Student Stories

The Great Debate

On Tuesday, November 22st, four of the University of Chicago’s finest professors from a variety of departments will gather to debate one of the most pressing and controversial issues of the past 65 years: The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate.  The question of which Jewish delicacy is superior has prompted academic arguments since the first debate held in 1946.  No side has ever been officially declared the winner, so the fight continues, as the indomitable struggle between right and wrong, good and evil, latke and hamantash inevitably must until the end of days.

This year, Dr. Richard Rosengarten from the Divinity School represents the hamantashen, a triangular cookie with a center filling ranging from prune to poppy seed.  It is traditionally consumed during the Jewish holiday of Purim.  Dr. Tobias Moskowtiz from the Booth School of Business represents both, while Dr. Malynne Sternstein from Slavic Languages and Literature and Dr. Ted Cohen from Philosophy represent the latke, a fried potato pancake often served with sour cream or apple sauce during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

Debaters have been known to use a range of skills and seemingly removed fields of knowledge in order to prove their point.  “There have been many wonderful disquisitions, including Phil Gossett's musical interpretations, Bob Geroch's proof that hamantashen violate the physical principle of the conservation of mass/energy, Geoff Stone's explanation of what is really taught in law schools, Jim Shapiro's illustrated lecture on the mating habits of hamantashen, and, of course, those in the wonderful collection edited by the late Ruth Cernea,” said Dr. Cohen. 

Although academic expertise might at first appear unconnected to gustatory matters, over the years the debate has proven that academics are always pertinent. Dr. Moskowitz, for instance, plans to apply quantitative financial tools to the question.

“I have data,” said Dr. Moskowitz. “More data and analysis than perhaps anyone in this debate, ever. I also have financial market data, which means I have the entire market's opinion of the value of Latke vs. Hamantash. You can't beat the market.”

Other debates are calling upon less traditional methods. “I got the divining rod out of my colleague Professor Herman Eutics' office,” said Dr. Rosengarten. “Professor Eutics hasn't used it in a few years, so I'm dusting it off for the occasion.”

In addition to supporting the latke, Dr. Cohen serves as the debate’s moderator.  “Many years ago, the then-director of Hillel, the late Rabbi Danny Leifer, asked me to speak, and a year or so later he asked me to take a turn as moderator,” said Cohen. “I decided that the moderator should make savage fun of the participants.  The gentle Rabbi Leifer liked that and installed me as the permanent moderator.  I carry on, even though I grow more gentle with age and find it a little harder to be savage.  But I try.”

Although the divisive nature of the debate might seem downright silly to the uninitiated, the debaters believe firmly in their cause.  “Hamantash have to be revealed for the oppressors they are,” insists Dr. Sternstein, who has personal reasons for her hatred of the cookie. “I've had primal scenes that have traumatized me concerning hamantashen,” she said. “These have scarred me for life. I think I know their dastardly powers better than most.”

The passion of the debaters and audience over a perhaps trivial subject, the eagerness to spend countless hours crafting an argument, the oddly esoteric nature of the discussion of two items of food—this is fun UChicago style.  The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate has not only lasted but grown as a tradition because it encapsulates the genuine love of knowledge and passionate argument at the core of the University.

“At Chicago we teach our students how to be rigorous, applying theory, methods, and data to tackle important and interesting questions,” said Dr. Moskowitz. “But, these characteristics can also be applied to everyday questions and problems, including this absurd Latke-Hamantash debate.  Showcasing how we use the start-of-the-art methods of our field to answer this silly question is, I think, a point worth emphasizing to our students—take the tools and way of thinking you learn at Chicago and apply it for the rest of your lives to a variety of issues.  This debate illustrates that ideal.”

Or, as Dr. Rosengarten put it: “Crescat scientia, vita excolatur: or, loosely translated, Small minds should always engage large topics.”

Check back on Tuesday to watch the debate live here.