Prattle of the ages: Hamantasch vs. latke

The mock debate pitted Jewish holiday foods against each other again this year.

by Emma Carew

The University campuses are full of debate: Minneapolis versus St. Paul, East Bank versus West Bank and even the Institute of Technology versus Carlson School of Management.

Sunday evening, Hillel brought an age-old debate to the Coffman Union Theater in the form of the eighth-annual Latke-Hamantach Debate.

Four University faculty members, including some from the school of social work and Germanic philology, offered 12- to 15-minute mock-scholarly arguments on the virtue of each holiday food to the packed theater.

The debate began in 1946 on a street corner at the University of Chicago and has since spread to more than 20 campuses nationwide, said Anatoly Liberman, a professor of Germanic philology and supporter of the latke.

The University sponsored a debate once, during the 1960s, and instituted the event annually starting in 1999, said Rabbi Sharon Stiefel of Hillel.

“I had come from a university that hosted one, and (then-University president) Mark Yudof had been a moderator at one in Austin (Texas),” she said. “We thought it would be great to try here.”

The 2006 debate pitted University faculty members MJ Gilbert and Ari Hoptman for the hamantach against Liberman and Jonathan Gewirtz for the latke.

Students and community members filled the theater for the event, which moderator and former University president Ken Keller referred to as a “food fight.”

Star Tribune restaurant critic and debate host Jeremy Iggers said the large audience shows “there is an interest in Jewish gastronomic studies.”

Iggers, with encouragement from the audience, suggested to the director of the Center for Jewish Studies that they open a Jewish delicatessen as a laboratory for a Jewish gastronomic studies program.

University student and performer Brian Palay said Hillel asked him to play at the event. This was Palay’s third year attending the debate, he said.

He and co-performer Evan Stern wrote their own parodies of lyrics, he said.

“Last meal with Latke Man, grease him and save him if you can,” they sang as the crowd arrived for the occasion.

The debate is basically the same format, said Palay, who is a hamantach supporter, but “they add new ingredients every year.”

Overall, the latke, a potato pancake eaten on Hanukkah, triumphed over the hamantach, a triangular fruit- or poppy seed-filled pastry.

The four presenters were encouraged to bring their field of expertise into the debate, resulting in arguments based in social work, psychology and philology, which is related to linguistics.

Liberman argued that the latke is the embodiment of diversity, and therefore the sole reason anyone would come to college.

“It’s a circus,” he said, referring to the debate, “and whatever you do to make the circus merry is fine.”

On the other side, Hoptman, a former student of Liberman, argued the hamantach is the only Jewish holiday food to bring true joy to its eater.

In the simplest terms possible, Hoptman ended his argument by noting that the hamantach “is a cookie.”

Gilbert said falling so near to the time of Purim, a holiday celebrating Jewish people being saved from extermination in Persia, “everything deserves to be mocked. We all spend too much time taking ourselves way too seriously.”