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8 Great Arguments from the Latke-Hamentash Debate

Every year, a few weeks before Hanukkah begins, eminent scholars don their formal academic robes and convene in one of the great Gothic halls at the University of Chicago to present their arguments on the most important question of our time: Latke or hamentash?

The hamentash is a triangular pastry with a sweet filling served during the Jewish holiday of Purim. The latke, of course, is the fried potato pancake eaten during Hanukkah. The merits and drawbacks of each have been passionately expounded upon since the first Lake-Hamentash Debate held in 1946. The rules of the debate, according to Ruth Fredman Cernea in the introduction to her book The Great Latke-Hamentash Debate, are that "all participants must hold a PhD or equivalent degree; arguments should be framed according to the theoretical position and jargon of the participant's academic discipline; and each symposium must include someone who is not Jewish—to lend a note of 'gentility.'"

The tradition of the latke-hamentash debate has since spread to other universities. Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur "Genius" Fellows alike have held forth on the metaphysical, philosophical, semiotic, sociological, literary, and historical implications of latkeness vs. hamentashness. Naturally, sentiment tends to veer toward the latke. In celebration of Hanukkah, here are eight great arguments (one for each night) from the last several decades of the Latke-Hamentash Debate.

1. From "Latkes, Hamentashen, and the History of Science," by physicist Morrel H. Cohen.

"How else was Kepler able to arrive at the ellipsoidal shape of the orbits of the planets around the sun but by contemplation of the appearance of the well-cooked latke? How else to account for the decrease of the vigor of Italian science in the late Renaissance but by the displacement of the latke by pasta and its subsequent degeneration to mere gnocchi? Can one believe that the fall of an apple is sufficiently inspiring to lead Newton to the theory of universal gravitation? But the slither of a latke to the floor as one attempts to cut it: that is thought-provoking in the extreme. Would that Newton could have admitted the truth."

2. From "Notes toward a Reinterpretation of American Literature" by Marvin Mirsky, professor of humanities.

"In the famous chapter 43, entitled 'The Whiteness of the Whale,' Melville confronts us with the fundamental and profound duality of the monstrous creature. Is the whiteness a symbol of virtue and goodness, or is it the emblem of terror and evil? Is the whale a three-dimensional latke, wallowing in its gargantuan and blubbery circularity, bodying forth the benign and virtuous aspect of nature? Or is the whale a gigantic hamantash, tapering from its massive triangular head to its tail fins, and incarnating the darkness, the malevolence, the evil in the universe? Ahab takes the whale for a hamantash, and carries his ship and crew with him to destruction."

3. From "Freedom, Latkes, and American Letters: An Original Contribution to Knowledge" by historian Bernard Weisberger.

"As anyone who has read Fredrick Jackson Turner knows, the seeds of American democratic institutions were planted on the frontier. And as any student of American history knows, the frontier was a place where the simplest and crudest instruments of life had to do double duty. In cookery, the uncomplicated frying pan was the pioneer's first resource; the axe, rifle, and skillet were the weapons in the conquest of the wilderness. And what kind of dish do we make in a frying pan? I assure you, it is not the high-priced confection. That demands an oven—a more complicated piece of engineering—to say nothing of such exotic, un-American, and civilized ingredients as prunes or poppy seeds."

4. From "The Apotheosis of the Latke" by philosopher Alan Gewirth.

"Let us begin with Plato. It is not generally known that Plato's immortal writings, nowadays called 'dialogues,' were originally called 'dialatkes.' They were so called, of course, because they provided such a well-rounded, succulent intellectual feast. It was Plato's writings of dialatkes that gave his whole philatkophy its rich and yeasty flavor, both spiritual and earthy. It is even less well known that Plato's greatest pupil, nowadays called Aristotle, was originally named 'Aristlatke,' from the Greek word 'aristos,' meaning 'best,' and 'latke.' In other words, Aristlatke was so called because he was the best of all latke-eaters who participated in Plato's dialatkes."

