April 3, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 14

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    Latke-Hamentash debate hits the Big Apple

    300 New Yorkers turn out for 50th-anniversary event After 50 years, the Latke-Hamentash Symposium has taken its show on the road.

    Late last month in New York, four University faculty members debated the merits of latkes (potato pancakes) versus hamentashen (triangular pastries) in a rigorous academic style worthy of the University of Chicago name.

    Edward "Rocky" Kolb, for instance, said that he carefully researched the history of the debates to learn why a conclusive answer had not been reached in the past 50 years. "What I discovered, to my utter amazement, is that this debate has been largely dominated by faculty from the social sciences and humanities. Now anyone who has been through a faculty meeting with these people knows quite well that they never settle anything, because deep down they love to argue," said Kolb, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    He suggested instead that the debate use the clear language of science. In case people might be intimidated by his use of scientific reasoning, he provided brief definitions of scientific terms. "For instance, when it says 'The hamentashen were integrated into the ambient background environment', it means 'The hamentashen were dropped on the floor,' " Kolb said during the debate. "And when it says 'The final resolution of the issue requires further data,' it means, 'The experiment didn't work, but I need the publication for a grant.' "

    The debate was presented before a crowd of 300 New Yorkers, mostly University alumni. The panelists were Kolb, Ted Cohen, Professor in Philosophy; Martha Roth, Professor in the Oriental Institute; and James Shapiro, Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.

    "Traditionally we hold the debate in November, but the New York debate timing was in some ways more appropriate, since it was two days before the start of Purim," said Rabbi Suzanne Griffel, acting director of the Newberger Hillel Center at the University, which co-sponsored the debate with the University of Chicago Club of New York. The debate is an example of the 3,550 year-old Jewish practice of mimicking teachers and spoofing rabbinical traditions.

    Griffel added that the late Rabbi Daniel Leifer, the former director of Hillel and an enthusiastic organizer of the debate, had wanted for several years to take the debate "on the road" across the country. New York was chosen for the "road show" because, although the debate is now replicated at other universities around the country, it still had not been seen in New York.

    "What surprised me," said Cohen, who was both a panelist and the moderator, "was that when we took a poll after the debate, the hamentash won 2 to 1. When we take votes at the University, they are usually very close -- but the latke almost always comes out ahead. Maybe the hamentashen at the reception were better than the latkes that evening," he mused.

    "But in general," he added, "it's clear that hamentashen are very good -- but latkes are perfect."