A lesson From Cyrus

Kids, young adults and ideologues of different stripes often see the world as a straight-line progression — the world gradually, but inevitably, becomes more enlightened. Martin Luther King Jr. summarized the view, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Many of us, as we get older and witness the recycling of issues and debates, are less sanguine about the course of history.

I am by nature an optimist and generally subscribe to the notion that as times change, as the benefits of tolerance and equality and liberty become obvious, more and more folks will become advocates and adherents of policies that promote those virtues.

That was what made reading a Wall Street Journal review last week so fascinating. In a museum review, Richard Holledge describes a bit of antiquity that went on display at the Smithsonian last month — the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2,600-year-old football-sized barrel of clay with cuneiform writing on it. The writing proclaimed the intention of Cyrus, the king of Persia, to allow freedom to the diverse peoples he ruled over after conquering Babylon. His realm stretched from Turkey to India.

The cylinder proclaims:

I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus — to the fury of the lord of the gods — had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk the great lord. … I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries … every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds. … I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.

Given the vastness of Cyrus’ empire, it is instructive that he decided that allowing each group to worship their own gods and to return to the lands from which they came were the best policies.

His actions inspired Jews, whom he allowed to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon, to describe him in the Book of Isaiah as “the Lord’s anointed.” Thomas Jefferson, by virtue of an ancient history of King Cyrus (Xenophon’s Cyropedia), viewed him an inspiration for the Declaration of Independence.

The Cylinder was only rediscovered in 1879, yet for over two millennia its author inspired those who sought to follow in his path.

Clearly the “arc of history” is exceptionally long — especially for the very region ruled by Cyrus, which today rejects most of the notions that prevailed over two millennia ago. When it will bend toward justice again is anyone’s guess.

The Cylinder is a reminder that history and its course are fickle, unpredictable and don’t inevitably follow a straight line upward. Progress isn’t assured, but rather is the result of leadership, determination and the willingness to protect and defend its fruits.

The Cyrus Cylinder will be coming to Los Angeles, to the Getty Villa, later this year (Oct. 2- Dec. 2). This op-ed was adapted from the blog The Wide Angle,

Timeline: A history of Iranian Jews

722 B.C.E.

After Shalmaneser V conquers the kingdom of Israel, a group of captive Jews said to be descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel is sent into exile in Persia.

605-562 B.C.E.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire,  conquers Judah and Jerusalem and sends a group of Jews into exile in the city of Isfahan in Persia. A Jewish quarter is built in the city for the Jews, which is named Judea (Yahudieh). The city of Isfahan also has been mentioned as being called Judea by some Islamic historians.

586 B.C.E.

Babylonians destroy the First Temple
in Jerusalem.

537 B.C.E.

After the overthrow of Babylon by the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, a group of captive Jews, along with the prophet Daniel, is allowed to reside in Iran and practice its religion freely. They settle in the capital city of Susa, southern Iran. The shrine of Daniel is in Susa.

521 B.C.E.

King Cyrus allows the Jewish pilgrims in Persia to return to Israel to rebuild the Second Temple. After his death, the new king of Persia, Darius the Great, orders completion of the construction of the Second Temple. 

486-465 B.C.E.

The third king of the Achaemenid Empire, Ahasuerus, comes to power. Haman and his wife, Zeresh, plot to murder all the Jews of Persia. The plan is foiled by Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia. The Jewish holiday Purim is a remembrance of this event. The tombs of Esther and her cousin Mordecai are in the city of Hamadan, Iran.

520-330 B.C.E.

After the relocation of the capital city in Persia by the Achaemenid Empire kings, the Jews of Iran start moving to new capital cities. Cities such as Shiraz and Hamadan attract many Jews.

330-323 B.C.E.

Greeks led by Alexander invade and conquer Iran. Despite the Iranian cultural conflict with Hellenism, historians agree that Alexander treated the Jews respectfully.

247 B.C.E.-224 C.E.

Brothers Arashk and Tirdat come to power. Arashk is to become the first king of the Arsacid (or Parthian) dynasty. Under the reign of Parthians, Iranian Jews live in prosperity.

135 C.E.

Religious persecution of Jews in Palestine by the Romans brings many Jewish refugees into the Parthian Empire.

226-651 C.E.

