teach philosophy; I used a metaphysical argument and mathematical logic to prove latkes were perfect. Every year, people come up to me and say they have the perfect proof to end the debate, but obviously we're still discussing it.