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RUTH FREDMAN CERNEA, 74

Ruth Fredman Cernea, 74, Dies; Anthropologist Wrote About Jewish Culture

Ruth Fredman Cernea wrote a number of books about the traditions and culture of Judaism, including the Passover seder, Sephardic Jews in Washington and a mock debate on the merits of Jewish holiday food.
Ruth Fredman Cernea wrote a number of books about the traditions and culture of Judaism, including the Passover seder, Sephardic Jews in Washington and a mock debate on the merits of Jewish holiday food. (Family Photo)
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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ruth Fredman Cernea, 74, a cultural anthropologist who wrote on topics that included the Jews of Myanmar and the annual mock debate at the University of Chicago on the respective merits of Jewish holiday foods such as latkes and hamantaschen, died March 31 of pancreatic cancer at her son's home in Coral Gables, Fla. She was a Bethesda resident.

Dr. Cernea dedicated her scholarly career to the study and interpretation of Jewish culture and symbols. Her books included "The Passover Seder" (1992), an anthropological analysis of the Passover holiday and ritual; and "Cosmopolitans at Home: The Sephardic Jews of Washington, D.C." (1982), the product of five years of research among Jewish immigrants from North Africa living in Washington.

"The Great Latke Hamantash Debate" (2006) is a collection of "scholarly" presentations on behalf of the latke, the potato pancake traditionally served during Hanukkah, and the hamantasch, the triangular filled sweet pastry associated with Purim.

The annual event grew out of a street corner debate one night shortly after World War II involving a rabbi, an anthropologist and a historian in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Unable to reach agreement, the rabbi suggested opening the question to eminences of the nearby University of Chicago.

The mock debate continues, 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."

Dr. Cernea was on her second honeymoon in 1987 when she discovered a little-known Jewish community in Myanmar (Burma) and the country's only synagogue, the historic Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Her discovery spurred an enduring interest in the Jewish communities of the former British colonies of South and Southeast Asia. More than 20 years of research went into her book "Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma" (2007).

She was born Ruth Gruber in Philadelphia and received a bachelor's degree in English literature in 1956 and a doctorate in cultural anthropology in 1982, both from Temple University. She moved to Montgomery County in 1977. 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.

She was a former president of the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists.

Dr. Cernea's marriage to Irwin Jay Fredman ended in divorce.

Survivors include her husband of 22 years, Michael M. Cernea of Bethesda; three children from her first marriage, Jonathan Fredman of the District, Andrew Fredman of Coral Gables and Lauren Huot of Jakarta; two stepchildren, Andrei Cernea of Bethesda and Dana Cernea of Englewood, N.J.; a sister; a brother; and 11 grandchildren.


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