The last Parthian king is overthrown by Ardashir I, and the Sassanid dynasty is founded. For the first time in the history of Iran, Jews suffer occasional persecution.

634-1255 C.E.

Arabs invade Iran and suppress all the rebellions. Islamic rules begin to be imposed and conversion to Islam occurs gradually. Jews, along with other religious minorities — Christians and Zoroastrians —  are persecuted, and social restrictions and discriminations are imposed.

1256-1318 C.E.

Mongols capture Persia. The situation for Persian Jews becomes more dangerous when the seventh ruler of the Mongolian Empire, Ghazan Khan, converts to Islam in 1295. Jews are forced to convert to Islam.

1502-1925 C.E.

Safavid and Qajar dynasties come to power. Shia Islam is proclaimed to be the state religion. Mistreatment of Jews continues occasionally. Because of the persecution, thousands of Persian Jews immigrate to Palestine between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 19th century, Jews in the city of Mashhad are forced to convert to Islam, but many of them keep practicing Judaism in the privacy of their homes.

1925-1979 C.E.

Pahlavi dynasty comes to power. Modernization and reforms are imposed, and Jewish life starts to improve.

1979 to present

The Islamic Revolution turns the Iranian kingdom into an Islamic republic. Since the revolution, the number of Jews has decreased from 120,000 to fewer than 20,000. Iranian Jews have mostly immigrated to the United States — particularly Los Angeles — and to Israel.

Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history

Netanyahu’s gift to Obama: Tale of a Persian plot

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handed President Barack Obama a gift on Monday that spoke volumes about Israel’s tensions with Iran – an ancient Hebrew tome about a Persian plot to annihilate Jews.

It’s called the Scroll of Esther, a tale of palace intrigue featuring a Jewish beauty who charms a Persian king into foiling an evil adviser’s genocidal plans for her people some 2,500 years ago.

“Then too, they wanted to wipe us out,” Netanyahu told Obama, according to an Israeli official.

Jewish faithful gather in synagogues on Wednesday to read the parchment text, popularly known as the Megillah, on the eve of the Jewish costume holiday of Purim, a celebration of salvation and of turning the tables on one’s foes.

“And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did what they would unto them that hated them,” one of the verses says.

Netanyahu, who has called Iran’s nuclear program a threat to the Jewish state’s existence, made a point of telling reporters after his White House meeting with the president that he had given the Megillah to Obama.

The Israeli leader, in a frosty meeting with Obama last May, lectured the president on Jewish history and criticized his approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu has also invoked the lessons of the Nazi Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed, in citing the dangers he says a nuclear-armed Iran – the modern-day Persia – would pose.

Obama appealed to Netanyahu at their White House meeting to give economic sanctions time to work, amid concern that Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, could strike Iranian atomic sites.

Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Todd Eastham

Purim: Are you doing it right?

Purim is a festival renown for celebration, excessive drinking and wild, outlandish costumes; or, as Chasids in Brooklyn call it, Tuesday. It’s the story of the Jews escaping genocide in Persia, marking it as the last time the region has ever made Jews uneasy. For the uninformed, I have some facts and tips below.

*The Purim story is read from Megilat Esther, named after the heroine of the story. Esther heroically took it upon herself to eventually ask the king, her husband, not to kill all the Jews. Hey, heroism was a lot easier back in the day.

*It’s considered a mitzvah to drink to the point where you cannot tell Haman from Mordecai. “Already done,” report Reform Jews.

*Hamantaschen are a traditional pastry eaten on the holiday, and are named after the ears of the villain, which were large, pointy, and apparently, delicious.

*Another purim tradition is the booing of Haman’s name with noise-makers, finally allowing eight-year-olds to boo at least 1% as much as they would like during shul.

*Dressing in costumes is traditional for Purim. If you want to confuse everyone, go as Santa.

*Before speaking to the king, Esther had all the Jews fast for three days and nights. This is commemorated today with a one day fast because, come on guys, three days is crazy.

*In many synagogues, it’s customary to put on a Purim-Spiel or satirical sketch during th holiday. This is perfect, as few people are funnier than Jews, and fewer people are easier to make fun of.

*Haman wanted to exterminate the Jews as he was furious that Mordecai would not bow before him. Earlier drafts of the story explained he would have, but oy, his knees.

*Finally, it’s worth noting that Purim is fairly well confirmed by historical research, meaning the most historically accurate event may very well be the one your dad wears his rainbow suspenders for.

