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Judaism’s Epic Food Fight

Each Purim, star academics like Milton Friedman and Alan Dershowitz debate: latkes or hamantaschen?

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock)

Purim begins this Saturday night, and on college campuses nationwide star academics will celebrate the holiday by facing off on the most pressing culinary question in Judaism: latkes or hamantaschen? Which is superior—the fried potato pancakes traditionally served on Hanukkah, or the triangular jelly or poppy-filled pastries of Purim?

The custom of attempting to settle the matter through public scholarly disputation first began at the University of Chicago in 1946, which hosted its 66th Latke-Hamantaschen debate last Tuesday. Over the decades, the Purim pastime has spread to other universities, with Princeton, Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Stanford and many more getting in on the action. Debaters have included the critic Allan Bloom, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, famed modern Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss, and countless other brilliant minds with apparently too much time on their hands. The resulting proceedings have inspired a book and even a folk song.

So, what’s it like to participate in a Latke-Hamantaschen debate? “It’s like getting into a debate with Alan Dershowitz,” said Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor of psychology, who debated Alan Dershowitz on the subject in 2007 at Harvard Hillel. Few showdowns in his career, he said, have measured up. “The closest was my debate with Stephen Jay Gould on the evolution of language.”

“It’s great,” enthused Jack Rakove, a professor of American history at Stanford who referenced the debate in the opening pages of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Constitution, Original Meanings. “I tell all my students about it—not just the Jewish ones—and they seem to get a kick out of it.” Is there a debate in the history of the American founding that compares? “Probably Madison and Jefferson on the one hand, and Hamilton on the other, discussing the Necessary and Proper clause.”

Passions run high at these disputations, where academics deploy everything from evolutionary biology to political spin to demonstrate their side’s superiority. Indeed, such vehemence has led even those who have devoted their lives to resolving intractable conflicts involving Jews to throw up their hands. “I would argue that the real significance of the Latke-Hamantaschen debate is that it cannot be resolved,” said Aaron David Miller, former Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator under three U.S. presidents and six secretaries of state. “But it’s a debate that’s simply too important to abandon.”

***

One can get a sense of the deep divides in this conflict by examining the arguments made at past debates. At MIT’s 2008 contest, for example, Political Science Prof. Stephen Van Evera set out not only to establish the superiority of the latke, but to utterly destroy the reputation of the hamantaschen opposition. Calling on students to channel their “inner Karl Rove,” he announced that he would “make the case for latkes using communication science developed by American political campaign consultants.”

“I want to warn you,” Van Evera intoned grimly, “this is a dark science. It appeals to our darker impulses. It uses lies and slander. It exploits false patriotism and mob psychology. And everyone in the election business does it because it works. Voters eat it up like latkes.”

He went on to associate latkes with patriotism (potatoes come from [South] America) and national security (hot latke oil is good for repelling invaders), while linking hamantaschen with treason (Benedict Arnold wore a triangular hat), defeatism (unlike latkes, hamantaschen are “useless in combat”), and Vietnam (like a quagmire, both are gooey). His rallying cry was “be against latkes, be against America!” It worked. By the end of his presentation, Van Evera had the entire assembly of some of America’s brightest young minds chanting his slogan “USA! USA! Latkes, Latkes, USA!”

Yet other experts beg to differ. Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and author of Jews and Power, comes down firmly on the side of the hamantash. “I appreciate its aggression, albeit in only symbolic form,” she said, referring to the traditional explanation that the hamantash’s shape symbolizes the hat of Haman, the genocidal villain of the Purim story. “In the ghettos, Jews called them Hitlertaschen. What would we call them?” Three guesses which Iranian leader she was referring to.

In 2007, Wisse’s colleague Dershowitz likewise offered a spirited defense of the hamantash. When his sparring partner, evolutionary psychologist Pinker, pointed to the latke’s universal cross-cultural appeal—as evidenced by American hash browns, French galettes, Swedish rarakors, and Irish boxtis—and deduced an evolutionary “latke instinct,” Dershowitz retorted, “Is that an argument against the hamantash? We are the chosen people! Shouldn’t we have the chosen food?”

