Ruth Fredman Cernea, 1934-2009
Anthropologist Ruth Fredman Cernea, the author of many books on Jewish culture and the former international director of publications and resources at the Hillel Foundations, died last week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 74. In an obituary that ran yesterday, the Washington Post noted that
Dr. Cernea dedicated her scholarly career to the study and interpretation of Jewish culture and symbols. Her books included The Passover Seder (1992), an anthropological analysis of the Passover holiday and ritual; and Cosmopolitans at Home: The Sephardic Jews of Washington, D.C. (1982), the product of five years of research among Jewish immigrants from North Africa living in Washington.
The Great Latke Hamantash Debate (2006) is a collection of “scholarly” presentations on behalf of the latke, the potato pancake traditionally served during Hanukkah, and the hamantasch, the triangular filled sweet pastry associated with Purim.
The annual event grew out of a street corner debate one night shortly after World War II involving a rabbi, an anthropologist and a historian in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Unable to reach agreement, the rabbi suggested opening the question to eminences of the nearby University of Chicago.
The mock debate continues, drawing more than a thousand spectators every year to hear renowned scholars, university presidents and Nobel laureates offer exquisitely ridiculous arguments in favor of their favorite kosher holiday cuisine.
“Jews have always been able to use humor to lighten the load,” Dr. Cernea told the Chicago Tribune in 2005. “Jewish humor is not silly, but it is absurd absurdity. It is the opposite of deep seriousness. In Jewish thought absurdity and humor is particularly an antidote to seriousness.… It could only happen at a place that is deeply serious.”