Latke vs Hamentash: A Materialist-Feminist Analysis

by
Robin Leidner
University of Pennsylvania
Department of Sociology


A note to the reader: This paper came to me from Australia via Toronto; Prof. Leidner has kindly agreed to its publication in these pages. While I have not edited the text (other than the addition of headings, and the division of some paragraphs for ease of reading on your screen), the html and all hypertextual annotations and asides were authored by me.

As Prof. Leidner informed me, while this paper was presented as a response to that of Prof. Shapiro, both are part of the annals of a venerable tradition of debate on this important issue. March, 1995 hostrov@telus.net


Introduction

In a highly provocative paper entitled "Latke vs. Hamantash: A Feminist Critique," Professor Judith Shapiro made an invaluable contribution to scholarship by bringing the insights of feminist and postmodern theory to bear on the interpretation of Jewish foodstuffs. It is surely no coincidence that shortly after the appearance of this paper, Professor Shapiro, who had been serving as provost of a provincial women's college in an obscure Philadelphia suburb, was chosen to become president of Barnard College in New York.

The usefulness of this learned, stimulating, highly original paper is hampered only by its complete wrong-headedness, a shortcoming that I will address tonight. This forum is an ideal setting for a frank reappraisal, since Professor Shapiro's departure from the vicinity allows us to focus on her faulty logic and inadequate methodology without fear of contradiction.

To summarize briefly an account that is richly nuanced (in fact, often incomprehensibly convoluted), Shapiro, an anthropologist, begins with the conjecture that the circles and triangles conventionally used to designate women and men on kinship charts are in fact iconic representations of latkes and hamentashen.

She argues, "(I)t is ultimately impossible for us to know whether, in the last analysis, the latke and hamantash should be considered as semiotic representations of the two sexes or whether the two sexes should be seen as semiotic representations of latkes and hamantashen. What is not, however, in doubt, is the association of latkes with the female principle and hamantashen with the male" (Shapiro 1990:3).

What is it that leads Shapiro to argue as a feminist that latkes, which have so clearly been part of the oppressive apparatus upholding the most retrograde patriarchal elements of Judaism, are a more appropriate symbol for women than hamentashen? I will argue that such an interpretation is possible only if analysis remains at a symbolic level which so decontextualizes the subject that there is no trace of the lived experience of the relevant social actors.

In short, I will argue that this mistaken assertion is a product of the pernicious postmodern mishigoss that has, in discipline after discipline, tempted scholars to abandon their investigations of the physical and social world in order to concentrate on a world of discourse that takes on greater importance, indeed greater reality. In the interests of defending sociology from the forces that have dessicated anthropology, history, literary criticism, cultural studies, and other pretenders to knowledge of the social world, I will argue that a clear understanding of the gendered implications of latkes and hamentashen must rest on careful empirical research.

I will demonstrate, I think definitively, that attention to culturo-linguistic-symbolic content is illuminating only in conjunction with rigorous investigation of the material conditions under which the objects of analysis are produced and consumed.

I have conducted extensive participant observation, over many years, of the production and consumption of both latkes and hamentashen. Based on my fieldwork and on in-depth interviews with non-market-oriented Jewish cooks, I will demonstrate that when one takes into account the gendered division of labor, family power dynamics, norms of sociability, and the structural conditions of participation in a late-capitalist, post-industrial economy, the hamentash is far more suitable for incorporation into the feminist vision of an egalitarian and nonoppressive future than is the latke.

The Latke

Let us turn first to the latke. The material conditions of latke production are stressed in the best-known analysis of the latke as a factor in the oppression of women, Emma Goldman's famous "blood of our foremothers" speech (with which I assume many of you are familiar). In it, she asked, "How much of the very blood of our foremothers' knuckles have we battened and fattened on every Chanukah, for surely their lifeblood is invariably an ingredient in our latkes? Could oceans of applesauce or mountains of sour cream ever fully mask the salty taste of the tears of our onion-grating sisters?" More than fifty years after Goldman's death, these questions still haunt us.