When Dershowitz claimed that supporting latkes meant supporting American addiction to foreign oil and urged students to sign a latke divestment petition, Pinker countered with an anti-hamantash manifesto, citing the pastry’s fueling of the drug trade through its poppy-seed filling. “You might ask,” said Pinker, “is it appropriate to stoop to scoring cheap moralistic points to defend something as trivial as a favorite food? And the answer is: Yeah, I think I’ll do it.”

No subject, even the third rail of Jewish denominational politics, was off-limits in the debate. After Dershowitz accused the fried latke of fomenting the nation’s obesity crisis, Pinker responded that unlike his opponent, who was raised Orthodox, he believes in changing traditions with the times, in accordance with his Reform upbringing. As such, Pinker explained, “when I make latkes, I make it with mono-unsaturated olive oil, on the side rather than sour cream I have non-fat yogurt, and afterwards I wash it down with a couple of Lipitor.”

Dershowitz did not let these aspersions on his Orthodox roots slide. When a student asked the debaters whether “the story of Hanukkah … helps or hurts both of your arguments,” Dershowitz quickly gestured to Pinker and retorted, “He’s a Reform Jew, he doesn’t know the story.” Pinker furiously denied the charge: “That’s totally unfair. We Reform Jews know Hanukkah is the holiday in which you put up a tree [and] hang stockings in the fireplace.”

***

That debate at Harvard Hillel, like so many before it, ended in a stalemate, with Hillel Executive Director Bernie Steinberg fleeing the premises after a voice vote without announcing who won. Years later, Pinker stands firm in his belief in the superiority of the latke, but Dershowitz has changed his tune. Asked what he would tell the contemporary Jewish community about the state of the latke-hamantaschen dispute, he responded, “Get over it! It’s time to move on. If we want to attract young people, we need to come up with new material. Jewish humor can’t be stuck in the 20th century.”

“I have other debates to argue,” he added. Like gefilte fish versus cholent, perhaps? “I could see that. At least there you’re dealing with two substantive main dishes. Of course, then it would depend on which kind of gefilte fish, and which kind of chrain [horseradish].”

Dershowitz is used to taking controversial stances on hot button issues, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to torture, but here he may have taken on more than he bargained for. “I think he’s wrong on principle,” said Stanford’s Jack Rakove, when told of Dershowitz’s criticisms. “I think it’s good to be able to take the minor holidays and have a little fun with them. With Purim, anything goes. But Hanukkah has become so Americanized as it’s observed here, in some ways it’s nice to be able to put a little more intellectual dignity back into it.”

“Maybe,” he said, “we should debate this sometime.”

***

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What’s with the blue Hamantasch gloves? Anyone who even pretends to understand the issues knows that the blue gloves belong on the Latke, the red on the Hamantasch.

Paula Levin says:

lovely article, what fun!

Lilithcat says:

The UChicago debates were always the Tuesday before Thanksgiving until this year, when a controversy surrounding UChicago Hillel caused the sponsorship of the debate to shift to Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. The delay resulted in a conflict with another important Hyde Park event, our neighbor’s State of the Union address. Nevertheless, the house was full. Despite moving the debate nearer to Purim, latkes still won!

There’s a book, too: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/100235.html

It all depends on what side of the Gefilte Fish Line you come from. Galicianers would prefer hamentaschen while Litvaks would prefer latkes.

Latkes are more likely to add to hypertension because of the heavy doses of salt

Hamentashen are obvious causes of diabetes

and because of their high fat content, both are equally guilty of inducing arterial sclerosis

all-in-all, it would be better to forgo the “pastrami judaism” and concentrate on the real age-old question as debated in small shuls for 100 years:

Canadian Club v. Seagrams VO

David Basch says:

For more, see http://www.davidbasch.net
entropy4@optonline.net

(HOLIDAY OF LOTS) PURIM MASQUERADE
A PURIMSHPIEL ( 3.3.07)
by David Basch

It is a common misconception that Shakespeare’s play, The
Merchant of Venice, is a rank form of anti-Semitism. Therefore,
it will be surprising to learn that central to the texture of
this play is the Scroll of Esther, a story of Jewish triumph. In
Shakespeare’s play, the Purim story becomes a play within a play,
guiding the action and directing our sympathies toward the Jew.
In the end, this play shares in the message of Esther and can be
described as a form of Purimshpiel, the kind of play produced by
the Jews in their Ghettoes in honor of the Feast of Purim.
It is a unique characteristic of the Book of Esther that the
role of G-d in events and even G-d’s name is hidden. Shakespeare
has respected this uniqueness by repeating again and again the
motif of hiddenness in his play. Moreover, since the theme of
Esther (and Purim) is reversal of events, “v’nahapoch hu,”
Shakespeare fittingly provides a story with an ending opposite
to what appears and characters similarly opposite to
what they appear to be.