Hopefully this helps you put together a successful Purim celebration. As for me? I’ll be preparing for the raucous, drunken holiday every night this weekend. It’s only responsible.

Tunisian pizza

There’s a concept in the Persian language – ghessmat – for which no exact equivalent exists in English. It refers to a person’s unrelenting, inescapable, for better or worse but either way, it was designed and executed specifically for you, destiny.

Like when you miss your flight because the cab got a flat tire, then the plane you were supposed to be on crashes in the Atlantic Ocean. Or when you work a lifetime and hide all your money in your mattress because you don’t trust the banks, then the mattress catches fire and burns to ashes. Or, more immediately in my experience, when you resist eating at kosher dairy restaurants for 30 years because the food gives you heartburn, only to end up in a place at Pico and Bedford on a Wednesday night, eating pizza with cheese, fried egg, and tuna, and living to rave about it.

My mother has been recommending this place – 26 by Shiloh’s – for a year already. She talks about it like it’s Perino’s come back to life in Pico-Robertson, and maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but all I’ve ever seen of kosher dairy is Greek Salad (I make it better myself), humus (they sell a nonfat version at Trader Joe’s), and pizza with a thick, greasy crust and too much cheese. My mother is a very talented artist with an intensely accurate intuition – she dreamt JFK was lying with his head in a pool of blood two days before he was assassinated – but she tends to have one or two blind spots for the people she loves, her entire, very extended, very international family among them. You want to achieve sainthood in under three minutes? Be born or marry into the Merage family, and my mother will see to it that you’re fast-tracked ahead of Mother Teresa.

In this case, one of the owners, Geoffrey Ghanem, is related to her by marriage. Geoffrey is a French Jew who met his wife, Debbie, on the boardwalk in Eilat. They were both 21. He didn’t speak English; Debbie didn’t speak French. Debbie’s parents are Iranians who met and married strictly because of ghessmat: In 1972, Debbie’s mother, Shana, broke up with her fiance the morning of the wedding because she “didn’t know the guy well enough and didn’t want to get to know him anymore.” To escape the heat, she left Tehran to spend a couple of months with her sister in New York. If ever she got married, she told her sister, it was going to be after a long, long, courtship.

One snowy afternoon, an old friend of her sister’s came to visit. The friend had a brother, Ray, who had lived in Pasadena since he was 17, coming to the United States alone and with no money. He slept in a church or at the YMCA, started to work as a busboy at Manny’s Cafeteria in Pasadena; three years later, he was managing eight Denny’s restaurants, but he lost his job because one of chefs left the stove on when they locked up for the night. In the morning, the place had burned to the ground and Ray was told he should think about a career change. He went into banking. In 1972, he was engaged to the daughter of Pasadena’s chief of police when they decided they had rushed into something prematurely and broke off the engagement.

Ray and Shana met on a Sunday afternoon. On Wednesday of the following week, they went to City Hall in New York and got married.

Some 30 years later, their daughter Debbie met Geoffrey on a Wednesday afternoon in Eilat. She didn’t want to live anywhere except in Los Angeles; he had always known that he would live anywhere but Los Angeles. He proposed after a week and followed Debbie to L.A. to work in real estate; instead, he and Debbie opened two restaurants. They’re still happily married and raising 5-year-old twins and 3-year-old triplets. That, too, is ghessmat.

My mother is so fond of the twins and the triplets, she has their pictures framed and displayed all over her house. That’s very sweet, I think, but it does make her recommendation of 26 a little suspect. As far as I know, in Los Angeles you’re lucky if you get a plate with your slice of pizza; you want a tableside flambe and French and Italian tapas? Go to France and Italy. Then again, you can only withstand a force of nature for so long before you have to relent, and that’s how I finally ended up at 26 on a Wednesday night during its grand reopening, and I have to say, I was a little stunned by the elegance and beauty of the restaurant’s interior; it looks like it should be in the meat packing district of Manhattan instead of in Pico-Robertson, down the street from the kosher fish stores and Iranian grocery stores and all those other shops that could stand a few coats of paint and some major renovation.

