Great Latke-Hamantash Debateby Ruth Fredman Cernea
Creation versus evolution. Nature versus nurture. Free will versus determinism. Every
November at the University of Chicago, the best minds in the world come together to consider the question that ranks with these as one of the most enduring of human history: latke or hamantash? This great latke-hamantash debate, occurring every year for the past six… See more details below
Creation versus evolution. Nature versus nurture. Free will versus determinism. Every
November at the University of Chicago, the best minds in the world come together to consider the question that ranks with these as one of the most enduring of human history: latke or hamantash? This great latke-hamantash debate, occurring every year for the past six decades, brings Nobel laureates, university presidents, and notable scholars together to debate whether the potato pancake or the triangular Purim pastry is in fact the worthier food.
What began as an informal gathering is now an institution that has been replicated on campuses nationwide. Highly absurd yet deeply serious, the annual debate is an opportunity for both ethnic celebration and academic farce. In poetry, essays, jokes, and revisionist histories, members of elite American academies attack the latke-versus-hamantash question with intellectual panache and an unerring sense of humor, if not chutzpah. The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate is the first collection of the best of these performances, from Martha Nussbaum’s paean to both foods—in the style of Hecuba’s Lament—to Nobel laureate Leon Lederman’s proclamation on the union of the celebrated dyad. The latke and the hamantash are here revealed as playing a critical role in everything from Chinese history to the Renaissance, the works of Jane Austen to constitutional law.
Eminent philosopher and humorist Ted Cohen supplies a wry foreword, while anthropologist Ruth Fredman Cernea provides a historical and social context as well as an overview of the Jewish holidays, recipes, and a glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms, making the book accessible even to the uninitiated. The University of Chicago may have split the atom in 1942, but it’s still working on the equally significant issue of the latke versus the hamantash.
"Esoteric yes, but a real hoot."
“For six decades, some of the finest Jewish minds in America have broken their wits on the ultimate question. Which is superior: the oily potato pancake we consume on Chanucah, or the triangular prune- or poppy-filled Purim pastry?”
“Lincoln-Douglas, Kennedy-Nixon, Latke-Hamantash: the great tradition of American public oratory reaches a comic peak with the annual exchanges at the University of Chicago debating the merits of greasy potato pancakes versus heavy, prune-filled triangular pastries. No funnier intellectual tradition exists than these debates; argued by scholars from Allan Bloom to Martha Nussbaum, the debates here chronicled will cause almost as much of a belly ache (from laughter) as eating latkes or hamantashen.”
“This work captures the wistful magic of a vehicle that classically symbolizes the blossoming of Jewish wit and wisdom in the intellectual cauldron of the university. The latke-hamantash debate represents how timeless Jewish ideas and ideals can find expression on campus, marrying Western thought with Jewish humor, history, and philosophy in a distinct concoction that reaches us all.”Richard M. Joel, President, Yeshiva University
“Oy! What can I tell you? You want to revel in a festival of intellectual Jewish humor, even if you’re a goy like me? Especially if you’re a goy? So why don’t you buy this book and curl up in front of a fireplace and laugh yourself sick!”Father Andrew M. Greeley
"As if we didn't have enough on our plates, here's something new to argue about. . . . To have to pick between sweet and savory, round and triangular, latke and hamantash. How to choose? . . . Thank goodness one of our great universities—Chicago, no less—is on the case. For more than 60 years, it has staged an annual latke-hamantash debate. . . . So, is this book funny? Of course it's funny, even laugh-out-loud funny. It's Mickey Katz in academic drag, Borscht Belt with a PhD."
“Every November, the University of Chicago celebrates the coming holiday season with a take-no-prisoners, academic smackdown. For an entire evening, disciplines are attached and defended, the political becomes personal and a particular issue is argued with a fervor not seen since Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe at the United Nations. . . . The issue: the relative merits of the latke and the hamantash. . . . This is a book that will make your mouth water and your sides shake. Letting down their proverbial hair, professors, Nobel Laureates and university presidents all take a turn at the podium, and the results are hilarious."
