This week, we will be celebrating Purim, the Jewish Feast of Lots. Over the years, I have discovered that most people outside of the Jewish community have never heard of it.
The name of the holiday is from the Hebrew word pur, which refers to the casting of lots. The story goes that this is what Persia’s wicked prime minister Haman did to determine the day on which all the Jews in the kingdom would be killed. Our people were saved thanks to the bravery of Persia’s new queen and her uncle, Mordecai, events that are enshrined in the biblical Book of Esther.
Today, Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in synagogue, with all those in attendance banging on noisemakers and tooting horns every time the evil Haman is mentioned, in an attempt to blot out his name. Often, kids dress up in costumes interpreting one of the characters in the story. In some places, a Purim schpiel or play is put on, often filled with satirical songs using modern pop tunes with lyrics changed to refer to the story of Esther and Mordecai.
My favorite thing about Purim has always been hamenthaschen, the little jam-filled pastries that we traditionally eat. The word hamentacshen is Yiddish for “Haman’s hat.” It is said that Haman wore a three-cornered hat, mimicked by the triangle shaped pastry dough. The most traditional filling is preserves made of poppy seeds, known as mohn. It’s a rather strange taste, and much more popular are jam fillings of apricot, raspberry, prune, apples or cherries. Back in New York, our local bakery used to make two kinds of hamentaschen dough. One was soft and flaky, like a Danish or croissant, while the other (my favorite) was a hard cookie dough. Alas, this year I shall enjoy hamantaschen in the same manner as I did last year — in memory only. There are plenty of recipes for vegan hamantaschen around (like this one or this one), but if you don’t bake and there aren’t any available to buy because you live in rural northern California, you’re plum (or prune) out of luck.
Heck, there’s not even a synagogue close enough for me to go hear the Megillah being read. But come Wednesday evening, you can be sure that I will be reading the Book of Esther aloud at home. I’m not sure what I’ll use for a noisemaker when I come to Haman’s name and I may have to substitute Speculoos from Trader Joe’s for hamantaschen, but at least I will be able to mark the occasion in some fashion and fondly recall childhood days of gawking at the enormous mounds of Purim pastries in the display case of Pakula’s Bakery.