(Photo courtesy Gado Images).
Today is the Jewish holiday of Purim, and that means one thing: Hamantaschen cookies. For those who aren’t familiar, Hamantaschen are three-sided cookies, often filled with strawberry, fig or apricot jelly. You may have seen them appear in supermarkets, bakeries or Jewish delis around the Spring. Hamantaschen are the iconic cookie of the Purim holiday, and are a food that American Jews love (or love to hate).
The cookies originate with the story of Purim, with is told in the Book of Esther, part of the Jewish bible. The story takes place in ancient Persia, around 400 BC. The full version is complex, but here’s the basic gist. King Ahasuerus led Persia, but was a bit of a buffoon. After he had his wife Vashti executed, he searched for a new wife, and ended up marrying a beautiful woman named Esther (partially through the work of Ether’s cousin, Mordechai). Esther was Jewish, but the king didn’t know this.
Not wanting to deal with the actual work of ruling a nation, the king brought onboard a vain anti-Semite named named Haman as his prime minster. Haman ordered everyone in the kingdom to bow down to him whenever he passed. When Persia’s Jewish residents refused, Haman convinced the king to have them all killed.
Risking death herself, Esther revealed her Jewishness to the king, and convinced him to spare her people. He listened. Instead of executing all the Jews, King Ahasuerus executed Haman. The Jewish people of Persia where saved.
Today, many Jews celebrate Purim as a joyous, raucous occasion. We dress up in costumes, throw parties and hold carnivals (at least in pre-Covid times), and put on a “spiel” reenacting the story of Esther’s bravery. It’s been called the “Jewish Halloween”, and Purim is often a holiday catering to young kids.
For adults, there’s often a fair amount of drinking involved, too. In fact, getting drunk on Purim is considered a mitzvah. According to Toriavey, “the requirement in the Talmud [a Jewish sacred text] goes so far as to instruct that one should get so drunk that they can’t tell the difference between the phrases Arur Haman (“cursed is Haman”) and Baruch Mordechai (“blessed is Mordecai”)”.
What does all this have to do with cookies? Another big part of Purim is throwing as much hate as possible on Haman, as revenge for his plot to murder our people. Any time someone says the name “Haman” on Purim, Jews shout “Boo!” and spin groggers (small noisemakers) to drown out his name. Haman is kind of like the Jewish Voldemort. As you can imagine, all this spinning and booing makes Purim spiels very boisterous affairs, since Haman’s name comes up quite often as the Purim story is acted out.
On Purim, we also eat Hamantaschen — lots and lots of Hamantaschen. Why? The cookies are said to represent either Haman’s three-cornered hat, or his ear, which was cut off as a final punishment before he was hanged at the gallows by King Ahasuerus. So appetizing! Other interpretations hold that they represent Haman’s pockets, since he apparently offered the king a cash bribe to let him murder the Jewish people (the cookies’ name means “Haman’s pockets”). There’s even a NSFW feminist interpretation of the cookies.
Either way, the cookies exist for one purpose — to enact revenge on Haman. Some Jews enjoy eating them. Some find them dry and inedible. Recipes abound, and if you don’t want to make the cookies yourself, you can buy them in any Jewish bakery around Purim.
I’ve always enjoyed the Purim holiday. Judaism has a sadly-large number of holidays commemorating instances where various parties tried to destroy the Jewish people and failed. Yom HaShoah (which honors victims of the Hollocaust) is rightly somber and mournful. Passover, which commemorates the Jews’ freedom from bondage in Egypt, is foundational and probably my favorite holiday. But Purim is boisterous, fun, and celebratory — a different vibe entirely.
Even if you’re not Jewish yourself, stop by a bakery (or put those pandemic baking skills to good use) and give Hamantaschen a try.
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