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Profs Face Off on Latkes Versus Hamantaschen

By Benjamin P. Gleitzman

Last night, in the noisy 10-250 lecture hall, six respected professors gathered to continue a three-year debate of the merits and pitfalls of two Jewish delicacies: the latke, a fried potato pancake oft served with applesauce or sour cream during Hannukah, and the hamantasch, a three-sided, fruit-filled cookie traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Defending the latke were Robert J. Silbey, dean of the School of Science, Music professor Brian Robison, and Literature professor Diana Henderson. Sitting opposite of them and defending the hamantasch were Mathematics professor Daniel J. Kleitman, Physics professor Alan Guth ’68, and Mechanical Engineering Professor Alexander H. Slocum ’82.

In true debate format, each professor was given seven minutes to speak followed by a team rebuttal lasting five minutes. The moderator, Physics Professor Walter H.G. Lewin, a fervent latke supporter in the past, called the debates “Jewish culture and comedy at its very best.”

A hamantasch was flipped to determine who would debate first. Team Latke chose fruit side up and lost, giving Team Hamantasch the floor.

“Someone has good taste when his or her taste is the same as mine,” said Kleitman as he presented his opening comments for the Hamantasch team. Kleitman recalled the hamantasch’s rich history as an item “baked and given and consumed for centuries. The latke has no such claim to history.” Kleitman likened the potato, introduced to Europe in the 16th century, and by extension the latke, to the contemporaneous yet antiquated steam engine of the industrial revolution. The hamantasch, on the other hand, “is a thing of dreams. I long to eat one,” he said.

Silbey, the first speaker for the latke side, attempted to outshine last year’s claim by Lewin that latkes “have a magic power” and can generate light. Citing Google, which returns an impressive 380,000 hits on a search for “latke” and only 62,000 for “hamantaschen,” Silbey built his case on recent, albeit questionable results from the School of Science. Silbey quoted recent research suggesting that a latke diet prolongs life in mice. In the field of neuroscience, Silbey pointed out that when someone is shown a latke, the brain “lights up like a madman.” In the field of chemistry, latke molecules facilitate alkene bonding, he said. Silbey even went so far as to refute a claim in last year’s debate, saying that latkes, not hamentashen, are the dark matter thought to make up over 21 percent of the mass of the universe.

Slocum, introduced by Lewin as a man “conceived during a study break” by two then-MIT students, next took the stage to defend the hamantasch. “I don’t like to take my science from Google,” said Slocum, “I prefer to gather real data.” Invoking a mechanical engineering perspective, Slocum created a fruit pastry diagram displaying six organized hamantaschen next to a chaos of latkes. Using a band saw to illustrate symmetrical differences between the two Jewish treats, Slocum said “Latkes draw upon asymmetry and therefore they are evil.”

Slocum also proved that hamantaschen express more of an affinity for perpetual motion and are more likely to slide down an inclined plane. With audience members now chanting in support of their preferred delicacy, Henderson approached the podium to defend the latke. A world authority on Shakespeare according to Lewin, Henderson called the debate “a matter of taste, and taste means esthetic.”

“The latke is appropriate for lyric, tragic, and epic forms,” Henderson said. “There is very little poetry in the prune,” a common filling found in hamentashen. Henderson continued by citing Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, and the numerous mentions of potatoes in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

“With the potato comes the Renaissance, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, what has made this scientific institution so great.” Henderson finished with two allusions to Shakespeare, offering “Shall I die? Shall I fly? Has the latke man gone by?” and “But soft, what latke through yonder window breaks?”

Guth, last year’s winner of the Boston Globe Spring Sweep contest for the messiest office, offered a slightly disorganized summary of the history of the hamantasch and its superiority. Asserting that a hamantasch, not an apple, fell upon Newton’s head and that Benjamin Franklin flew a hamantasch, not a kite, when discovering the phenomenon of electricity, Guth suggested that hamantaschen may provide ample protection as a heat shield for NASA’s WMAP satellite.

Robison closed comments for Team Latke by presenting Mozart’s little known “Eine kleine latkemusik.”

“You can take from a latke a tiny disc sized piece and find that it creates a microlatke, something you cannot do with hamantaschen,” he pointed out.

In a recent experiment, Robison proved the property of enhanced transmission of musical sound through hamantaschen.

“I lured unsuspecting grad students to my room with promises of a lucrative UROP,” Robison admitted. Ordinary foam ear pads were replaced with two latkes or two hamantaschen, and Oreos and buttermilk pancakes served as controls. Latkes were unanimously preferred, as the hamantaschen caused “pastry crumbs and poppy seed bits to bounce around inside the subject’s ear canal.”

Following all statements, the audience was given a three-minute break. During rebuttals, Slocum conjured a spirited poetry slam in favor of the hamantaschen.

“The hamantaschen comes from a violent story, the latke represents warmth; a mother’s love. I rest my case,” said Silbey, and the debate drew to a close.

With a scientific “heads down, arms up” polling device, Lewin declared that audience members turned in a split vote, and that the debate would continue next year.