November 29, 2005

Scholars continue great debate to sound of grumbling stomachs

The Latke and Hamantash banners marched down Mandel Hall once again, followed by five robed professors and a rabbi, last Tuesday. The occasion was the 59th Annual Great Latke-Hamantash Debate, a discussion run by the Hillel Center over the relative merits of the two traditional Jewish treats.

The latke, originally Polish, is the traditional potato pancake eaten on Hanukkah, while the hamantash is a triangle-shaped pastry with fruit filling eaten during the festival of Purim. The presenters comment on everything from the size, shape, texture, origin, and character of each in an effort to convince the audience that one is better than the other.

This year, professors Ralph Austen of the history department, Colm O’Muicheartaigh of the Harris School, Eugene Kontorovich of the Law School, and Jerrold M. Sadock of the linguistics department approached the debate with their own twists.

Austen argued that the latke-hamantash debate masks a more fundamental breach between the North Side and the South Side of Chicago.

In other words, the Cubs-Sox rivalry. For evidence, he pointed to the shape of each team’s baseball stadium. The more triangular Wrigley field shows the North Side’s preference for the hamantash while the rounder U.S. Cellular Field signals the South Side’s love of latkes. And this year, the Sox, and the latke, won.

Using his statistical analysis skills—read: elaborate and confusing graphs—O’Muircheartaigh proved that the ancient Israelites preferred the latke to the hamantash. He supported his argument using data brought back by his ancestors during their sea voyages to ancient Israel, where they conducted the earliest recorded public survey.

Speculating on the nature of laws concerning the latke and the hamantash, Kontorovich concluded that neither violates international law or U.S. federal law. On the contrary, the 1787 U.S. federal law, the Alien Tort Act, condones eating both. However, it is his personal belief that the hamantash is better.

Sadock argued that the ancient Greek philosophers were equally concerned about the debate—because they were Jewish. Moreover, Socrates’ dialogue between Hermogenes and Kradulus was a disguised latke-hamantash dispute, in which the hamantash was victorious.

Philosophy professor Ted Cohen, who had the honor of moderating the debate for the 21st or 22nd time (he’s not sure), concluded by saying that “one side has not prevailed—as usual, we do not care.”

But, he added, the debate will continue next year, “because it must.” Alison Boden, dean of Rockefeller Chapel; Martha Roth, professor in the humanities; and Elliot Gershon, professor in psychiatry, will present their arguments on the relative value of both holiday treats next year.