Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Tuesday this week was the Jewish festival of Purim. During this holiday, there is much merry-making and eating of good food. Some people also make a special effort to read the Book of Esther, which tells the traditional story of the festival.

It wasn't always a Jewish holiday though. During the Persian Period following the Babylonian Exile, it was actually adapted from a popular Persian festival, celebrating the Persians' defeat of another ethnic people that had been trying to oppress them at some distant point in history before they became the great empire they once were. Esther is the Jewish representation of a Persian goddess who was said to have assisted the Persians. "Esther" simply means "of the east." Hamen represents the deities of Persia's enemies. That's the much abridged explanation. I could look it up in my class notes for a much more detailed version, but I really don't feel like it at the moment.

There were social and political influences on the Jews who wrote the Jewish version of the story, of course. Why would the Jews of the Persian Period adapt a non-Jewish holiday for their own? Well, probably for several reasons... Here's what's coming to me out of general knowledge: The Jews of the Post-Exilic Period *really* liked the Persians, for obvious reasons. The Exile did not even last 100 years, only a few decades really, and there were still people living who could remember being ripped from their homes in Israel when the Exile ended. The Persians freed them from the Babylonian Exile, and not only allowed them to return to Judea but also paid the expenses of travel *and* financed the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. There's a lot to like there... Also, Judaism was just beginning to form as such during the Persian Period. Before that time, "Judaism" did not historically exist. The religion it developed from was simply the religion of the Israelite people, an ethnic group and political unit. The Israelites' religion did not exclude other religions' validity, only that, though other gods may exist, Israelites were only to worship their one G-d. While the new identity of the Jews was forming, a lot of outside influences effected the final product. The names for the months of the year of the Persian calendar became the names of the months of the Jewish calendar. Zoroastrian monotheistic ideas and their ideas of good and evil left a definite mark on Jewish thinking in what became the Second Temple Period, and in many different ways, the effects remain strong to this day. And, not least of all, the Persian Purim festival was adapted to the new Jewish identity. At the same time in Post-Exilic Period, Judaism became very separatist. Where before the Israelite religion had been an extended tribal religion, Judaism became the religion of the Jews' national identity. For a time, if one could not prove a Jewish genetic history on *both sides* of their family, they could not reside in Judea. For a time, in reaction to the violence and trauma of the Exile, Jews strictly enforced religious laws of all kinds and at this point, Judaism began to officially deny the existence of other people's gods. Jews who remained in the Diaspora had issues with some of this... They were living in a foreign country that they felt a part of, but at the same time, they felt the separate identity of being Jews. Stories like that in the Book of Esther try to bridge that gap in identity. Esther could be a good and righteous Jewish woman despite the fact that she was living in the Diaspora and married a non-Jew. There's more... about the danger of destruction and genocide and all those issues in the story as well because that was part of the psychology of Jews living in the Post-Exilic Period... but I don't want to go into all of that right now.

So, The Book of Esther wasn't very popular as scripture, but more as a folktale, since the religious content is practically non-existent, and it was almost left out of the canon of ancient Jewish scripture. There is no evidence that Esther, her husband, her cousin or Hamen were ever historical persons, or that the threat of genocide during the Persian Period ever happened. The king Esther was supposed to have married *may* have existed, but he had a different name, and he did not have a queen named Vashti... although, he may have had a woman in one of his many harems by that name. No Jewish woman was ever the honorary First Wife of the King of the Persian Empire. Sad, but true... But it is kinda neat to know that the symbolism of the Purim festival today is very similar to the symbolism of the Persian festival 2500 years ago and it was celebrated in similar ways - good food, song, dance, games.

Anyway, so on Monday, I made Hamentashen. They're traditional triangular shaped Purim cookies that are filled with some type of fruit filling. It’s kinda like a fruit-filled shortbread cookie. Here's my recipe:

4 cups of all-purpose flour
4 eggs
3/4 cup of sugar (or Splenda for baking)
1 cup margarine (or butter, or butter-like substance of your choice)
1 Tbsp. Orange juice
1 tsp. Vanilla extract
2 tsps. baking powder
pinch of salt

Depending on how big or small the cookies are cut, this amount of dough will yield 2 - 4 dozen cookies. For the filling, prune butter, poppy seed pastry filling, or simple fruit preserves of any kind can be used.

Place all ingredients in a large bowl and mix it all together. You may add more juice or more flour, depending on the consistency of the dough. Divide the dough into 4 or 5 roughly equal parts. Refrigerate the dough until it firms up (about 1/2 an hour). Roll each piece to about 1/8 to 3/16 of an inch thick. Use a circular shaped cookie cutter to cut out the circular cookies (a biscuit cutter would work just fine). If the dough can not be moved easily, chill it again before transferring it to the baking sheet. Place about 1/2 tsp to 2/3 of a tsp of filling in the middle of each circle (less is sometimes more so that the filling doesn't boil over in the oven). To shape into a triangle, lift up two opposite edges of the cookie and press together along part of the edge. Lift the third edge of the cookie up to meet the edges of the other two and press together. (It should look like the cookies in the photo.) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the cookies with beaten egg. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until lightly golden brown. Enjoy!

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