Death of Ruth Fredman Cernea, cultural anthropologist of Jews in Myanmar and Washington, DC
Among the many interests of Ruth Fredman Cernea was an argument over 60 years ago in Chicago between a rabbi, an anthropologist, and a historian over which was the better dessert: the latkes served at the Passover Seder or the hamantashen of Purim. Unable to come to a definitive conclusion, the three took their discussion to the academics of the University of Chicago. The result is the annual Great Latke Hamantash Debate, a scholarly presentation of papers positing the virtues of each dish, collected by Cernea in her 2006 book The Great Latke Hamantash Debate.
Dr. Cernea noted the conditions of the debate were that “ all participants must hold a PhD or equivalent degree; arguments be framed according to the theoretical position and jargon of the participant’s academic discipline; and each symposium must include someone who is not Jewish—in order to lend a note of ‘gentility.’”
This was the most lighthearted activity of Cernea’s distinguished career. She received her bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1956 and her doctorate in cultural anthropology in 1982 from Temple University. In 1982, she published Cosmopolitans at Home: The Sephardic Jews of Washington, D.C., the product of five years of research among Jewish immigrants from North Africa living in Washington. From 1982 to 1996, she served as director of research and publications for the Hillel Foundation and edited several annual editions of the Hillel Guide to Jewish Life on Campus. She lectured at a number of universities and institutions and was a former president of the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists.
On her second honeymoon in 1987, Cernea discovered a little-known Jewish community in Myanmar (Burma) and the country's only synagogue, the historic Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). This discovery led to a lifelong interest in the Jewish communities of the former British colonies of South and Southeast Asia. Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma, published in 2007 was the result of more than 20 years of research.
Dr. Cernea dedicated her scholarly career to the study and interpretation of Jewish culture and symbols, including The Passover Seder, an anthropological analysis of the Passover holiday and ritual published in 1992.
The Great Debate continues to this day, drawing more than a thousand spectators every year to hear renowned scholars, university presidents and Nobel laureates offer exquisitely ridiculous arguments in favor of their favorite kosher holiday cuisine.
"Jews have always been able to use humor to lighten the load," Dr. Cernea told the Chicago Tribune in 2005. "Jewish humor is not silly, but it is absurd absurdity. It is the opposite of deep seriousness. In Jewish thought absurdity and humor is particularly an antidote to seriousness. . . . It could only happen at a place that is deeply serious."
Sources: “The Great Hamantash Debate,” Project Muse; “Ruth Fredman Cernea, 74, Dies; Anthropologist Wrote About Jewish Culture,” Washington Post, April 7, 2009; “March 31,” This Day in Jewish History.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Death of Ruth Fredman Cernea, cultural anthropologist of Jews in Myanmar and Washington, DC." (Viewed on August 11, 2020) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/mar/31/2009/this-week-in-history-death-of-ruth-fredman-cernea-cultural-anthropologist-of>.