Jewish foods, secular numbers highlight spirited week of debate

As a community of opinionated intellectuals in close proximity, Williamstown is no stranger to debate. The WCDU presents student fora on issues such as Iraq and euthanasia. College Council co-presidential hopefuls trade barbs over legislative issues and campaign platforms in Goodrich. Hustlers pull your car, and argue all day about who’s the best MC – Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas.

Yet the events of last week presented a unique spin on the theme of debate, as a pair of proceedings – one well-established, the other a debut deliberation – took the contrarian mindset to new, quirky, tongue-in-cheek heights. Wednesday’s annual Jewish Association Latke-Hamentaschen dispute was joined this year by Friday’s Pi Day, a creation of the math and statistics departments that offered a debate on the relative merits of the titular numeral and the number e.

A crucial part of the JRC’s yearly Purim celebration, the Latke-Hamentaschen debate has enjoyed significant popularity since its inception in 1998. The idea, originated at the University of Chicago more than fifty years ago and conducted at colleges and community centers across the nation, has seemingly captured the imagination of the faculty during its tenure at Williams, drawing combatative contributors from all disciplines and departments. Its history has shown that knowledge of the two foods is not a prerequisite for participation – a notable example would be the 1999 performance of Professor Grant Farred, whose anti-latke sentiments were based upon a general disdain for the potato and the Irish ancestry of his opponent, Professor Thomas Garrity.

Familiarity with the culinary luminaries is highly recommended, though, as both exemplify the best that Jewish cooking has to offer. For those unaware, latkes are pancakes of shredded potato, onion and other vegetables; golden and lightly crunchy on the outside, soft and tender on the inside and seasoned to perfection. Hamentaschen conceal prune filling within a triangle of dough, the shape reminiscent of the hat of the felled, Jew-hating dictator Haman, whose defeat at the hands of Esther forms the basis for Purim.

While exhibiting plenty of familiarity with the subject matter, this year’s debaters – Professors Steven Swoap and Cheryl Shanks for the latke, Professors Laurie Heatherington and Carol Ockman for hamentaschen, with Professor Darra Goldstein as the baliff – did not hesitate to venture outside the field of gastronomy to construct their arguments. Shanks wove strands of international law into a web supporting the round shape of the latke, while continuing to tout the health benefits of the potato-based foodstuff. “It is not possible to subsist on hamentaschen,” she argued, “without developing diabetes, malnutrition, lethargy and a pasty, decrepit look about the eyes.”

Hard scientific facts of both indisputable and questionable veracity were relayed by Swoap and Heatherington, whipping the sizable crowd (the highest in the last four years according to Davida Kutscher ’03, who offered the fact that the crowd consumed a whopping 37 large pizzas as evidence) into forensic evidence-related frenzy. The most influential argument, though, may have been presented by Ockman: Her equation of the three-cornered cookie with the female gender and a logical jump to the issue of gender balancing alienated Perry Kalmus ’03, the tie-breaking member of the three-judge panel who resolved the deadlock between fellow judges Josh Ain ’03 and Adam Cole ’03.

“As a sweet individual, I have always leaned toward the Hamentaschen,” Kalmus said. “[Professor Ockman’s] argument made me feel a little insecure about my manhood, and this swung me over to the latke side to defend what became the symbolism of man. I thought I compromised well, and avoided what could have become a sticky situation.”

Shanks later called Kalmus a “poor fool.”

Friday’s Pi Day captured a similar spirit of good-natured mockery in an equally appropriate yet more technical context – the number, roughly equivalent to 3.1415926, was honored on March 14 at 1:59:26 p.m.

Guests were given their choice of apple or pumpkin pie, supplied by Stop and Shop, during a New Year’s Eve-style countdown to the starting second. The revelry was furthered by the singing of “Auld Lang Pi’ne,” a semi-original creation of Jordan Rodu ’05.

Should all equations be forgot? And theorems left to die?

Should all equations be forgot? And even good ol’Pi?

For good ol’Pi, my dear, For good ol’Pi, We’ll measure the circumference yet. . .For good ol’Pi.

Professor Olga Beaver introduced Professors Colin Adams and Garrity as the participants in the debate, judged by members of the math student advisory board, and clarified that the victor of the contest would receive a “pie in the face.”

Adams pulled no punches in his defense of pi, stating bluntly that the number represented “everything good about humanity.” The number “e” on the other hand, Adams said, is a “bastard child, a rat that carries flies; it is the hand that reaches out of the sewer.” According to Adams, “e” stands for “embittered,” “extort” “extinguish,” and “evil.”

Garrity, appearing to eschew humor during his opening, refused to bow to popular opinion on the matter, comparing his opposing digit to Britney Spears while equating the lesser known e to the folksy populism of an Ani DiFranco. He further refuted Adams’ claim that pi should be held in higher regard due to its age and historical stature, illustrating their respective discoveries as to that of rocks and quarks.

Each contestant was given time for a rebuttal. Adams passed, while Garrity suggested that his colleague might be right in saying that pi is a better number, since he has “facial hair;” he is “smarter” and also a “sharper dresser.”

The judges declared Adams the winner. Hesitant about receiving his prize, he stood up to receive the “pie in the face,” only to find that the number, rather than the desert, was to be writ large across his visage. So closed the inaugural Pi Day, with, according to Aaron Magid ’04, many more to follow.