As sure as Haman will again try to murder all the Jews (‘tho they were not to blame, sir), another Purim means another tongue-in-cheek debate over whether hamantashen, the holiday’s signature treat, are better than latkes, the Chanukah mainstay.
Four battled it out for and against the delicacies during the Max Ticktin Memorial Latke-Hamantashen Debate at Adas Israel Congregation on Feb. 21. Ticktin, a longtime Washington resident who died in 2016, brought the debate from the University of Chicago where it originated and where he was Hillel director. The Jewish Study Center, founded by Ticktin, sponsored the debate.
Here are excerpts:
Jason Samenow: “Latkes like it hot.”
Capital Weather Gang meteorologist Jason Samenow used science to argue for the superiority of the potato pancake. He said its round shape and moist nature make it less vulnerable than the hamantash to heat damage from the sun.
The crispy, fried strands of potatoes, he said, provide protection to the latke’s soft inner core, but the triangularly shaped hamantashen are an endangered species. Samenow nicknamed the potato pancakes “hotkes” and used the derogatory term “snowmantashen” to refer to the pastries. During his PowerPoint presentation, he showed that despite a few recent blizzards, there are far more hot weather events than snowstorms.
“The science is settled here. In a warming world, we see more hotkes,” he said.
As Samenow concluded his PowerPoint presentation, he showed a slide titled “hotke denier-in-chief,” that contained a number of President Donald Trump’s tweets denying climate change. Samenow declared it was “flake news.”
Bob Rovinsky: “Fear the latkes. Trust the hamantashen.”
Fear of flying is akin to reciting the Unetanah Tokef prayer during the High Holidays, said Bob Rovinsky, a former Federal Aviation Employee. The crowd of strangers packed tightly together is unsure of who will live and who will die during the flight, even though odds are that they will all live. To ease anxiety, a passenger needs something to do. And how do Jews pass the time? They eat.
Hamantashen, Rovinsky said, are more suited for air travel because they are small and compact in nature. One can nibble a hamantash for an hour, and then eat the crumbs. Six hamantashen are enough to last an international flight. Latkes, on the other hand, were meant to be eaten quickly and are “instruments of terror.”
“Has anyone tried to just nibble a latke? Who has taken more than one second to eat a latke?” he said.
Bonnie Benwick: “Triangles are the architecture of our very existence.”
Although Bonnie Benwick, The Washington Post’s deputy food editor, called herself an “equal opportunity food enthusiast,” she argued that latkes historically have been more popular during the annual debate, and so she had to pick the underdog.
She noted that triangular shapes are a common part of American history. Tri-corner hats were popular the 1700s due to their stability, she said. And Washington’s Federal Triangle is an example of how the shape has manifested itself in architectural design, she said. Hamantashen, she said, possess tensile strength due to their three-cornered, folded design.
“You can bite into any side or corner, and it won’t crumble in,” she said.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia: “The Sephardim fight back with food.”
Hamantashen, according to Rabbi Haim Ovadia, of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, were invented by Sephardic Jews more than 500 years ago in response to forced conversions to Christianity in Spain and Portugal. During those dark times, Ovadia said, a few philosophers had an idea — use pastries as a way to secretly preserve Judaism.
The Sephardim were not allowed to observe Shabbat and were constantly being spied on, Ovadia said. But by baking the three-cornered pastries in their homes, the Jews could have a secret means to preserve their heritage. To disguise their operation, these secret Jews gave the pastries a German-sounding word in order to avoid being discovered.
“Being an impoverished clan, we don’t have much we can do to fight all of this cultural overtaking, except for the thing that we know how to do best, and that’s food,” he said.
Debate moderator Ron Kampeas, JTA’s Washington bureau chief, took a voice vote from the audience to determine which holiday food had won the debate. One cheer was decidedly louder than the other.
“The latkes have it,” he declared.