Purim, After a Fashion


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.

An Unexpected Kindness

Passover may be nearly upon us, but I must tell a story about the wonderful gift I received for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which we celebrated last month.

Don’t feel badly if you’re unfamiliar with Purim. It is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that falls in the late winter or early spring in the lunar calendar month of Adar. Purim is the day we commemorate the historical events described in the Biblical Book of Esther. Specifically, we celebrate the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation by the decree of Haman during the reign of King Xerxes I of Persia in the 5th century B.C.

There are many customs and traditions associated with Purim, including the public reading of the Book of Esther, making charitable donations to the poor and exchanging mishloakh manot (gifts of food) among friends and neighbors.

Although Purim is traditionally a festive and merry holiday, this year, the week of Purim was not a happy occasion at all for me. For it was then that my wife’s grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, met her final decline and passed away. Grandma’s funeral was a very difficult time for all of us.

My elderly parents were unable to make the trip north to Olivehurst, but I spoke with them on the phone several times. When they related how they had attended synagogue on Purim, exchanged gifts of food and tasted the traditional hamantaschen, I felt a pang of yearning for days gone by. The closest synagogue to our remote desert community is one hundred miles away. Some years we drive out to Phoenix to attend a Purim service, but not this time.

I particularly missed the hamanthaschen.

Hamantaschen (literally “Haman’s hats” in Yiddish) are three-cornered pastries (generally made from cookie dough, although I’ve seen them in a flaky, Danish style as well) in which the center is filled with jam. The jam flavors vary (prune, apricot and raspberry are popular), but the traditional filling is preserves made from sweetened poppy seeds (which we called by its Yiddish name, mohn, when I was a kid).

In the suburbs of New York City, I remember how all of the local bakeries displayed hamantaschen in a variety of flavors for many weeks. My mouth watered. I could just taste them! If only I could get some now, I lamented.

The day after the funeral, we made the eleven-hour drive south to our home and my job in the desert.

I cannot describe my shock when, on my first day back at work, I walked into the break room and found, sitting prettily on our table, a plastic tub filled with hamantaschen. The Lord answers prayer!

How was this possible? I was sure that no one at work had ever heard of hamantashen, much less tasted one. I waited not a moment to indulge in the pastry treat I had been longing for. It was just as good as I remembered.

Of course, I had to find out whom to thank. Upon making inquiries, I learned that a retired employee, one whom I had met only two or three times, had stopped by and brought the treats while I was away.

I obtained the retiree’s phone number and texted her to express my appreciation for fulfilling my Purim wish. She texted back that it wasn’t she who brought them.

I made further inquiries. My coworkers insisted that yes, she was definitely the generous party, but perhaps she had forgottten. I texted her again. It turned out that she had visited twice and had indeed forgotten that she had brought the pastries on her first visit. She told me that she picked them up at Costco during a shopping trip to the Coachella Valley.

“I almost bought biscotti instead!” she exclaimed. She had no idea that the pastries she had purchased were called hamantacshen, nor that they are traditional for the holiday of Purim. I don’t think she had ever even heard of Purim.

And as amazed as I was to receive the very thing I had wished for, she was just as surprised to learn what her gift meant to me and how she had performed an unexpected kindness.