It’s time we reclaim and de-commodify our symbols, even if they are just cookies.
You walk into a deli and there they are, staring at you. They are not menacing, oh no no, but they are confusing if you recognize them. They are harmless, but alien and your instinct is to treat them as strangers. Nuzzled up against the old cash register, they are hamantashn, the jam-filled cookies eaten in celebration of the Jewish Purim festival. They are hamantashn, you are a Jewish cookie lover, and it is August. It’s awkward. The Hebrew month of Adar never falls around August. What are these cookies doing here, in this Mexican-staffed, Korean-owned Deli in Midtown Manhattan? Did Sholom Aleichem write a Twilight zone spec-script?
If you are Bneiy (Jewish) like me, you look forward to Purim not simply for the celebration of avoiding decimation at the hands of the genocidal Persian maniac Haman, but for the pastries eaten to spite him as well, which after canonization in European Yidnland, came to be known as hamantashn. They are the final nail in the villain’s coffin, the great insult being that we eat his tashn (pockets) — often confused as hats — to symbolize how we persevered despite his dastardly, egotistical efforts and the money used to buy the Persian court’s favour to carry out his wicked, xenophobic desires. Sounds like a certain Republican nominee these days, doesn’t it, America?
We eat Haman’s unused ears to show how important it is to communicate and cooperate with other peoples and persons. Also hamantashn are pretty darned delicious.
In Hebrew, we call them ozney haman (Haman’s ears). While this is a clear shape-to-shape translation, I think “ears” are more appropriately symbolic than “pockets”. We stuff his ears with prunes or figs or halva or chocolate and devour them with a victorious proclamation; Haman could not hear i.e he did not know how to listen nor could he understand humanity and decency. This hateful deafness is what causes a person to wish for human annihilation. Thanks to malka (queen) Esther’s political brilliance and courage in the face of adversity, Haman’s plans were foiled. I like to believe we eat Haman’s unused ears to show how important it is to communicate and cooperate with other peoples and persons. Also hamantashn are pretty darned delicious. Delicious and meaningful — that’s something you treasure.
Then why do I see hamantashn in delis in July? How in the world does an ozen haman end up on a table at an organic farmer’s market in bougie Brooklyn in October? Don’t get me wrong, I find it mildly amusing to that the hamantashn persists seasonlong, and that farmer’s market ozen was possibly the most delicious Jewish pastry I’ve ever consumed (ousting from the top slot the famed Israeli sufganiyot I ate in 1998). Yet it does perplex me to see the tasty triangles resting complacently, knowing that only aficionado Bneiy like myself or those ridiculous, condescending gentiles who claim to “love maht-zah” would ever think of purchasing one.
Whenever I see off-season hamantashn, I am reminded of Lewis Black’s bit about candy corn and Halloween:
The worst thing about Halloween is, of course, Candy Corn…Candy Corn is the only candy in the history of America that’s never been advertised. And there’s a reason. All of the candy corn that was ever made was made in 1911. And so, since nobody eats that stuff, every year there’s a ton of it left over, and the candy corn company sends the guys to the villages and they collect out of the dumpsters all of the candy corn we’ve thrown away — They wash it! They wash it!
Is this the origin of the off-season hamantashn as well? Perhaps an ignorant entrepreneur, unaware of the cookie’s festive ties, noticed the smiles of little Jewish faces in the 19th century Lower East Side covered in raspberry jam and mistakenly saw a brilliant business opportunity — a short-lived shortbread empire that would fade into everyday obscurity, today scraping to survive.
I just ate a deli hamantash — can I really trust it was, as the wrapper says, “Baked oven fresh,” or has that factory-made cookie been sitting there since last Purim, or the Purim before that, and before that, and before that to the B’Reishit (Genesis) of Deli hamantashn? Does it matter? Yes.
How did the symbol of Jewish survival get turned into just another American cookie — another commodity?
It does matter when and by who my hamantashn are made, and not just for health code reasons. I made mention of the bizarre and, in my opinion, offensive non-Jewish “adoration” for matzot, the unleavened, dry-as-the-Sinai, constipation-inducing bread replacement Bneiy people eat to observe Passover in order to remember our liberation from Pharaonic Egyptian slavery. Most Bneiy agree with me that when I have, on several occasions, encountered a bunch of non-Jewish girlfriends munching away on a box of Streit’s, I find it a tad insulting.
Why do we permit, on top of that, the watering down of the significance and specialness of the hamantash? Calling myself out: Why am I not more peeved when I see hamantash misspelled at a Penn Station bodega and thrown into a pile of assorted days-old pastries that no one eats? How did the symbol of Jewish survival get turned into just another American cookie — another commodity?
Yes, it’s a cookie, and yes they’re delicious — indulge! Stuff your face and try every flavour! But save it for the proper occasion. Think about the original intention behind the delicacy you are feasting on next time you buy a hamantash, whether around Purim or not. Consider reserving the treat for the time it is most beneficial to reflect on its meaning — be that on Purim itself or on one of those days when you wrestle with your own identity.
We all have the potential to be like Esther and cast off the shackles of passing to be something we’re not, refusing to betray our true selves.
Purim celebrates the moment in history when the Jewish people’s greatest heroine found the courage to admit to the heritage she had hid from her Emperor husband in order to save her people — their lives and their culture. Her culture. Our culture. Esther cast off the mainstream shroud under which she hid, refusing to simply be another objectified, non-ethnic beauty. Jewish survival depended on her realizing her true self. When I eat a hamantash and I taste the sweetness of survival (unless you get one of those GROSS cherry ones…), I look up to Esther, asserting her uniqueness as a human being and as a proud, fully realized (and in modern context, “woke”) yehudi woman.
We all have the potential to be like Esther and cast off the shackles of passing to be something we’re not, refusing to betray our true selves. Hamantashn are reminders of this. It’s just difficult to remember we are unique when our reminders have become so commodified and commonplace.
!חג פורים שמך