By EVAN HAMLIN
The University of Chicago (U. of C.) Hillel hosted the 71st rendition of its Latke Hamantash debate on Monday, Nov. 6, in Mandel Hall on the U. of C. Campus. Three professors hailing from different departments utilized their expertise in their respective fields to weigh in on the time-honored tradition that started at the school in 1946.
A latke is a fried potato pancake associated with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hamantashen, on the other hand, are triangular, cookie-like pastries that usually feature a poppyseed, fruit, or chocolate filling. Hamantashen are eaten during the Jewish holiday of Purim. Their shape is inspired by the three-sided hat of the holiday story’s villain, Haman.
To kick off the event, the university’s premier (and only) Jewish a capella group, Rhythm and Jews, put on a creative and comedic performance depicting a clash of new and old at an orthodox Jewish wedding.
Following the upbeat opening, Rabbi and U. of C. Hillel Executive Director Anna Levin Rosen made opening remarks and laid the foundation for the debate. After setting the stage with background on the two holidays that inspired the treats in question, Rosen ceded the floor to Hal Weitzman, the debate’s moderator, who dove into the results from last year but revealed a surprising nuance in the voting process.
Last year, latkes blew hamantashen out of the water, running away with 93 percent of the votes in a landslide victory. But in a witty and politically relevant turn of events, Weitzman revealed that hamantashen had actually edged out latkes.
“Votes cast here tonight, strictly speaking, don’t determine the final results,” Weitzman said, demonstrating how last year’s results had actually been determined by an electoral college. Weitzman’s revelation was met with laughter in the auditorium.
Simeon Chavel took a historical approach in his defense of the latke. An Associate Professor of the Hebrew Bible, Chavel used his knowledge of ancient texts to argue that oil’s importance in the Hanukkah story reflected the times of ancient Persia, where it was also considered a commodity as valuable as wine and bread.
The bible is also anti-yeast, according to Chavel, which automatically puts hamantashen at a disadvantage.
“Dough bakes with hot air,” he said, “and no one likes people filled with hot air.”
Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing Ayelet Fishbach took the stage next in defense of the latke. Fishbach attacked the debate from a psychological angle, citing research that says humans tend to make choices based on context as opposed to an inherent preference for one option over another. Because latkes have historically dominated the debate, she argued, we will want them to win because they’re what we’re used to.
“[Latkes] are familiar, we like what we know,” said Fishbach. “If people knew what they wanted, they would not wear heels, they would not wear ties.”
Wrapping up the debate was Konstantin Umansky, Associate professor of surgery and the evening’s lone defender of the hamantash. In his impassioned defense of the historically less-popular pastry, Umansky made connections between the hamantash and the human body.
For instance, the adrenal gland is located above the kidney and produces important hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to a hamantash. Because of this, and due to a lack of an important latke-like body part, Umansky reasoned the hamantash must be superior.
In another appeal to the hamantash, Umansky noted that it sometimes features a prune filling. When prune’s positive effect on the gastrointestinal system are weighed against that of the fried latke, Umansky argued, there can be contest as to which is better for the body.
“We may never agree, that is true,” Umansky conceded in the final moments of the debate, “but let’s agree to disagree.”