Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Education, Literature, Religion

Borscht belt with a PhD

jacket imageRuth Fredman Cernea, editor of The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate, was interviewed in the February 20 edition of the Jewish Ledger, a Connecticut weekly. In her conversation with staff writer Judie Jacobson, Cernea talks about the genesis of the University of Chicago’s famous Latke-Hamantash debates, some of its notable participants, and the meaning—or lack thereof—in its annual deliberations. From the interview in the Ledger:

Q: When and why did the debate get started?
A: It began more than 60 years ago as an inspired “lark” by three people at the University of Chicago—Professor Sol Tax, an anthropologist; Professor Louis Gottshalk, a historian, and Rabbi Maurice Pekarsky. They were worried about the intellectual and social climate at the university for the numerous Jewish faculty and students there. This was a time when it was not professionally advisable to advertise your ethnic background on campus, when being an objective scientist meant burying the “yid” inside. In fact, many of the faculty had been brought up in homes rich in Eastern European Jewish culture: they knew Yiddish, ate the traditional East European foods, and went to “cheder.” In another world they might have become Talmudists. …
The Tax-Gottshalk-Perkarsky spur-of-the-moment idea? A shmooze in the Hillel house, with faculty arguing the merits of familiar traditional foods, just before winter break. It would be a haven in the midst of the Christmas carols on campus. Sol Tax would make latkes. Faculty would let their hair down and speak the in-group vernacular of their childhood homes, Yiddish, and students would experience these forbidding figures as approachable, whole human beings.
Q:Who are some of the people who’ve participated in the Latke-Hamantash Debate?
A: It’s almost easier to list who has not! The book includes papers by two Nobel Prize winners, Milton Friedman and Leon Lederberg; three university presidents, former Chicago President Hanna Grey, former Princeton University President Harold Shapiro, and Barnard’s current President Judith Shapiro; and key people from a wide range of academic disciplines. Considering that it takes significant effort to produce an academic paper, spoof or not, it’s noteworthy that such serious scholars took the time to write and joke about their lives and their life’s work.

Our online feature for the book includes the text and audio of Ted Cohen’s “Consolations of the Latke” as well as recipes for both the immortal pancake and the equally worthy pastry. With Purim about two weeks away, there’s still time to learn to make hamantashen.