Time limits prevent me from quoting many of the moving accounts that my interviewees provided of what their Chanukahs are like. But put yourself in the position of these women (for it is of course women who produce the latkes in the great majority of households). The children are over-excited and rambunctious. Perhaps guests are expected. Much of the holiday meal has already been prepared, but the cook feels obliged to provide fresh latkes, not reheated ones.

After peeling, grating, frying batch after batch in spitting oil, the cook is exhausted and sweaty, her hair hangs in greasy clumps, her knuckles are scraped raw, her arms sting from the continual splatters of oil. When at last a heaping plate of latkes is ready, she brings it to the table, where every one is snatched up immediately. Stoically, she heads back to the stove to begin frying the next batch.

From the dining room drift peals of laughter, snatches of conversation, the splat of applesauce, and shouted inquiries about when the latkes will be ready. Excluded from the community, she spends most of the holiday meal on her feet in front of the hot stove, forcing a gay smile during her brief forays to deliver latkes. Her labor does not end with the meal, for back in the kitchen potato peels are overflowing the garbage can, numerous bowls and utensils wear a thick layer of potato mixture, now disagreeably blackened, and of course a sticky film of grease covers all exposed surfaces. Despite her best efforts, the smell, having permeated the drapes, will linger for weeks.

No doubt many of you are now thinking of the same thing: Cuisinarts. Some critics, including Professor Goldfrank of U.C. Santa Cruz, have argued that while latke production may indeed have been oppressive in Goldman's day, the food processor has so eased the work of latke preparation that at present its demands are negligible (personal communication).

It is certainly true that some of the more dangerous and painful labor involved in latke production has been reduced by technological developments, and survey research by Tsimmes and Tsurris (1993) confirms that Cuisinart ownership is a significant factor in explaining variation in the degree of resentment among latke-makers. Yet I maintain that given the physical, social, and emotional demands of peeling and frying that remain, only those who benefit from the subordination of women, or those bamboozled by a deeply-entrenched system of mystification, could argue, as does Goldfrank, that latke-production is now "a piece of cake."

In fact, the impact of the Cuisinart on women's position in Judaism has been quite limited. Following the familiar pattern of many so-called household conveniences, the Cuisinart has increased demand for latkes and generated increasingly fussy standards of latke texture without changing the power dynamics that are really at issue here. (I don't think I need even elaborate on the classism of commentators who overlook the reality that access to Cuisinarts is highly class-stratified.) Another modern development, the marketing of prepared latke mixes, has had even less effect on the overall picture. Such mixes are their own punishment, and judging from my sample they are never purchased more than once.

Content analysis of my interview data shows that a few themes dominate the cooks' accounts: physical suffering; pressure; and social isolation.

The Hamentash

The picture for hamentashen is very different. First, for many of my informants, the home has ceased to be a site of hamentash production. Such households calculate that the cost of the time, effort, and skill of family members outweighs the cost of store-bought hamentashen and the diminished quality of the product. For in the capitalist marketplace, the hamentash is reduced to a commodity like any other, and we should not be surprised that capitalist competition has led to the year-round availability of neo-hamentashen with alien fillings, their brightly-colored jams signaling their debasement to the level of the workaday Danish.

Nevertheless, many of my respondents and their families do reserve hamentash consumption for Purim, and some apparently deem mass-produced commercial hamentashen an acceptable substitute for the infinitely more delicious and not very hard to make home-baked hamentashen that can be produced with my no-yeast recipe (which is available upon request). These respondents do not view Purim as an oppressive institution, but they are relatively low in positive affect as well.

Certainly the happiest families are those where hamentash production takes place at home, usually as a collective enterprise. A special time is set aside for unhurried hamentash activity, in contrast to the high-pressure time crunch we saw in the case of latkes. In general, several family members cooperate in the production of hamentashen; even very small children enjoy taking a turn rolling out dough, plopping spoonfuls of filling onto the circles, and pressing corners to form triangles.