That already makes it an anomaly. So does “sea bass with pomegranate sauce” and “baked fig with a cheese crust” and, yes, “Tunisian pizza” with fried egg and tuna. I order this last one only because I want to see what it looks like, but then the food arrives, and it’s all very good and not expensive. And then the chef comes out to talk to us about his “concept” of “Western European cuisine” with “essence of international flavor,” and “natural, seasonal, market-fresh items,” and how he was the executive chef at the Hotel du Lac in Switzerland and later at the Carlton in Cannes.

All this is great and wonderful and, for someone who has underestimated the potential of kosher dairy for so long, rather humbling, but what are the chances, I’d like to know, that two Iranian Jews would both leave fiances at the altar, meet and marry in three days against all reason and live happily ever after, have a child in Pasadena who will meet and marry a French boy in Israel after a week when neither of them even speaks the other’s language, come back with him to Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, have a set of twins and a set of triplets, and open a restaurant that serves pizza with fried egg and tuna that — I kid you not — is delicious?

Solving the riddle

Overnight, they lost their homes, their jobs, their life savings. At nine in the morning, they were well off; by noon, they were impecunious.

All the hard work and planning, the expensive education, the sacrifices, all the good fortune, the street smarts and common sense and old wisdom they had fallen upon or inherited or learned on their own — gone in a matter of hours, sucked away by the greed and immorality, the cravenness and stupidity of those in charge.

I’ve seen this movie before.

Thirty years ago this month, before Freddie Mac and Bernie Madoff and failing automakers, before Henry Paulson and Merrill Lynch and billion-dollar bailouts that don’t make a dent, tens of thousands of Iranian Jews watched helplessly as their lives unraveled through no fault of their own. It was the height of the Islamic Revolution, the climax of months of anxiety and stalemate.

In Los Angeles and New York and elsewhere in the West, families who had left Iran “for the summer,” to “wait out the troubles” and “return in time for the kids to start school in September” realized there was no going back. From far away, they watched as their homes and businesses were confiscated in Iran, as they and anyone else deemed sympathetic to the shah were fired from their jobs, tried in absentia and condemned to death.

Strangers in a strange land, they had no bank accounts, no credit, no knowledge of the workings of Western commercial systems. One minute they were successful professionals and artists and entrepreneurs; the next minute they were being yelled at by impatient clerks at discount stores, where no one cares who you once were — either learn English or go home.

And yet they endured. Most even triumphed.

I’ve wondered about this for 30 years, and more so in the last few months: How, I’ve asked myself, did our parents do it? How did they suffer so much loss with such grace, find their footing in a foreign land, start over and build again, often better than the first time?

Women in their 20s and 30s, with young children and no income, a husband stranded back in Iran; elderly men who spoke not a word of English, who had survived the ghetto and the poverty of old Iran, thrived under the shah only to see it all disappear; middle-aged couples with elderly parents and teenage sons and daughters — three generations of loss and alienation under one roof.

Where did my parents find the strength, the faith that sustained their own optimism and made the success of my generation possible?

Ironically, it was the economic meltdown of 2008 that helped me solve the riddle of 1978 and ’79. Through the torrent of bad economic news and the sorry spectacle of reckless dealers and malicious trustees and criminally ignorant public officials, I spent the better part of last year reliving the worst moments of the Iranian revolution. Both in terms of personal loss and collective angst, the parallels between us then and us now are obvious.

There must be a lesson here, I thought.

This is what I remember of the years directly after the revolution: my mother on the phone with her sisters a dozen times a day; my father sitting down with friends and strangers from Iran, talking into the early morning hours about what could be done, and how, and at what cost.

My brother-in-law walking every square foot of Westwood Boulevard and the downtown jewelry district, stopping every time he ran into another Iranian so they could bring each other up to date on what they had learned most recently. My cousin moving into her parents’ two-bedroom apartment with her three young daughters and two unmarried sisters.

My grandmother baby-sitting her grandnieces and nephews after school so their parents could work. Entire families moving to small towns in Kansas and Oklahoma, where a son or daughter was attending college.

Kids my age going to school in the daytime and working (illegally) at liquor stores at night to help pay the rent. Shabbat dinners with seven aunts and their husbands and children; Passover seders with 62 cousins and everyone’s in-laws.

We were lost, but never alone.

It’s one of those traits — this enhanced sense of community, this emphasis on the value of friendship and family, even if you don’t like the friends or the family, this recognition that we are defined as much by what we do individually as what we achieve as a group — that have as many drawbacks as advantages.

