Latke-hamantaschen debate in Berkeley ends with a stunning verdict

It was a fierce debate that a panel of seven solicitors and two judges approached with great zeal. 

Judges Kenneth Bamberger (in wig) and Naomi Seidman (wearing hat) photo/abra cohen

“I hope you are ready for the seriousness of tonight,” one of the judges said to a few dozen onlookers. “This has been bothering me for some time.”

The highly legal question at hand: Which is better, hamantaschen or latkes?

Seven of the best legal minds that a longtime diet of matzah balls, gefilte fish and kugel can produce argued their cases in “The Great Latke vs. Hamentash Debate,” held March 12 in the Graduate Theological Union Library in Berkeley.

The lighthearted debate, which traces its roots to 1946 at the University of Chicago, was presented by the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the GTU and the Center for Jewish Studies at U.C. Berkeley.

“This debate took things to a whole new level,” said Kenneth Bamberger, one of two presiding judges and a law professor at U.C. Berkeley. “The profundity and depth of the arguments on both sides was mind-blowing, and the advocates really engaged with the deepest questions of culture, religion and history in the Jewish space.”

They also showed great proficiency in scarfing down free samples. Two relatively small plates of latkes never stood a chance (fortunately, several varieties of hamantaschen were in greater supply).

The scholars spent the evening arguing their case for one Jewish treat or the other. Naomi Seidman, the director of the GTU’s Center for Jewish Studies, joined Bamberger on the “bench” as the other judge.

Arguing on behalf of the latke were Jill Stoner, chair of U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies, and Jason Wittenberg, a U.C. Berkeley political science professor. Ronald Hassner, also a poli-sci professor at Cal, argued on behalf of hamantaschen.

Four others counselors — including noted Talmud scholar Zvi Septimus from the University of Toronto — served more like expert witnesses, presenting information on what Jewish texts and commentaries had to say about greasy globs of fried potato and three-cornered pastries stuffed with various types of goo.

Testimony lasted more than an hour, and it ranged from biblical texts to the superior qualities of each dish. Even the hiss of the oil in the frying pan was introduced as an argument.

One lawyer arguing on behalf of the latke stated for the record: “It offers common ground between Jews and non-Jews.”

“I thought it was amazing, brilliant and fun,” said Rabbi Mimi Weisel of Berkeley.

Bamberger wore an English barrister’s wig, with a kippah atop that. But it wasn’t all fun and games. He pointed out that having an even number of judges (two) was in violation of both Jewish and American law. But, he added, he believed fairness and integrity would win out in the end.

Did it?

After hearing arguments from both sides, Bamberger and Seidman rendered a verdict that, frankly, left many in attendance baffled. They ruled in favor of organic kale — calling it the new minhag (Jewish tradition).

“We are in the land of heart-healthy eating,” Bamberger read from the decision. “We in Berkeley have declared our independence from old inherited ways of thinking and customs that have been imposed on us in the past.”

As shock went around the courtroom, Bamberger slammed his gavel on the table and declared that the court had spoken.