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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Latkes vs. hamantaschen settled

Tradition of debate on Jewish cuisine comes to campus

Published: December 7, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

120707dc6.jpgHillel and Brandeis Academic Debate and Speech Society (BADASS) came together on the third night of Chanukah Thursday with the aim of answering that age old question: Which is the quintessential Jewish food, latkes or hamantaschen?

Professor Jonathan Sarna (NEJS), and Professor Reuven Kimelman (NEJS) sought to answer this question at the first annual Brandeis Latke vs. Hamantaschen Debate. Professor Sarna advocated hamantaschen, a triangular pastry made with various fillings, with Kimelman speaking on behalf of latkes, fried potato pancakes.

Each professor made a ten-minute speech, followed by one-minute rebuttals from audience members. Then each professor approached the podium to give his closing remarks.

Professor Sarna argued in favor of hamantaschen on five counts: numerical value, history, language, semiotics, and public policy.

Professor Sarna argued that based on the numerical value given to every Hebrew letter, the numerical value of “Latke” is 270, the same value as “ra,” which is associated with evil. Thus, proving the superiority of the hamantaschen.

According to Professor Sarna, history is also leans in favor of the hamantaschen. Purim, a holiday during which hamantaschen is usually eaten, is older and more important than Chanukah. To support this, Professor Sarna pointed to the belief that when the Messiah comes, all holidays will be abolished, except Purim.

Whereas potatoes are a “New World vegetable,” which were first discovered in the 16th century.

“Jews should be suspicious of this new innovation,” he said.

Professor Sarna also drew on semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and the anthropological theory that food is a symbolic system. He emphasized the triangular shape of the hamantaschen as symbolic of the Jewish people.

As the corners of every triangle always add up to 180 degrees, the Jewish people always add up to one people, no matter how they are distributed around the world. The different fillings of the hamantaschen represent the pluralism of the Jewish people.

“The hamantaschen represents the great principle of diversity in overarching unity,” Professor Sarna said.

He ended his speech by arguing that choosing hamantaschen over latkes was a matter of good public policy. With the rising price of oil, he argued that eating hamantaschen instead of latkes would conserve oil and that the “Jewish people as a community should go green.”

Professor Kimelman began his speech with a refutation of Professor Sarna’s numerical argument against the latke. He said that this argument was irrelevant, because no one eats just one latke.

“While one latke gives you a “ra,” two gives you a “ra-ra,” Professor Kimelman said.

Among his other points, he employed the laxative quality of prunes, a popular hamantaschen filling, to argue against the pastry.

“The quicker you go through a hamantaschen, the quicker it goes through you,” Professor Kimelman said, adding, “The prune-based hamantaschen is quicker than an enema.”

After Professor Kimelman concluded his speech, students spoke up in favor of the food they favored. One student argued on behalf of hamantaschen since they can be eaten without any condiments, while latkes are usually topped with applesauce or sour cream.

Another student argued that the age of the hamantaschen was actually a negative thing, asking “Who wants to eat an 800-year old hamantaschen?”

A vote of audience members declared Professor Sarna the winner, and hamantaschen was deemed the better Jewish food.

Although in its first year at Brandeis, the Latke vs. Hamantaschen Debate originated at the University of Chicago in 1946 and has since spread to other campuses, including MIT and Harvard.

BADASS Publicity Director Jackie Saffir ‘10 said the event is part of the debate society’s “effort this year to bring debate opportunities to students on campus and this is probably the most fun way we could do it.”