It’s the old village mentality, the need to belong at almost any cost, that is often deplored in traditional societies such as our own. It’s a tribal force that breeds conformity, nurtures intolerance, stifles the tendency toward originality and privacy on the part of the individual. At the same time, though, it’s a safety net like no other, an organized base of support that can catch a people — even Western people — in free fall, a sure thing when nothing else is for certain. It’s the one place, the one truth, you know holds no surprises.

“Why must we visit our great-great-aunt and her weird children and snooty grandchildren every time she invites us to her house?” my sisters and I used to bug my mother in those years.

“We see her because she’s your great-great-aunt,” my mother would say, as if that was supposed to make any sense.

We didn’t like the aunt, and she didn’t like us, and still, she came to our house, and we went to hers, and we all made nice to each other like little robots on some kind of mission of cordiality, the purpose of which is only now becoming evident to me: She wasn’t important in and of herself, this aunt. She was a link in the chain, a knot in the safety net, and so were we, and so were the weird children and the snooty grandkids.

In a fractured society, amid fear of the future and shame about the past, where so many families are standing at the edge of poverty and unemployment, and so many of the trusted have proven unworthy of trust, the old village may just be the place we all want to go back to.

For the children of those Iranian Jews who weathered the storm three decades ago and are caught in its midst again this year, the question is, have we kept enough of our parents’ values to be able to find our way back to the safety and support of the tribe?

For the rest of the country, descendants of those immigrant communities who came to America a hundred years ago and built the country into what it is today, the question is, will they look to the past, discover the secret of their parents’ survival and come together once again as a family?

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Persia held hostage, film at 11

Purim Pastries

Purim, sometimes called the Feast of Esther, is one of the happiest of all Jewish holidays. It marks the liberation of the Jews from the cruel prime minister, Haman, through the heroism of the beautiful and good Queen Esther. The story states that she was a vegetarian while in the king’s court in ancient Persia. Yes, before it was the fashion, Queen Esther was a connoisseur of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains, but poppy seeds were said to be her favorite. It is in her honor that on Purim, poppy seeds find their way into salads, kugels and pastries.

Hamantaschen are the traditional dessert served on Purim. These three-cornered pastries represent Haman’s hat, pockets or ears, depending on which tale your bubbe told you. These delicious confections are served throughout Purim. They can be filled with a variety of mixtures, apricot, prune, or even peanut butter and jelly, but on Purim the preference is unequivocally poppy seeds. The hamantaschen recipes that I have included are my creations. One is based on a rich poppy seed cookie dough, flavored with orange peel. The other uses filo pastry as a wrapper for the fillings. After baking and while hot, a sugar syrup is poured over them, similar to the technique used for the Persian pastries called baklava.

When baking for Purim don’t forget the ancient tradition of mishloach manot, which suggests that we share the holiday foods with the community. Arrange a batch of assorted hamantaschen in a pretty box or basket to take to friends and also share with others. You’ll enjoy both the good deed and the compliments you receive.

Poppy Seed Hamantaschen

1/4 pound unsalted butter or nondairy margarine, softened

1/2 cup sugar; 3 eggs; Grated zest of 1 orange; 2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder; 1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon poppy seeds; 3 8-oz. cans poppy seed filling or variety of fillings (recipes follow)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until well blended. Beat in two of the eggs and the orange zest, blending thoroughly. Add flour, baking powder, salt and poppy seeds and blend until dough is smooth.

Transfer to floured board and divide dough into three or four portions for easier handling. Flatten each portion with the palm of your hand and roll it out 1/4-inch thick. With a scalloped or plain cookie cutter, cut into 3-inch rounds. Place one heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of each round. Fold the edges of the dough toward the center to form a triangle, leaving a bit of the filling visible in the center. Pinch the edges to seal them.

Place hamantaschen 1/2 inch apart on a lightly greased foil-lined baking sheet and brush with the remaining egg, lightly beaten. Bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to racks to cool. Makes 5 to 6 dozen.

Filo Hamantaschen

1/2 pound unsalted butter or nondairy margarine

1/4 cup oil; 1 package (1 lb.) filo sheets; 2 cups finely ground

almonds; 1/4 cup sugar; variety of fillings (recipes follow)

Honey-Sugar Syrup (recipe follows)

Heat butter and oil over low heat in medium saucepan. Place a damp towel on work area and cover with wax paper. Work with one sheet of filo at a time, keeping the remaining filo covered with wax paper and damp towel.