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The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2005 University of Chicago
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Chapter OneConsolations of the Latke by Ted Cohen
Listen to the audio mp3 of Cohen's lecture.
When first invited to this symposium I nearly declined, for I was not aware of how superbly qualified I am to speak on the question. Appearances to the contrary, I do not have a particularly strong Jewish background. But when the high purpose of the colloquy was explained to me, I could see that this is no trivial empirical topic, but rather that it is the categorical inquiry in which data are certainly an annoyance and probably an embarrassment. Being without any facts is an obvious qualification for successful investigation. In short, this is paradigmatically a philosophical issue. Indeed it is an a priori, transcendental question. I will dispatch it in two passes: first, from the standpoint of transcendental doctrine of taste (known vulgarly as finding the proof in the pudding), and second, from the even more sublime aspect of abstract metaphysics (known popularly as what's what, if anything). No need to delay announcing the conclusion: better to have it clearly in view from the start, for in philosophy it is often unclear from the argument itself what its conclusion is.
True philosophy leads to the latke. I shall not be showing that the latke is, in a simple sense, "better" than thehamantash. That cannot be done, for the latke and the hamantash are not commensurate. The hamantash is a very, very good thing of its kind. The latke, however, is a perfect thing. Now that I've laid the conclusion out, perhaps its transparent correctness is already evident to you. But perhaps not: it takes some practice and a little chutzpah to get these things straight; and so I will help you through the dialectical critique which leads to the celebration of the latke.
I. Doctrine of Aesthetical Taste: The Latke as Pure Nosh
A perfect object of taste, a thing than which there can be no tastier, must appeal directly. Appreciation is not perfect if in order to enjoy an object fully you must take into account of what kind of thing it is. (This profound truth was first glimpsed in the eighteenth century by Solomon Maimon, who published a sketchy account under the pseudonym "Immanuel Kant.") That is how it is with hamantashen.
What is a hamantash? A cake. Not just any cake is a hamantash. It must be made of a certain kind of dough, it must have a specific shape, and it has to be folded around one of a few specified fillings; and it and its name are associated with a long, rich tradition. Of course we all know these things, but the point is that the essential experience of a hamantash-wonderful though it is-is predicated upon this prior conception. Most modern art is like this: you must know in advance what the artist thought he was doing if you are to make sense of his art. The realization that the hamantash is a form of aestheticized, proto-post-modernist art was first achieved by the dean of American philosophers of art, Monroe Beardsley, who made the point in the classic 1954 paper: "The hamantashen of the artist are neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of the cakes" (written with Wimsatt, and widely reprinted: The Hamantashenal Fallacy).
As Beardsley saw, rigorous criticism forbids reference to these hamantashen-in-prospect. Thus it is a strict logical point that the delight in a good hamantash is not a matter of pure taste.
Not so with the latke. We all know latkes. Do not let a false empiricism persuade you that we had to learn this. It is innate in all rational fressers (gluttons): the form of the latke is indeed the form of oral intuition. The pleasure in a latke is the condition of all pleasures of taste. Think of it: a latke need have no particular shape, no required color, no conceptual preconditions (potato is best, of course, but even this is not of essence). The latke is the emblem of taste and art itself. And so: there can be no taste where there is not taste for latkes (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the end).
II. Metaphysics of Being: The Latke as Substance
Here we are concerned with the proposition that not only do latkes exist, but that they must exist, that there could not not be latkes. Our problem here is not with the proof. The proposition is astoundingly easy to prove. The proposition, however, is impossible to say. There is no way to formulate precisely in words the necessary existence of latkes. We are grappling with an Idea of Reason, which has no adequate verbal expression. Wittgenstein once faced this problem and turned away, saying, "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber, muss man schweigen." (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the end.) Or, in strict literal rendering, "If there's nothing to say, sit down and have a knish."
