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Judaism’s Epic Food Fight

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

Yair Rosenberg
February 21, 2013
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock
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 ears 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.”

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.