Here is how three generations of my family haveobserved the holiday of Purim, as seen through variations on therecipe for hamantaschen.
Strong and Sturdy I asked my father’s cousin Ritahow the family celebrated Purim when she was young.
“Celebrate?” she said. “We weren’t a ‘celebrating’people.”
It was just as I thought. Festivities are the lastthing that come to mind when I think of my grandfather. My GrandpaSam and Rita’s father, Ben, whom I met when I moved to California,were Polish immigrants. Grandpa worked hard. He supported his family.His wife died. He lived alone. He was glad to be in America, but acertain grim fatalism cloaked his joy. There’s a picture of Grandpaat my wedding. Only the light in his eyes and the faintest hint of asmile, suggest pleasure. He seemed to be on a first-name basis withHaman, though it had been years since he fled to freedom. If he hadno use for a holiday that mocked real danger, it made sense tome.
But one part of the holiday tradition survived:hamantaschen.
My grandparents’ generation ate hamantaschen madewith yeast and seemed to really feel that they were eating the hat ofthe evil Haman, who ordered the destruction of the Jews. These hugetriangles are still seen in delis and bakeries today. In those days,they came in only two colors, black and dark black: mun (poppy seed)and prune.
As a child, I found hamantaschen the dessertequivalent of cooked spinach: incomprehensible and bitter. Plus, theywere a cheat: The filling looked like chocolate from afar, but, alas,one bite told the tale.
Who would want to eat these? I wondered. But, intime, all is revealed. Earlier generations of Jewish Americans ateeither gingerbread men or Purim Fritters, a form of French toast, adainty cinnamon-coated bread, to celebrate Haman’s demise. (EgyptianJews, according to cooking authority Joan Nathan, eat ozne Haman, thedeep-fried sweets shaped like Haman’s ears.)
Such elegance was right for the Our Crowd Jews,for whom Haman was a mere allegory, nostalgic and frivolous. But mygrandparents’ generation of immigrants, fleeing pogroms and seekingfreedom, were not of a delicate appetite. They brought sturdyhamantaschen here from Eastern Europe. It fit them perfectly: toughand doughy, but easy to handle, and almost impossible tobreak.
Tasty and Sweet My parents came of age inpost-Haman America. World War II and Korea were over. Suburbia andHoola Hoops were in. Economic prosperity brought good Jewish timeswith it. Our family was on the move, from New York’s Manhattan toQueens to Long Island in less than a decade. My parents helped buildtwo synagogues in two great Jewish neighborhoods. If John Cheever hadbeen Jewish, he would have lived next door.
Times were sweet, and the hamantaschen of the erawas sweet too. The triangle hats we ate then were made of deliciousbutter cookie dough. Huge piles of them were served after thekindergarten beauty pageant or sold at the synagogue Purimcarnival.
Purim was my favorite Jewish holiday, better thanChanukah. It was a psychodrama of Jewish American anxiety:Haman/Hitler was dead. Little did I know that the children’s beautypageant was probably only a ploy to get suburban parents into thesynagogue for the megillah reading. The Purim carnival was afund-raiser copied directly from the Protestant churches nearby.Soon, the children would flee to the West Coast, to yoga and nirvanaand intermarriage. But, to me, this was authentic Judaism, happierthan the variety my grandfather practiced. I was happy here.
There was only one problem with the cookie-doughhamantaschen: the filling. My mother insisted that, like coffee, I’dget used to prune and mun. But I was already 16, and the black stuffstill wasn’t chocolate. My mother and her friends brought the cookiesto each other’s homes, usually in a pink bakery box accompanied byrugelach. As the adults sat over dessert, I picked the hamantaschendough apart with my fingers, leaving a layer of mun dripping on theplate and stains on the tablecloth. Would I never grow up?
Designer’s Delight In recent years, I havecelebrated a Feminist Purim, praising Esther and Vashti as rolemodels of female independence; a Marrano Purim, in which the holidayis read as an allegory of those Jews who are still in hiding (fromthemselves or political powers); and a Mardi Gras Purim staged as acostume party.
Not surprisingly, the hamantaschen of mygeneration reflects the creative tendencies of our time. I have madewhole-wheat hamantaschen (a disaster, worse than six-grain challah).And I keep trying to succeed at Viennese hamantaschen made of creamcheese (the dough is too soft; if you want cream cheese pastry, makerugelach). As for filling, bakeries have gotten the point: Today, youcan find cherry, apple, pineapple hamantaschen along with thetraditional prune and mun. I make mine with strawberry jam.
In three generations, so much has changed. Butstill no chocolate.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish
Journal. Her e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. Join her on Sunday, March 8, when herConversations series at the Skirball Cultural Center continues withessayist and commentator Richard Rodriguez.
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