We, however, must be bolder. Let us take a number of imperfect formulations as ways of getting the inexpressible proposition across by analogy and suggestion.
Latkes necessarily exist. (Classical metaphysics.)
Whatever there are, some of them are latkes. (Free metaphysics.)
In every possible world there is a latke, though perhaps not the same latke. (Modal semantics.)
Necessarily, there is an x such that x is the square root of 2, and there is another x which is a latke. (Technical modal mathematical logic.)
When you see that these are but four ways of saying the same thing you will see what unsayable proposition I am saying. Now that we have the proposition-it is necessarily true that there are latkes-we can go for a proof. With necessary truths it is customary to say that they are self-evident and let it go at that, and that would be enough here for formal correctness; but we can go a bit farther. These proofs are not likely to be more perspicuous than the self-evident proposition itself, for those with metaphysical vision, but they may help others.
Why must there be a latke? Because the latke is an absolutely and perfectly simple thing, as is revealed in the fact that the idea of a latke is a clear and distinct conception of the mind. When we have such an idea (which is rare) we know that the thing of which the idea is an idea, must exist. If there were no latkes, the idea of a latke would not be so simple.
You are reminded, no doubt, of so-called ontological arguments, especially those meant to prove the existence of a supreme being. You are right: such an argument can be given for the existence of latkes, and I will return to this logos presently. First let us consider the treatment of this necessary truth in philosophical semantical ontology: the theory of possible worlds.
In every possible world, there is a latke. How do we know this? By discovering that it is impossible to imagine a world in which there is no latke. Try it.
First, imagine a world. Put in everything you need for a world; this is to be a whole world, not a fragment.
Now add in a latke.
Now take that latke out. It cannot be done, can it?
Some slower wits may suppose that you have imagined out the latke, but this is merely a misapprehension. When you took out the latke, where did you put it? Everything must go somewhere. Wherever you put it, it's still in the world: you didn't get it out of the world, you just shuffled it around. Thus every possible world has a latke. (You will notice that metaphysics is not so hard, once you get the hang of it.)
For a final proof of this metaphysical proposition, that there must be latkes, let us inspect a more classical mode of argument. Some of the most beautifully simple metaphysical proofs have been devised by the great Christian philosophers as ontological arguments for the existence of a supreme being. It is probable that you are most familiar with the arguments given by Saint Anselm. One of them is easily adapted to prove the necessary existence of the perfection of edibility.
This argument goes fast, and so you must be on your toes. The insight needed to follow the proof is simply the fact that just because something can be said it doesn't follow that the sayer can mean and think it. Sometimes we mistakenly suppose that something is possible because we can say that it is possible. But as the exemplary contemporary philosopher Dean and Professor Stanley Bates has said, "You can say anything; but not everything you say makes any sense. For instance, you can say 'It's possible that a prime number has many divisors,' but you couldn't really think that."
It was Anselm's genius to concentrate on the question of whether one can say-and mean-that there is no supreme being. It is an obvious adaptation to ask whether it can be supposed that there is no latke. Consider, "The schlemiel has said in his heart: There are no latkes."
The schlemiel can say this, but he cannot think it, for it makes no sense. What sense is there in a nonexistent latke? How can the perfectly edible be absolutely inedible? That makes no sense.
A world without hamantashen would be a wretched world. A world without hamantashen might be unbearable. But a world without latkes is unthinkable.
* * *
"Consolations of the Latke" was delivered at the 1976 Latke-Hamantash Debate. The audio version differs somewhat from the text as it appears in The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate. Ted Cohen is currently professor in the Department of Philosophy, the Committees on Art and Design and Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, and the College, University of Chicago.
Excerpted from The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate Copyright © 2005 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Ruth Fredman Cernea is an anthropologist and the author of The Passover Seder and Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma. She is the former international director of publications and resources at the Hillel Foundations and former editor of The Hillel Guide to Jewish Life on Campus.
Ted Cohen is professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he has been moderator of the annual latke-hamantash debate for over twenty-five years.
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