In arriving at this understanding we must first recognize that
hidden in Shakespeare’s play is Esther herself. For it is the
offstage, “fair” Esther, a woman of valor who feared the L-rd,
who contrasts with “fair” Portia and all the women in the play.
Esther serves as the standard against which all others are
judged. We will get to that soon soon enough.

But for now, we immediately get a taste of the parallels between
the Book of Esther and the Merchant of Venice when we find the
leading woman in both is faced with a marriage lottery. Like the
lottery of the beauty contest which makes Esther a Queen, the bride
of King Ahaseurus, Portia too must be won through a “lottery,” as
she herself calls it in the play. As devised by her father and to her
consternation, she must wed the man who solves “the riddle of the
caskets.”

A second reference to lottery, or “pur,” occurs in Esther
when the evil Haman uses a lottery to mark out a date for Jewish
destruction. This too is paralleled in The Merchant of Venice in
the lottery of the trial of Shylock, which is also a lottery in the
sense that justice in that trial is a chance outcome. For justice
is not what his trial was about.
Not justice? How is this shown? Did not Shylock in court
attempt to take a pound of flesh owed to him by the Christian
Antonio? Had Shylock not earlier in the play stated that he hated
Antonio “for he is a Christian”? Appropos, Shylock, who was
foiled, would truly have gotten what he deserved — the harsh
justice that he explicitly called for. The idea that Shakespeare
could have conceived of a Jew who would attempt such a heinous
crime and call it justice marks Shakespeare in many eyes as an
anti-Semite.

But can anyone imagine that the greatest dramatist, the
friend of the underdog everywhere, could have stooped to such raw
prejudice, violating the tenets of his own art that had bound him
everywhere else to faithfully render individual character in
truth? The allegation calls for serious investigation, for
something clearly does not ring true. And when a diligent search
is made, new facts emerge.

It turns out that Antonio the Christian is a hidden Meshumad,
an apostate Jew, revealed through numerous telling lines and
phrases. Thus, Shylock, the moneylender, scorns Antonio for
lending “for a Christian curtsy” — nothing wrong with that if
you are a Christian — and he compares him to a “publican” — the
despised Jewish tax collectors who served the Romans. Shylock
also repeatedly uses the collective “our” in conversation with
Antonio as he speaks of such things as as “OUR father Abram” and
sufferance being “the badge of all OUR tribe.” When it is recognized
that Antonio is a former Jew, the lines take on new meaning. Shylock
merely hates him for having turned Christian and for trying to win over
the gentiles by fawning curtsies — something far different from the
“sinath chinom,” the groundless hatred, supposed.

While Shylock is called a usurer, it is interesting to note
that he grants a free loan to Antonio to “win [Antonio's] love”
and as called for by the Torah in lending to a fellow Jew and,
incidentally, as the Talmud requires even for a Jew who had
converted. Fancy Shakespeare knowing all that!

And what of the “pound of flesh” to be taken “from his
flesh,” the famous devilish penalty Shylock contracted for in
case Antonio defaulted on his loan? Well, if one follows the
action, this is presented in jest, a Jewish in-joke between the
two Jews. It is in fact a reference to the talmudic penalty
“me’gufo” — “from his flesh” — a penalty to be taken from the
sale of the flesh of the ox that gored and its proceeds shared.
Antonio had in a sense “gored” Shylock by earlier reviling him
and in spoiling his business dealings, hence a humorous allusion
to the Talmud’s penalty meant to bring resolution between the
owners of the two oxen involved in the goring. It was indeed a
“merry sport” in the play and indicates a Shakespeare that had
remarkable knowledge of Jews and talmudic lore in an England
in which Jews had been banished for almost 400 years.