Some disagreeable work has been marketized, because in this case, feminist pressure led to the development of a substitute for home-made fillings that is not only acceptable, but preferable: prune butter, or Lekvar, purchased by the jar. The scene is one of mutual enjoyment as children, their faces smeared with Lekvar, help cut out circles of dough; older members of the household guide their efforts and praise their helpfulness; participants are often moved to sing; a wonderful aroma fills the home.

Everyone is permitted to sample the hamentashen as they emerge from the oven, newly-plump and warm. It is true that flour is all over everything, but clean-up is eased by the cheerful cooperation of older children and adults.

The themes that emerged most often from my interviews about hamentashen were: fun, nostalgia, and togetherness.

Conclusions

For women, it is clear that hamentashen offer far more scope for self-realization, egalitarian relations, and social progress than do latkes. The liberating potential of the hamentash is especially great because Purim provides a clear model of a feminist heroine in the megillah. I speak, of course, of Vashti, who bravely resisted patriarchal authority (here reinforced by state power) and refused to accept the powerless position of the trophy wife exhibited as an ego-boosting tchotchke at her husband's command. I don't think we need go as far as some critics do in describing Esther as a "male-identified scab" in order to acknowledge that it is Vashti whose independence, personal integrity, and brave refusal to be judged according to male standards are most worthy of celebration.

Could latkes ever be a force for the empowerment of women? My most recent field notes suggest that, given the right objective conditions, latkes could provoke in the masses of Jewish women the kind of revolutionary fervor that they triggered in Emma Goldman. It is those years when women have to start in with the latkes before they've recovered from Thanksgiving, years like this one, that have the most revolutionary potential.

In times like these, many women pierce the false consciousness that has contributed to their subordination; indeed, much of the language of the transcripts from this year's interviews is unprintable. We must start laying the groundwork now if we are to be ready the next year Chanukah falls early, ready for revolutionary change brought about by the determined unity of Jewish women and the support of enlightened men. The revolution need not abolish latkes, but must abolish the gendering of burdensome holiday labor so that it may be shared.

Goldfrank has suggested that interfaith marriage might help create a vanguard for this movement (personal communication). Are Jewish husbands of non-Jewish wives taking responsibility for their own latkes? If so, could that provoke a generalized loosening of gendered latke norms? I plan to pursue these questions in future research.

Some critics have suggested that my unflinching analysis of the material conditions of latke production could play into the hands of the virulent anti-Semitic fringe groups in Idaho, which might interpret my arguments as part of a larger Jewish conspiracy to control their state's potato-based economy. While I believe that we need not stifle debate within the Jewish community out of fear, I do take this concern seriously. I have been careful to avoid language that could be construed as tuberphobic, and trust that our community can sustain a candid and vigorous discussion that will avoid descending to ad potatum attacks.

Just as I do not reject the potato, I do not object to the inclusion of some analysis of the symbolic content of latkes and hamentashen in determining their feminist potential. Had Shapiro grounded her cultural analysis in investigation of the everyday realities of production and consumption, she surely would not have come so close to accepting an essentialist view of gender, as she appears to in speaking of a purported "association of latkes with the female principle and hamantashen with the male."

Feminist scholars have demonstrated again and again that gender categories are malleable and that variation within genders is virtually always greater than average differences between genders. The hamentash is a perfect representation of this more flexible, culturally variable, view of gender. For while the hamentash begins as a circle (which Shapiro tags female), it becomes a triangle through conscious human intervention, without ever losing its qualities of circularity.

The hamentash is an inspiring demonstration of the possibilities of overcoming essentialist dualisms: without the circle, there could be no triangle, and without the triangle, the circle would be empty. The hamentash provides a vision of human possibility that similarly integrates the strengths that have been attributed to men and women. I leave you with the hope that some day we all can achieve that blending of circle and triangle, the synthesis of smoothness and crunch, the simultaneous embodiment of openness and fullness that we find in the hamentash.

Copyright © 1994 Robin Leidner

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