Ancient Jewish holidays refuel my resolve, chutzpah and ability to make sense of our world. All the holidays hold lessons and on the veneer some can be simplified by the amusing but accurate adage: “They hated us. We fought. We won. Let’s eat!” That’s Passover and Hanukkah for sure, but people may be less familiar with the raucously celebrated holiday of Purim, which takes place in March this year.
Referred to as the Book or Scroll of Esther and found in the Old Testament, Purim speaks to a deeper and more relevant meaning in 2023. Two of the central characters are feminists who are willing to die for their beliefs. The setting is fifth-century B.C. Persia, which later became known as Iran. Think about that for a hot minute.
A condensed version of the Purim story goes like this. During an extended drinking feast for all in the land, a completely wasted King Ahasuerus calls for beautiful Queen Vashti (our first heroine) to make an appearance wearing her crown. Just her crown. Vashti refuses this request and is either killed or banished as an example to women who disobey their husbands. The king then summons all the young women in the empire so he can pick a new queen.
Meanwhile, Haman (our villain) is appointed the king’s viceroy and becomes infuriated when Mordecai, a Jew who sits at the palace gates, repeatedly refuses to bow down to him. In his anger, Haman gets the once-again-wasted king to issue a royal decree to annihilate all the Jews.
The plot thickens. Mordecai’s niece Esther (our second heroine) is chosen to be queen. At her uncle’s insistence, she keeps her Jewish origin a secret.
Mordecai overhears two bad guys planning to assassinate the king and foils their plot. When Ahasuerus learns of this he asks Haman what could be done for a man he wants to honor. Haman thinks the king is talking about him and is appalled when he finds out the king is referencing Mordecai. Seizing the momentum, Mordecai urges Esther to go before the king (a serious offense when unsummoned) and reveal that she is Jewish. Instead, she decides to hold two festive banquets, inviting the king and Haman. When the time is right, she will tell the king that if Haman’s plan is carried out, all Jews will perish. His queen included.
Most likely hungover by now, the smitten king is furious and commands that Haman be hung on the gallows prepared for Mordecai. He amends the decree to allow the Jews to retaliate against all who planned to kill them and promotes Mordecai to his court. Esther and her uncle send word to Jews all over Persia that there will be an annual commemoration of their victory. They called the day Purim — which means “lots” — to signify the lottery system Haman chose to pick the day to kill the Jews.
Today, Purim is celebrated heartily by children and adults alike. We don costumes dressed like the two queens, Uncle Mordecai and the evil Haman. When reading the story as part of the holiday, we boo at Haman’s name and spin noisemakers called groggers. We prepare baskets of treats and wine for friends and family, donate money or time to those in need, and of course, have a festive meal. In heavily populated Jewish areas, Purim becomes something like a two-night Mardi Gras complete with parades and revelry into the night.
The primary food associated with Purim is a three-cornered butter cookie called a Hamantaschen. Shaped to represent the triangular hat Haman wore, we gobble them up to get rid of his memory. The cookies are filled with fruit such as figs, apricot and raspberry jam. My bubbie always used poppy seeds and I’ve experimented with Nutella, having great success. Sadly, few of them made it out of my kitchen and to the homes of others as intended.
In celebrating Purim with my girls, Number One always wanted to be Queen Vashti. Along with her costume, I made her a sign to take to Hebrew school that read, “Heck NO! I Won’t Go!” They learned early that Purim represents yet another time in history when someone wanted to kill our people and we thwarted their plans. That the story is meant for all who are prosecuted and that it’s about strength, bravery and identity pride.
So, let’s send our love to the persecuted women of today’s Iran. Along with love, let’s hope that worldwide, only the best of history will repeat itself.
Natalie Haberman Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].
Bubbie Anna’s Hamentashen recipe
- 2½ cups sifted unbleached flour
- 2½ teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch salt
- ½ cup softened butter
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- Filling of choice
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Sift flour with baking powder, then combine them in a bowl with the salt.
- In another bowl, combine butter with sugar and mix well. Add eggs, vanilla and lemon zest; mix to combine.
- Pour mixture into center of dry ingredients. Stir until a soft dough is formed.
- Knead a few times on a lightly floured work surface. Roll or pat to 1/4-inch thick.
- Cut into 3-inch circles and fill with between a half teaspoon and a teaspoon of your desired filling (1 tsp at the very most). Pinch corners into a triangle.
- Bake on a silicone sheet or parchment for 20 to 25 min or until slightly golden. They should not turn brown.