There is much, much more in this vein that cannot be
presented in a short article. Suffice it to say that Jewish
triumph comes in Shakespeare’s play in two hidden ways. First,
while Portia makes an impassioned and world famous plea for mercy
– as did Esther in the Bible — calling on Shylock to grant
mercy to Antonio, when the tables are suddenly turned on Shylock,
neither Portia nor the others give mercy to the Jew. Instead,
Shylock is stripped of all his wealth and, on pain of death, is
pressed to convert.
The point is that mercy is considered the central value of
the religion of Shylock’s enemies. Yet, in the play they fail to
dispense it. It reflects a gross failure in their character and
the failure of their cause — a Purim reversal.
But what about Shylock’s demand to take flesh from Antonio
legally due him? Can anyone really believe that the Jewish money
lender, the equivalent of today’s banker, was really intending to
cut flesh from Antonio? As long ago observed by the Yiddish
actor, Abraham Morevsky — look him up on the internet — he
found that the only way to make sense of the play and
Shakespeare’s characterization of Shylock is to realize that
Shylock was arguing for the right to take his bond of flesh, not
to actually collect it. He was involved in a charade, feigning
devilish ferocity to throw a scare into Antonio and get him to
plead for mercy from the Jew he had despised and wronged. It was
an unwise charade that went awry and left Shylock exposed in
the pose of a killer. Shylock had violated the Talmud’s advice in
Pirke Avoth “not to say anything that should not be said because
you think that in the end it will be understood.” Shylock wasn’t
understood by others in Shakespeare’s play.
Meanwhile, as scholar Edna Krane revealed long ago in an
article in Midstream Magazine, there is evidence in the play that
Shylock did not convert. The court had him sign a “deed of gift”
of all his wealth to be delivered after his death to his heirs, a
deed which the court held. But in the last scene, Nerissa,
Portia’s lady in waiting, presents the deed, meaning that it was
after Shylock’s death, hence he must have been dead. In the
context of the story, offstage, Krane concludes that Shylock must
have refused the court’s offer to save his life by converting,
dying a Jewish martyr’s death — the triumph of his cause.
Other parallels between the play and the Bible’s Esther
abound. In both, the central character is a proud Jew — Mordecai
and Shylock — and, as did the Jews of Shushan, who ate at the
feast given by King Ahaseurus, which according to Jewish teaching
in the Midrash brings on their calamity, Shylock too attends a feast
given by non Jews, enabling his daughter to bring on his
calamity.
Then there are the common disguises or masquerade motifs.
Esther masquerades as a non Jew; Jessica, Shylock’s daughter,
disguises as a boy during a masquerade in the story — a touch of
Purim — and Portia disguises as a male judge, introduced with a
“scroll.”

Other similarities are through opposites. Unlike Esther who
is loyal to her people, Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, is disloyal
to her people, eloping with a Christian and robbing her father
and then slandering him with her false testimony about an alleged
plot she could not have overheard. Then Portia, who plays the part
of rescuer for Antonio and champion for his side, is similar to
Esther, who rescues her people. But Portia’s rescue, which was not
in fact needed, has Shylock led into a trap and cast into a
false, unsavery light as a monster, resulting in unmercifully
depriving Shylock of his rightful wealth and position.
Then, unlike Esther who was loyal to her covenant, her Jewish
covenant, Portia betrays her father’s marriage covenant to abide by
the selection of the proper casket. She fails to observe the
strictures of this covenant by slyly having the secret of the caskets
revealed to the man of her choice as artfully made apparent by
Shakespeare through a close reading of his text. (See the full
details in THE HIDDEN SHAKESPEARE.)

The above are all unfavorable comparisons of the women in
Shakespeare’s play to Esther. The mystery that remains is why
Shakespeare wrote a play of reversals in which is hidden the story
of Esther and Jewish triumph? The answer is that Shakespeare was a
Jew, hiding his identity from authorities who would otherwise have
expelled him from the country, masquerading in a non Jewish
identity, but who wished to communicate to later ages his supreme
faith in the Jewish future.

*******

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Judaism’s Epic Food Fight

Each Purim, star academics like Milton Friedman and Alan Dershowitz debate: latkes or hamantaschen?

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