Each year at the University of Chicago, a well-attended debate draws a speaker panel packed with academic firepower that has included university presidents and Nobel Prize winners. The subject of this learned discourse? The comparative merits of two lofty Jewish contributions to the culinary arts: latkes and hamantashen. An enthusiastic audience then weighs the arguments, which range from punning poetry to pseudo-history to elaborate theorems. At this year’s November debate, according to a JTA news report, the potato pancake outpolled the Purim pastry by nearly a two-to-one margin. In honor of Chanukah, we now offer our readers a sampling of landmark moments from the pro-latke side of the debate, in edited excerpts from the new book “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate.” I am going to talk about the influences of latkes, hamantashen, and Jewish cooking in general on the origins of rock ‘n’ roll music. But first we must situate the discussion in a historical context. Jewish cooking has had important influences on music, long before rock ‘n’ roll. After all, the most widely recognized baroque piece overwritten was originally entitled, “The Challeh-luyah Chorus.” More recently, in the American classical mode there was Aaron Copland’s “Bialy the Kid Suite.” And, perhaps the greatest Jewish cooking opera of all time was Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, “Borsht Godunov.”
Indeed, there is a little known story about how that opera was named that leads us into tonight’s discussion of latkes and hamantashen. You may not realize this, but Modest Mussorgsky was heavily influenced, not by his great Russian contemporary Rachmaninoff, but by that other major cultural Rach — Rachy and Bullwinkle.
In one episode, Boris and Natasha had made some exploding latkes to use against Rocky, Bullwinkle, and their colleagues. Late in this episode, we find Boris scrubbing the latke pan to try to remove all the traces of the sinister efforts. He turns to Natasha and says, “Darling, do I have to keep scrubbing this latke pan?” She turns to him, inspects the pan carefully, and finally says, “No, no, Boris, Godunov!” And that is the first, but not the last, evidence of the dominance of latkes over hamantashen in the growth of music in the twentieth century.
Let’s move now to rock ‘n’ roll. The name “rock ‘n’ roll” was coined by Alan Freed, a Jewish DJ from Cleveland. He took the name from “latke roll,” a snack given him by his mother when he went to listen to the “new music,” for which up until that time there had been no name. When, in the fifties, there was talk about this new sound being a short-lived fad (unlike say, eating goldfish, or stuffing college students into Volkswagens), Danny and the Juniors emphatically sang, “Latke rolls are here to stay; it will never die.”
Here’s a “Jeopardy” question: He was one of the most dominant figures in early rock ‘n’ roll. He married a thirteen-year-old girl; he ritually set fire to his piano at the end of his Saturday evening performances (clearly an elaboration of the havdalah service at the end of Shabbat). His greatest hit was, “Whole Latke Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Right: “Who was Jerry Lee Lewis?” And who was Jerry Lee Lewis?” It can be revealed here tonight that Jerry Lee Lewis was the son of the Jewish baking matriarch, Sara Lee Lewis.
Finally, what many consider the founding group of r ‘n’ r reflects the obvious influence of Jewish cooking in its very name. They weren’t Bill Haley and the Comets, as people have come to know them. No, their original name was — Bill Haley and the Chometz. And did they sing about hamantashen, made of flour?” No, they did not. They sang of potatoes, and onions, and shmaltz: Their most famous song, “Rock around the Clock,” was originally tided “Latke ’round the Clock.”
The Latke-Hamantash Debate in the late fifties was ultimately resolved along the traditional Marxist lines (though more Groucho than Karl).
Jewish influence in r ‘n’ r had by this time come out of the closet (or, more accurately, out of the pantry). His name was Buddy Challeh. His signature hit, “Maybe Baby,” was a crossover version of the earlier, more ethnically Jewish, tribute to his grandmother, “Maybe Bubbeh.” The appeal of Challeh went far beyond narrow religious borders. The Isley Brothers wrote a Pentecostal ecstatic paean of their approval for braided challeh when they came up with “Twist and Shout.”
I think probably the entirety of the influence of Jewish cooking on early rock ‘n’ roll (or latke roll, as we now know it) was captured by the Five Satins (originally a Jewish group from New York’s garment district). They sang a song that captured the culinary stresses of keeping kosher in an increasingly secular world. The crossover version was known as “In the Still of the Night,” but the original version went something like this:
In gefilte the night
When I held you, held you so tight
And I really kept the faith
Promised I’d never, never eat traife
In gefilte the night.
The Beach Boys clearly not only took sides in the Latke-Hamantash Debate, but also weighed in with their opinion on another major Jewish division: “Latke go surfing now, everybody’s learning how, come on a Sephardic with me.” But where are the hamantashen? The Beach Boys sang, “Blame it all on the surfer’s prune,” which many authorities (and I count myself among them) have taken as another derogatory reference to the consequences of overindulging in filled hamantashen. Then there is the Rolling Stones lament, “I can’t get no hamantashen.”
William Meadow is a professor of neonatology at the University of Chicago’s medical school.
The above essay is a JTA-edited excerpt from the book “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate,” edited by Ruth Fredman Cernea (University of Chicago Press, 2006). Excerpt copyright 2005 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.