5. From "The Scientific Method" by astrophysicist Edward Kolb.

"Sadly, the quark structure of latkes and hamantashen has received precious little attention from scientists. This is due, no doubt, to the scandalous state of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy budgets. What I will unveil now is the outline for a sound scientific program to study the latke/hamatash quark structure. This program is courageous in scope, bold in vision, and, I am most proud to say, damned expensive…This new machine, the Superconducting Super Hamalatkatron, or SSH for short, can be constructed at the modest cost of 8.264 billion dollars, a price which includes tax, tip, and dealer prep…The food would be accelerated to high energy using the single strongest force known, the force of guilt."

6. From "Euripides' The Cooks of Troy: Hecuba's Lament" by philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

Up, unhappy head, up from the dust.
This is no longer Troy.
And I, Hecuba, was the chief cook of Troy.
Now we are routed by the Greek onslaught
that laid waste the gleaming kitchen of the kings.
--Greeks greedily gorging on my cakes
(both the round cakes and the sweet pointed cakes)
with a gluttony that knew no moderation.
Alas, the battle of the kitchen lost. Alas, my ruined royal garments.
Yield to fortune, yield to spilled dishwater.
Don't hold life's prow against the swelling tide of garbage.

7. From "Heartburn as a Cultural System" by anthropologist Michael Silverstein.

"The riddle of the latke and the homntash can never be 'solved' as such, as it were, until these two are viewed as gustemes of a gustemic poetry of music that is full of sound and fury—at least of prune filling—but that signifies nothing if not heard in its textual plentitude, which we must deconstruct before we can digest. With all due respect to my learned colleagues here assembled, arguing over the priority of invention, or using external criteria of worth, are clearly just the most subjective and unconvincing of partisan strategies. No, once you've caught a code, you've seized the germ of the system of symbols, only in terms of which can any symbol's meaning be understood. It is an edible logic of—if you're not careful with the dough—the concrete."

8. From "Restoring the Jewish Cannon" by philosopher Allan Bloom

"What is bad is not that the economists say that man can live on latkes or hamentashen alone, but that they are vulgar materialists, not understanding the unique Jewish blending of matter and spirit in them which defies economists' categories. They think that consumer preference should determine the value of these sacred objects, repeating Locke's error that labor is the source of value. They think that there are proper terms of comparison between latkes and, say, pizza. Survival, bodily need, is all they know—as though anyone who was interested in health would eat Jewish food...Practically, the first thing to be done is to remove this debate from the control of the Manischewitz heretics and their agents, the Business School, and return it to the philosopher-kings; for only when wisdom and latke-hamantash coincide will evils cease."

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9 Things You Should Keep in Mind Around Someone Observing Ramadan
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To mark the ninth (and most holy) month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims around the world observe Ramadan. Often compared to Lent in Christianity and Yom Kippur in Judaism, Ramadan is all about restraint. For one month, Muslims observing Ramadan fast during the day and then feast at night.

By abstaining from food and water (as well as sex, smoking, fighting, etc.) during daylight, Muslims strive to practice discipline, instill gratitude for what they have, and draw closer to Allah. To be respectful and not annoy observers, here are nine things you should never say or do to someone observing Ramadan.

1. DON'T JOKE ABOUT WEIGHT LOSS.

A traditional iftar meal.
A traditional iftar meal.
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Although it might be tempting to joke about Ramadan being a good excuse to lose weight, it is a time for spiritual reflection and is a serious matter. Observers undertake the challenge of fasting for religious and spiritual reasons rather than aesthetic ones. And, once the sun sets each night, many Muslims prepare a hearty iftar (the meal that breaks the fast) of dates, curries, rice dishes, and other delicious foods. The suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) is often fresh fruit, bread, cheese, and dishes that are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. So the idea of a cleanse is pretty far from their minds.

