Family Matters: The Purim Code: Sacred Feminine
Sending homemade hamantaschen to friends and family is an innocent and beloved holiday tradition, but these triangular treats also have layers of hidden meaning.
Every year I make hundreds of hamantaschen and give them to friends and family for Purim. I bring them stacked on paper plates covered with tinfoil or mail them in shoe boxes wrapped with brown shopping-bag paper and packaging tape.
I love this annual ritual. I love the baking and the sending. And I love how it makes me feel. In fact, I love it so much that it’s almost a compulsion. If, for any reason, I could not make hamantaschen, the triangular, filled pastries, I would be miserable.
But why? Why has this ritualized kitchen homage to a minor Jewish holiday become so necessary for me?
Mostly I do not think about it, I just do it because it feels good. Recently, however, I came across a feminist reinterpretation of Purim by Rabbi Susan Schnur, editor-at-large of Lilith magazine, in a spring 1998 issue. In her article, she discusses not only the Book of Esther, which tells the Purim story, but the hamantasch itself.
That set me thinking. Maybe there is more to this domestic enactment than I realized, more underlying why it always felt so good to me?
My first association is with good fortune. Over the years, I realize, this has become an annual immersion into a sea of good feelings, a virtual mikve of well-being. Another year, and I’m still healthy enough to stand and mix, to roll and pinch, to sort and pack. Another year, and I’m still healthy enough to want to stand and mix and roll and pinch.
My mother was rarely this lucky. Most of the time, and certainly on most holidays, she was too depressed to make dinner, let alone pastries. But every once in a while when my children were young and during those occasional interludes when her medication was working, a package of Bubbie’s cookies—the butter-and-sugar kind pressed into flowers with a chocolate Hershey’s Kiss in the center—would arrive in the mail from Philadelphia. What joy. For the kids, it was a special treat. For me, it was a special message, a code. It meant she was doing well and she was thinking about her grandchildren. It also meant she was happy.
As I picture those packages, I am struck by a connection I had not noticed before. The cookies came in tin cans wrapped in the same brown shopping-bag paper I use—undeniable ancestors to my current productions. But unlike my rushed scrawl, the packages of old were carefully addressed in my father’s handsome sign-painter’s script (he did that before he became an electrician) and wrapped to perfection with layers and layers of electrical tape that were almost impossible to cut through. The gift was from both of them.
Another year, and I am still lucky enough to have family and friends happy to receive my expression of love and connection. How many on the faded list of recipients on the back of the recipe are no longer on this earth? Like my address book with names of the dead I can’t bring myself to cross out, my hamantasch list keeps them all with me.
Another year, and I remember again when the kids were little and also excited to be making the cookies. I remember their glee every time one of the delicate little dough rounds could not be pinched into proper shape and would end up in the family’s private stash of “uglies” that they and their father could eat to their hearts’ content.
This always threads me back to all of the other projects we did together—the stained-glass dreidel cookies we shellacked and hung in the window for Hanukka, the ones shaped like Jewish stars and menoras and the one-of-a-kind cookie my children made shaped like Herbie the Love Bug that the babysitter had the gall to eat after she had put them to bed. Then there were those wonderful little beanbag frogs we sewed and filled with birdseed. Everyone we knew received one of those great Pesah pets, each with its glued-on eyes and distinct personality.
See what I mean? I am covered with flour and floating in a sea of memories. Especially these past few years when there are no little ones around and mostly the hours of making hamantaschen are solitary—peaceful, rhythmic, trance-like—this ritual, I realize, has become a kind of memory meditation. Links to a generation long gone and to children long grown. The hamantasch immersion brings them all back.
And besides, I get so many compliments! Everyone loves my hamantaschen. And I do not demure. I agree heartily that they really are delicious—beautiful and delicious. My husband calls me “Queen of the Hamantasch,” and, even after all these years, that still packs a little thrill.
So what does any of this have to do with the feminist reinterpretation I read about in Lilith? So far, this all sounds decidedly unfeminist—personal, not political; private, not public.
What I learned from Rabbi Schnur is that the origins of this holiday are public and can be traced back to ancient women’s fertility rituals. The pastry was part of the associated rites of baking breads in the shape of voluptuous goddesses. These were the goddesses who uplifted women’s esteem and authority.
The hamantasch, it turns out, was not simply what we were taught in Hebrew school. These pastries did not just represent the villainous Haman’s three-cornered hat and the fortunate fact that his plan to kill the Jews did not come to fruition. It had a much older meaning.
Coming from the German-derived “mohn” (poppy seed) and “tasch” (pocket), these were, according to Rabbi Schnur, pre-spring, full moon fertility cookies, “self-generating pubic triangles filled with black seeds, suggesting the potency of female generative power.”
Wow! A whole new way of seeing the pastry, a whole new layer of meaning to what I do each year around the full moon of the Jewish month of Adar. Although I have always understood the implicit love message encoded in each of these labor-intensive little cookies, and although I have always understood the way hamantaschen allowed me to strengthen the connections that bless me, this association with power had never occurred to me. But it fits.
Making hamantaschen fortifies me. Not only do I allow myself the time to luxuriate in good feelings and good memories, without a doubt, I also am expressing a creative part of me that feels important. And what’s more, I am proud of it. Unlike my mother, I am not allowing myself to be shaped by the old story that would devalue my efforts as simply women’s work. Would that she had lived with such possibility.
The people I love, love the hamantaschen I feed them, and in the process, they love me. I am held securely in this sensual exchange, and I grow strong. Good things flow from me, good tastes, good feelings and good connections. Yes, there is power here as well as love. But “pubic triangles”?
Who knew hamantaschen were sexy?
Judith Davis is a licensed family therapist practicing in Amherst, Massachusetts. She has written extensively on the topic of ritual and family health and is the author of Whose Bar/Bat Mitzvah Is This, Anyway? A Guide for Parents Through a Family Rite of Passage (St. Martin’s Press).
Judy’s Famous Hamantaschen
Makes approximately 75.
(Developed in collaboration with Ellen Kamil when we carpooled our children to Hebrew school so many years ago.)
– 4 large eggs
– 1 cup vegetable oil
– 1 1/4 cups sugar
– 2 tsp vanilla
– 3 tsp baking powder
– 1/2 tsp salt
– 5 1/2 cups flour
– 2 large eggs, lightly beaten, for coating
– Fillings: Your choice of canned cherry pie filling, prune butter, apricot jam and, of course, canned poppy seeds.
- Preheat oven to 350º.
- Beat 4 eggs, then beat in oil, sugar and vanilla. Mix flour with the baking powder and salt and gradually add dry ingredients to the egg mixture.
- Knead dough and roll into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate while rolling out a handful at a time.
- Roll out on slightly floured surface to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut circles with a 3-inch lid or cookie cutter.
- Place a small dollop of filling in the center of each circle. With the back of a flexible spatula, lift dough round and pinch into three corners. Place an inch apart on a well-greased cookie sheet.
- Once sheet is full, brush all of the pastries with the eggwash for a great shine.
- Bake 30 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.