Although the word hamantaschen comes from two German words, mohn (poppy seed) and taschen (pockets), poppy is just one of the flavorful fillings modern bakers like to use in these delicious Jewish cookies.
This was part of the explanation I prepared as I set out to deliver home baked hamantaschen to mostly non-Jewish members of my suburban community. By the quizzical looks on their faces as I proffered the assortment of pastries, many had no clue what they were, who I was, and why I was standing in front of them with a gift. It wasn’t Christmas, after all.
At the prompting of best-selling cookbook author Marcy Goldman on her Better Baking Facebook page, I decided to share the sweetness of homemade hamantaschen with the helpers in my community, to thank the people who deserve our appreciation and don’t always get it.
Would they be hamataschen-receptive?
As I backed out of the driveway, I suddenly felt a prick of concern. In this age of terrorism, would the giftees view me with suspicion? Even if I appeared to be simply a flustered woman in flour-speckled jeans, you never know these days. Were cookies part of an evil plot, to poison innocent citizens just doing their jobs?
“We bake these on Purim,” I recited out loud in the car, “the Jewish holiday that celebrates Queen Esther’s bravery in saving our people.” I glanced in the rearview mirror, plucked a piece of dough from my hair and practiced a disarming smile.
In return for my gift of sweetness, I would ask them just one question.
I had butterflies as I began my spiel, but the librarian smiled warmly. She assured me the cookies would be devoured within the hour.
“Can you tell me about something sweet in your life?” I asked her.
She thought for a moment. “My dog, Ellington.”
“Hamanta … what?” asked one of the assistants. Was I mumbling, or was it the cacophony of barks and meows that interfered? I spelled the word for her and she wrote it down. The other assistant asked what the fillings were. “Triple Chocolate. Poppy. Cherry. Blueberry.” I mentally counted on my fingers.
“Ooh, yum,” she said.
“And the sweetness in your lives?” I asked.
“My 14 year-old son,” said one. “My dog, Blue,” said the other.
Back in the car, I drove a mile to the hospital and parked in front of radiology, where I get my annual mammogram.
“Oh no, don’t take my picture,” demurred a nurse, holding her hands up in front of her face. “I didn’t wear makeup today.”
A male nurse peered around the corner and said, “Hey, for cookies you can take my picture.”
“What is one sweet thing in your world?” I asked.
“My cats, Fortune and Mason,” he said.
The Police Station
Fourth stop, the township blues.
Amid the hustle and bustle of a hectic weekday afternoon, two police officers readily agreed to be photographed as they held the plate.
“Could you tell me about a sweet …” I began.
“Wait, this is …hamantaschen?!” exclaimed the one on the right as she peeked under the wrapping. “My favorite!”
The Fire Station
The vast garage was filled with shiny fire engines and uniforms hanging neatly on hooks. I called out but no one responded. Around the corner I found a window with an office on the other side. Two firemen were sitting at desks. I didn’t want to startle them, so I rapped softly and held up the goodies so they could see I was not a threat. One of the fire fighters came out to greet me.
“Now, don’t these look good,” he said, accepting the plate from me. “Awfully nice of you. Is this a project or something?”
“It’s just my own way of giving back and saying thank you for what you do,” I answered.
He bowed slightly.
“In return,” I said, “please tell me what is sweet in your life.”
He paused, then said, “My job. I was a volunteer for 10 years and I’ve been full-time for five. I’m lucky to have a job I love.”
I love Purim at my synagogue. Purim is kind of like Halloween, with funny costumes and parades. Both kids and grownups dress up, and this year the Megillah (the reading of the Purim story) was performed with a Motown theme, and it was hilarious. Hebrew prayers were sung to the tune of golden oldies and the rabbi in costume as Stevie Wonder was a sight to see.
This is Jill, our temple administrator who does a million different tasks every day to keep the congregation running. She doesn’t always dress this way, incidentally.
“Jill,” I asked her as I handed her a tray of hamataschen, “what is sweet in your life?”
“My son, my new daughter-in-law, and my dog,” she said.
Take a look at this photo. See the guy in the greenish-grayish sweater, center stage?
That’s U.S. Senator Bob Casey, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a fundraiser at the home of good friends. Before I left my house I made two plates of hamantaschen, one for the hosts and the other for the Senator.
“I’d like to give Senator Casey these cookies since it is the Jewish festival of Purim,” I whispered to an aide. “Can you help me?”
I knew what I wanted to say. I would tell him that we celebrate Purim because of the bravery of a beautiful and kind woman, Queen Esther, who in today’s parlance would be known as a nasty woman. Because she persisted by convincing the clueless king of a murderous plot, the Jewish people survived.
“No problem,” she whispered back. “Stand by the door and you can catch him on his way out.”
The event came to a conclusion. The Senator was making his way to the front, shaking hands and letting guests take photos. He detoured into the kitchen. I waited by the front door. People were walking past me as they left. Where was he? I walked into the kitchen. No Senator.
“He snuck out the back door. He had to get to his town meeting,” apologized the aide.
My message of sweetness was tabled.
I am so happy that an independent book store has opened in my community. Yesterday i attended a book launch for my friend Cathy, whose latest excellent book is “Who Moved My Teeth?” Cathy is smart, funny, and a great friend. She also loves my hamantaschen. It’s kind of an inside joke with us.
Her eyes danced when I handed her the tin.
“They’re for me! she announced to the crowd, squirreling them away in a back room before the party began.
“Cath, what’s something sweet in your life?”
“My mom is pretty sweet,” she answered.
I approached the owner of the store, Ellen. “I love your shop and I hope it succeeds,” I told her. “Every community needs a bookstore. I can’t wait to come back.”
I didn’t have to ask my question. For Ellen, the sweetest thing must be books.
I love baking hamantaschen for my family. Sharing them with those who deserved sweetness but didn’t expect it was in some ways even better.
Based on my small sampling and admittedly unscientific method, I concluded that random acts of kindness are more meaningful than we might think. Paying it forward really does work, especially when it’s a bit out of your comfort zone. We have the capacity to make a difference, one hamantaschen at a time.
In the end, it’s family, it’s home, it’s relationships that sweeten our lives. That will never change.
It’s not rocket science. It’s hamantaschen.