2. DON'T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS.

An Indian Muslim student recites from the Quran in a classroom during the holy month of Ramadan.
NOAH SEELAM, AFP/Getty Images

There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, but not all of them observe Ramadan the same way. Although most observant Muslims fast for Ramadan, don't assume that every Muslim you meet has the same methods, traditions, and attitudes towards fasting. For some, Ramadan is more about prayer, reading the Qur'an, and performing acts of charity than merely about forgoing food and drink. And for those who may be exempted from the daily fasting, such as pregnant or nursing women, the elderly, or those with various health conditions, they might not appreciate the reminder from nosey busy-bodies that they aren't participating in the traditional way.

3. SAY "RAMADAN MUBARAK" INSTEAD OF "HAPPY RAMADAN."

A sign which reads
A sign which reads "Ramadan Kareem" in Arabic is seen pictured in front of the Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai.
GIUSEPPE CACACE, AFP/Getty Images

Rather than wishing someone a happy Ramadan, being more thoughtful with your choice of words can show that you understand and respect the sanctity of their holy month. Saying "Ramadan Mubarak" or "Ramadan Kareem" are the traditional ways to impart warm wishes—they both convey the generosity and blessings associated with the month. The actual party comes after Ramadan, when Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, an up to three-day festival that involves plenty of food, time with family, and gifts.

4. DON'T BE A FOOD PUSHER.

Muslim woman saying no to an apple.
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Even if the idea of not eating or drinking all day might be unfathomable to you, don't push food onto anyone observing Ramadan. While fasting all day for a month can cause mild fatigue, dehydration, and dizziness, don't try to convince participating Muslims to eat or drink something—they are fully aware of any side effects they may feel throughout the day. Instead, be respectful of their decision to fast and offer to lend a hand with something like chores, errands, or anything unrelated to food.

5. ACCEPT THAT WATER ISN'T ON THE MENU.

Dates and a glass of water.
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Muslims who observe Ramadan don't sip any liquids during daytime. No water, coffee, tea, or juice. Zilch. Going without water is even harder than going without food, so be aware of the struggle and accept it. It's all part of the sacrifice and self-discipline inherent in Ramadan.

6. RESPECT PEOPLE'S PRIVACY.

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Some Muslims choose not to fast during Ramadan for medical or other personal reasons, and they may not appreciate being badgered with questions about why they may be eating or drinking rather than fasting. Children and the elderly generally don't fast all day, and people who are sick are exempt from fasting. Other conditions that preclude fasting during Ramadan are pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menstruation (although, if possible, people generally make up the days later).

7. BE MINDFUL OF ENERGY LEVELS.

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Eschewing food and drink for hours at a time can cause lethargy, so be aware that Muslims observing Ramadan may be more tired than usual. Your Muslim friends and coworkers don't stop working for an entire month, but they may tweak their schedules to allow for more rest. They may also stay indoors more (to prevent overheating) and avoid unnecessary physical activity to conserve energy. So, don't be offended if they aren't down for a pick-up game of basketball or soccer. We can't all be elite athletes.

8. DON'T OBSESS OVER FOOD AND HUNGER.

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One of the worst things you can do to someone on a new diet is to obsess over all the cheeseburgers, pizza, and cupcakes they can't have. Similarly, most Muslims observing Ramadan don't want to have in-depth conversations about all the food and beverages they're avoiding. So, be mindful that you don't become the constant reminder of how many hours are left until sundown—just as you shouldn't joke about weight loss, you shouldn't call attention to any hunger pangs.

9. DON'T BE AFRAID TO EAT YOUR OWN FOOD.

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Although it's nice to avoid talking about food in front of a fasting Muslim, don't be afraid to eat your own food as you normally would. Seeing other people eating and drinking isn't offensive—Muslims believe that Ramadan is all about sacrifice and self-discipline, and they're aware that not everyone participates. However, perhaps try to avoid scheduling lunch meetings or afternoon barbecues with your Muslim colleagues and friends. Any of those can surely wait until after Ramadan ends.

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