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Letter from Jerusalem: Israelis let the good times roll during Purim

A variety of hamentashen at Pe’er bakery in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market. Photos by Marc Israel Selem

FEBRUARY 22, 2018 – They start appearing in every Israeli bakery about 25 minutes after the last Hanukkah lights flicker out in December. Which is par for the course, since the primary culinary treat of the Hanukkah season in Israel – the sufganiyot (or as any New Englander county fair aficionado would recognize as fried dough) – begin cropping up as soon as the Yom Kippur fast is broken.

But I’ll take those oily calorie containers any day over the triangular-shaped pastries we in Jerusalem refer to as “oznei Haman” (Haman’s ears), but American Jews have always called by its Yiddish equivalent hamentashen, or Haman’s pockets.

Despite their different names, they have a central similarity whether in the Middle East or in the Northeast: their dry-as-toast, crumbly texture and the god-awful poppy and apricot fillings. Their ubiquitous presence can signify only one thing: the oncoming holiday of Purim.

To be honest, Purim was always pretty understated in Maine. The dressing-up-for holiday was Halloween by a landslide. One time, my mother was walking me to our Conservative temple for a Purim celebration as I was freezing my cape off in my Superman costume, and I heard another kid walking by snicker to his friend, “His calendar is off by six months.”

The party was nice, lots of noisemaking groggers for the Megillah reading and those half-eaten, brittle hamentashen afterward. But it always felt a little artificial and isolated, like a secret costume ball that was only advertised by word of mouth. All my non-Jewish friends were dressing up in October and thought it was downright weird that we Jews had another Halloween in February or March.

Purim costumes for sale on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street.

In Israel, guys can walk outside on the street during the month of Adar in a ballerina outfit with tights and gals can gallivant around as bearded pirates and nobody will bat an eyelash. Everyone knows it’s connected to Purim.

Israelis take their fun very seriously, and Purim has evolved into a multi-day celebration with school vacations, office costume parties, and street parades filling up the pre-holiday calendar. Kids of all ages vie for the most creative costumes, but it’s always amusing that so many turn out year after year in similar garb. For girls, it can only be described as Lolita-chic (I’m not sure what their parents are thinking), and for boys, it always comes down to the Israeli version of cowboys and Indians: traditional Arabs and IDF soldiers.

That can get a bit confusing on the streets, where authentic traditional Arabs and IDF soldiers tend to be prevalent, and there’s been no shortage of incidents involving the police and mistaken identity. Adding to the mix it’s perhaps the only time of the year that alcohol takes center stage for the usually moderate-drinking Israelis, and you get a volatile situation that turns Purim into a Hebrew version of Mardi Gras.

Even the food has been scaled up for the modern Israeli Purim. Sure, you can still get the poppy or apricot hamentashen, but now there’s a multitude of fillings, from chocolate mousse and mocha to blueberry and halva. Bakers have learned how to make them softer, so they don’t fall apart on the first bite.

So, from a holiday we used to keep under our coats in Maine to an all-out-there national spectacle of fun, Purim has evolved into one of the hippest holidays on the Jewish calendar.

And if the non-stop onslaught of sufganiyot in December and hamentashen in February are just too tempting, don’t worry. Before you know it, it will be time to break out the matzoh.

David Brinn is a journalist based in Jerusalem.

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