Professors engage in spirited debate on Jewish foods

Virgina Lozano/Daily
English Professor Ralph Williams speaks for team Hamantash on the debate between Latke and Hamantash dishes at Hillel Tuesday. Buy this photo

By Allana Akhtar, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 19, 2013

Tuesday, members of the University community came together at the University of Michigan Hillel to contest one of the most controversial questions in the history of Judaism: Which food is better, the latke or hamantash?

Latkes and hamantashen are both essential foods in Jewish culture. Latkes are fried potato pancakes traditionally eaten on Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, served with sour cream or applesauce. Hamantashen are triangular pastries eaten on Purim, a holiday commemorating the Jewish people’s survival in the ancient Persian kingdom. The pastry is often stuffed with sweet fillings such as nuts, dates, cherries, chocolate or cheese.

The University of Chicago hosted the first Latke-Hamantash debate in 1946. Not able to find a definite conclusion to the mighty question, the university decided to rehash the issue annually. Since then, other universities such as Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Amherst College and Harvard University also put their best professors to the test finding the superior dish.

Tuesday evening, the University finally joined these schools to debate the superiority of the two time-honored Jewish cuisines.

LSA junior Paul Feingold, who brought the debate to campus, began the night by welcoming both Jews and “righteous gentiles” and introducing moderator Tilly Shames, executive director of Hillel.

Feingold said he hoped the event would bring students together for a humorous evening and help them see professors in a more relaxed and fun environment.

“One of the big goals here we have at Hillel is to get new people through the door all the time and engage new students into the Jewish community,” Feingold said.

Four University professors used their rhetoric skills, compiled intelligence, effective evidence and sharp rejoinders to make the case for their choice dish.

Representing Team Latke was Prof. Zvi Gitelman, who is also a Preston Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies, and Associate Prof. Julian Levinson. Defending Team Hamantash were Jan Gerson, a senior lecturer, and Prof. Ralph Williams.

Gerson started off the night using her economics expertise in defense of the hamantash. Using the logic of economist Adam Smith, who proposed that society benefits when individuals act according to their self interest, Gerson came to the conclusion that the question “better boils down to is ‘in my opinion’ which is better.”

Therefore, Gerson said because she personally believes hamantashen are better, they are indeed better.

Levinson countered Gerson’s argument with the concept of “camouflage-ability.” He argued that the latke is a versatile food: if an individual decides they would like to “Jew it up,” Levinson said he can tell everyone he is enjoying a hot, savory latke. However, if another individual is feeling timid, or if she is approached by someone hostile, she can say she is eating a potato pancake and receive no suspicion.

Levinson further argued that because the leading brand in kosher products, Manishewitz, has seven types of latke mixes and no recipes for hamantashen, the latke must be the leading Judaic commodity.

“Why hasn’t Manishewitz made a single box of hamantashen? I’ll leave that question up to you,” Levinson said to Team Hamantash.

Williams, whose studies focus on the humanities, analyzed Shakespeare’s work to reveal the superiority of hamantashen. After close analysis of Antony and Cleopatra, Antony reveals to Cleopatra that there will be “hamentashen in the next world,” which prompts her to commit suicide and enjoy the dish in the afterlife, Williams said.

Gitelman, who has been at the University for over 40 years, ended the night with a passionate rendition of the Chanukah Song, arguing that because it includes the delectable potato pancake over the decadent stuffed pastry, the latke is the superior Jewish food.

In the end, Shames concluded the debate was a tie, honoring all four professors and declaring both the savory and sweet dishes as equally tasty.