Combine almonds and sugar and set aside. Cut standard sheets of filo evenly into 2-inch strips. Work with each strip on top of a large sheet of wax paper placed on top of damp kitchen towel. Brush them with butter mixture and sprinkle with almond mixture. Place teaspoon of filling 1-inch from the short edge of each strip. Fold one corner over the filling. Fold up filo, flag fashion, in a triangle along its length to make a neat triangular package. Repeat with remaining strips and filling.

Brush baking sheets with butter mixture; place hamantaschen on baking sheets, 1/2-inch apart. Brush with butter mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown and crisp. Remove from oven and spoon syrup over each triangle. Cool on racks. Makes about 6 dozen.

Honey-Sugar Syrup

1 cup sugar; 1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon lemon juice; 1 tablespoon honey

Bring sugar, water and lemon juice to boil in heavy saucepan, stirring with wooden spoon until sugar dissolves. Boil briskly for five minutes. Stir in honey. Pour into heatproof pitcher.

Fillings for Hamantaschen

Apricot-Coconut Filling; 2 cups apricot preserves; 1/2 cup

shredded coconut; 1/2 cup toasted chopped walnuts or pecans

Grated peel of 1 lemon

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Makes about 3 cups.

Chocolate Filling; 1 cup cocoa; 1 cup sugar; 1/2 cup milk, cream

or coffee; 2 cups toasted chopped almonds

In a large bowl, combine the cocoa, sugar, milk and almonds and blend thoroughly. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

Caramel-Pecan Filling; 3/4 cup sugar; 1/4 cup water; 2 cups

toasted chopped pecans; 7 tablespoons margarine; 1/2 cup

nondairy creamer; 1/4 cup honey

In heavy saucepan, bring sugar and water to boil, mixing with wooden spoon until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add pecans, margarine and nondairy creamer. Return to heat, stirring constantly, and simmer for 10 minutes or until thick. Remove from heat and stir in honey.

Transfer to ovenproof glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set. This will keep for at least one week.

Applesauce Filling; 6 golden or red delicious apples, peeled,

cored and cut into chunks ; Juice of 1 lemon; 2 to 3 tablespoons

sugar; 1/2-inch cinnamon stick or pinch of ground cinnamon

In a large saucepan, toss the apples and lemon juice. Add sugar and cinnamon. Cover and cook slowly until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and mash or puree the mixture. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and chill. Makes about 4 cups.

Quick Prune Filling; 1 15-ounce jar cooked pitted prunes,

drained, or 2 cups pitted stewed prunes; 1/4 cup sugar; 1/2 cup

toasted chopped walnuts or pecans; 1 teaspoon orange juice;

1 teaspoon lemon juice

In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Baskets Full of Joy

When the Jews of ancient Persia celebrated their unlikely salvation from Haman with gifts of food to each other, they probably didn’t go for the tropical-themed basket with gummy fish, rock candy and dried papaya, wrapped in a sweep of turquoise cellophane.

Clearly, the holiday custom of exchanging gifts of food, called by the Hebrew term mishloach manot [MEESH-lo-ach MAN-oat] has changed with the times.

But even in L.A., where fulfilling the Purim mitzvah has been raised to new levels, the basic idea behind mishloach manot remains the same: to promote a joyous spirit of friendship and unity among a scattered nation.

Mishloach manot is one of four mitzvot of Purim, along with charity to the poor (matanot la’evyonim), holding a festive meal (seudah) and reading the Megillah. The fulfillment of mishloach manot requires sending to one person, on Purim day, a gift of two ready-to-eat foods with different brachot, blessings.

Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik, director of the Jewish Learning Exchange and assistant principal at Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn-Toras Emes, says the unity and friendship that results when we exchange gifts is a theme central to the Purim story.

When getting approval for his evil plot from King Achashverosh, Haman refers to the Jewish people as a nations scattered and dispersed among the other nations.

“This was a spiritual indictment. You don’t have unity, and therefore we have the ability to conquer you,” Czapnik explains. Esther’s response, then, was to create a greater sense of Jewish unity by telling Mordechai to gather all the Jewish people to fast and pray for her.