I am unashamedly a hamantaschen person. Admitting this, however, often provokes strange looks and cries of “why?!” from my latke-favoring peers. It is this divide between the haman-taschen and the latke that inspired the annual Latke-Hamantaschen Debate, planned and hosted by the Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA), on Wednesday night in Baxter Hall.
Latkes, eaten during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, are pancakes made traditionally from potatoes (as well as, often, sweet potatoes, carrots or zucchinis) and then fried in oil and enjoyed with applesauce or sour cream. Hamantaschen are eaten during the Jewish holiday of Purim and are triangular pastries filled with a variety of fillings that ranges, from the traditional poppy seed or jam to nutella or peanut butter. Many people have a strong preference towards one of the two foods, a fact that can cause some strife among even the closest of friends.
The debate, which was first held at the University of Chicago in 1946, aims to resolve this dilemma. Its original premise was simple, and it remains the same today; professors debate which holiday food is better, drawing arguments from their various specialty areas. The debate has been at the College since 1998 when Professor of Chemistry Lawrence Kaplan brought it to Williamstown and served as Master of Ceremonies. “Essentially not much has changed. [The debate is] still a fun filled time for some silliness with the erudite Williams professors, some of whom had never heard of a latke or hamantash before, being asked to participate [and] to show the students another side of their personalities,” he said.
When Jewish Chaplain of the College Cantor Robert Scherr first started in 2004, “[WCJA] used to hold the debate at the [Jewish Religious Center], but [we] decided that we wanted it to be available to a wider audience. After Paresky was built, Baxter Hall seemed to be a natural location,” he said. While the original debate at the University of Chicago started off as a Hanukkah event, it is held at the College around the time of Purim, which begins this year on the evening of March 23.
It’s no wonder WCJA wanted the debate to be available to more people; participating professors become enthusiastically involved. “Professors are pretty eager to donate time, imagination and humor to an event, always willing to combine their serious fields of study with absolutely ridiculous connections,” Scherr said. Whereas the debate first started with three professors debating for each side, today there are only two. However, there is no shortage of creativity from the College’s professors. “Science professors have conducted on-stage demonstrations of the chemical properties of either food; literature and history professors have invented wild tales of either the latke or hamantash underlying famous plot lines and character behaviors. And, not surprisingly, [Director of the Williams Outing Club] Scott Lewis has stood on his head for the latke!” Scherr said.
Starting in January every year, WCJA starts planning the event and deciding which professors to ask to participate. The group does not have a formula for choosing whom to ask, but it considers whether or not contenders have previously debated and attempts to make a panel that is balanced between the sciences, arts and humanities. This year, Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of Leadership Studies Program Justin Crowe and Professor of Art Elizabeth McGowan debated for the hamantaschen, and Thomas T. Read Professor of Mathematics Colin Adams and Assistant Professor of Physics Charlie Doret debated for the latke. Each professor truly brought his or her own perspective to the debate; Adams brought out the dividing ability of the latke, McGowan explained the influence of the hamantaschen on classic architecture, Crowe revealed court cases involving sketchy latkes and Doret used the concept of numerical constants to change the name hamantaschen to be 4pi^2amnaste (pronounced “four-pie-squared-I’m-nasty”).
“Every year is a little different, according to the imaginations of professors taking part. I find it intriguing that many professors who often have a quiet and serious demeanor are able to adopt an entirely different persona on stage and bring truly original humor to delight us,” Scherr said. “Everyone admits to falling behind in [his or her] academic work [and] having to devote way too much time preparing for this event.”
The crowd’s cheers determine the winner of the event. This year, both sides made compelling arguments, but ultimately the latke side won out. Whether you’re team latke or hamantaschen, the debate reminded us that there is room for both in the College community.