Celebrate Purim with hamentaschen

Purim is coming! This is one of the most festive days of the Jewish calendar, even though it’s not a “holy” day mentioned in the Torah, like Rosh Hashanah or Passover. If you want to know what Purim is all about, read the Book of Esther in the Bible (a post-Torah piece of writing). It’s a wonderful story, with a hero (Mordechai), a heroine (Esther), a villain (Haman) and a fool (King Ahasuerus). It has drama, tension, irony, even humor. At the end, after the Jews of Persia are saved from the dastardly plot to annihilate them, we read, “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them, so as it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to their writing, and according to their appointed time every year; and that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed.”

Drown out his name!

Jews all over the world will hear the Book of Esther chanted on Purim, which starts at sundown on Saturday, March 15. Whenever the name of Haman is read, they’ll try to drown it out, using noisemakers called greggers, stamping their feet or just yelling “Boooo!”

Understandably enough, children – who often dress in costumes for the event – love this holiday, so the service where the Book of Esther is read can be rather chaotic. To control things a bit, my synagogue has a big traffic light on the bimah at the front of the sanctuary. Whenever Haman’s name is read it turns green and pandemonium breaks out. When it’s time to stop the noise, the light turns red and things settle down so we can hear the reader again.

Israelis celebrate by taking to the streets for parades, musical performances and general carousing. It’s known as ad lo yada – meaning “until he didn’t know.” The idea is that adults are supposed to get so drunk that they can’t distinguish between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.”  In many communities, they take this commandment seriously.

But eat the cookies named for him

The main food associated with Purim is hamentaschen,  fruit-filled cookies. Their three-cornered shape is supposed to represent Haman’s hat, though the word actually means “Haman’s pockets” in Yiddish. A sensible explanation (thanks, Wikipedia!) is that the word came from German-Yiddish “mohn taschen,” meaning poppyseed-filled pockets.

How odd that the one food associated with the holiday bears the name of the man who was so evil we can’t stand to hear his name!

In Israel, the confection is called “oznei Haman” – Haman’s ears. This doesn’t make any more sense than “Haman’s pockets.”

A family recipe

My mother wasn’t much of a cook, but she baked  hamentaschen every year. She got the recipe from our neighbor in Northeast Philadelphia, Ida Silver. In 2007, I read a Hadassah magazine article by one Judith Davis about her mother’s hamentaschen, and I realized Judith Davis was the married name of Judy Silver,  Ida’s oldest child, a few years older than me. But the recipe in the magazine was not my mother’s recipe!

I hadn’t seen Judy in at least 40 years but I tracked her down – she worked at the University of Massaschusetts – and emailed her. In her response she admitted that the recipe in the magazine was not her mother’s, which she either never had or lost.

“I must have had a copy at some time, though I have no memory of it,” she wrote. “I love the idea of your mother having used her recipe (it means my mother must have shared some of them with her), and I love that it is being handed down to the next generation.”

Indeed it is! My children always enjoyed my hamentaschen – at some point, each of them served as my baking assistant. Now they are making the same recipe. And in all humility, I must say that I know only one friend whose hamentaschen are as good as these. The cookies are tender, and the honey and lemon give them a nice flavor.

Make a lot!

I usually double the recipe and many years have made several double batches. Now that we are empty nesters and retired (with no office colleagues to share goodies with), I will probably go back to making a single batch. I don’t use a board to roll out the dough. I do what my mother did: cover the kitchen table with an old sheet, work some flour into it and use that as my workspace.

Use Solo brand pastry filling or similar; regular canned pie filling is too runny and will make the hamentaschen soggy. Prune and poppyseed are the most traditional fillings, but children tend to prefer cherry or apricot.