A latke is a kind of potato pancake traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. Fried in oil, latkes commemorate the holiday miracle in which one day’s worth of oil illuminated the temple for eight days. Hamantashen are triangular wheat-flour pastries with a sweet filling which are traditionally eaten on the holiday of Purim.
A debate on their relative merits was first held in the winter of 1946 at the University of Chicago chapter house of the Hillel Foundation, sponsored by Rabbi Maurice Pekarsky. Participants in the debates have included Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur Grant Fellows. After the debate, both foodstuffs are usually served at a reception afterwards, offering debaters and listeners an opportunity to evaluate primary sources.
The flagship debate at the University of Chicago is now organized by the Lambda chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi. The debate had been moderated by University of Chicago philosophy professor Ted Cohen for over 25 years until his death in March 2014. Several long-standing customs are observed at the University of Chicago: the debaters must have gained a Ph.D. or an equivalent advanced degree, arguments are encouraged to made using the specific technical language of their discipline, participants must present themselves in academic regalia, and the debaters must include at least one non-Jewish individual.
The events have attracted commentary from a number of individuals. Aaron David Miller, who served as a peace negotiator between Israeli and Palestinian authorities, noted that the critical feature of the debate is that it is intractable, but that the event is "simply too important to abandon." In terms of the event's original purpose at the University of Chicago, Ruth Friedman Cernea comments that scholarly life discouraged exploration of Jewish traditions and did not facilitate ethnic relationships between students and faculty. "The event provided a rare opportunity for faculty to reveal their hidden Jewish souls and poke fun at the high seriousness of everyday academic life." Cernea notes more practically that examinations and term papers would cause stress in the student body and that the event served to help alleviate such tension toward the end of the fall. She also argues that the debates reflected broad ethnic changes in the United States when they were founded, and represented gradual integration.
The debaters represent a range of academic disciplines. Some of the entries are described below:
Ted Cohen concluded an analysis of how correct philosophical reasoning would lead one to the latke by explaining, "A world without hamantashen would be a wretched world. A world without hamantashen might be unbearable. But a world without latkes is unthinkable."
Hanna Gray discusses the silence of Machiavelli on the subject; noting that "The silence of a wise man is always meaningful", she comes to the conclusion that Machiavelli was Jewish, and like all wise people, for the latke.
Isaac Abella, professor of physics, asserts that "Which is Better: the Latke or the Hamantash?" is an invalid question, since it does not exhibit the necessary property of universality, is culturally biased, implies gender specificity, exhibits geographical chauvinism and appeals to special interests.
Michael Silverstein, professor in anthropology, linguistics, and psychology, argues that it is not mere coincidence that the English translation of the letters on the dreidl spells out T-U-M-S. He cites this as evidence that "God may play dice with the universe, but not with Mrs. Schmalowitz’s lukshen kugl, nor especially with her latkes and homntashen."
In the debate at MIT, Robert J. Silbey, dean of its School of Science, has cited Google, which returns 380,000 hits on a search for "latke" and only 62,000 for "hamantaschen". Silbey has also claimed that latkes, not hamentashen, are the dark matter thought to make up over 21 percent of the mass of the universe.
Criminal lawyer and Professor Alan Dershowitz, during a debate at Harvard University, accused the latke of increasing the United States' dependence on oil.
In debates concerning law, participants have quoted from the majority opinion of Justice Blackmun in the case County of Allegheny v. ACLU, which said: "It is also a custom to serve potato pancakes or other fried foods on Chanukah because the oil in which they are fried is, by tradition, a reminder of the miracle of Chanukah." The Supreme Court has given no such recognition to the hamantash.
The most recent University of Chicago debate featured Chemistry professor Aaron Dinner, who argued from a standpoint of energy efficiency, that the latke is eight times more fuel efficient than the hamantash.