NEW YORK (Feb. 25)
“People at the Hogar Adolfo Hirsch old-age home celebrate Purim every year,” says Irene Lubasch de Munster, of Buenos Aires, who assists at the home and is a member of Hadassah.
She describes how elderly residents and their aides prepare for their annual Purim party, making posters and invitations, and designing masks and costumes. They hire musicians and decorate the dining room to the hilt. Several residents judge who dons the best costumes.
“Like every good Jewish festivity, the celebration ends with food,” says Lubasch de Munster. “The most distinctive treats are, of course, hamantaschen.”
This Purim, Hadassah, the international women’s Zionist organization, is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Active in more than 30 countries, its volunteers support two hospitals in Israel, medical research and Jewish education. They are not only powerful advocates for women’s rights, working tirelessly against domestic violence, but encourage women to vote on election day.
The connection between good deeds and Hadassah began on Purim Eve, Feb. 24, 1912 at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.
The intellectual Henrietta Szold addressed fewer than 20 members of the Daughters of Zion, primarily a study group, and suggested a revolutionary idea for women: activism.
She proposed creating a Jewish women’s organization that would peoples’ lives. In a Purim state of mind, the membership chose its name because Hadassah is the Hebrew word for Esther.
Centuries earlier, the story of a Persian queen and her cousin Mordecai was recorded in Megillat Esther. Mordecai knew that King Ahasuerus was holding a contest to select a bride.
Overhearing that the king’s vizier Haman was plotting against the Jews, Mordecai convinced Esther to enter. A young beauty, Esther won the contest and the king’s hand in marriage, although she kept her religion a secret.
When Mordecai informed Queen Esther that Haman intended to annihilate the Jews, she approached her husband and revealed that she was Jewish, imploring him to spare her people.
The king supported his wife, and Haman was hung on the gallows he’d built for Mordecai. Because days of gloom turned into gladness, Mordecai and Esther asked people to give charity to the poor and send loved ones baskets, known as shalach manot. Today these portions are small boxes or plates of baked goods.
“I first learned about the custom” when “I was 15 years old,” says Terri Elbaum, a Hadassah volunteer from Los Angeles.
“Our rabbi’s wife left a plate of Purim goodies on our doorstep. I never forgot this and knew someday I would prepare baskets for friends and family and secretly leave them on their doorsteps to find and enjoy.”
Now a wife and mother, she bakes for Purim, no matter what.
Not long after an earthquake in 1994, Elbaum and her daughters turned out hamantashen by the dozen, surrounded by plastic drop cloths while workmen repaired the damage to her house.
Elbaum loves to bake and has invented original recipes, including chocolate and apple-nut fillings for hamantashen and her own chocolate chip mandel bread.
During the organization’s 90-year history, Hadassah volunteers have been avid bakers, frequently selling home- made pies, cakes, cookies, and kugels as fund raisers for charity. Most often, they relied on recipes their ancestors prepared in the “old country.”
In “The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the Twentieth Century,” Jean Anderson wrote about several Hadassah volunteers from Minneapolis who asked David Dalquist, the owner of Nordic Products, to design an aluminum version of the cast-iron kugelhupf, the fluted tube pan their ancestors had used in Europe.
He produced a modernized version of kugelhupf for Hadassah women, but also offered the item for sale to the public. Only a few of these round pans with center cylinders sold until a decade later when a new Good Housekeeping cookbook featured a pound cake baked in a bundt pan.
After seeing a photo of this elegant fluted cake, American women clamored for the pan that produced it. Today more than 40 million bundt pans are in circulation.
Proud of their baking skills and Hadassah’s connection to Purim, today’s volunteers still savor the holiday foods their families carried to America.
Caplan’s recipe hails from her Turkish great-grandmother. She claims the crisscross pieces of pastry covering eggs symbolize Haman’s incarceration, and secured eggs represent his ankle. Baked with and without shoes or feet, baskets featuring these appendages are traditionally reserved for males.
Like the rest of the women in Caplan’s family, though, her two daughters prefer pastry to eggs.
“As children, they wanted baskets with shoes because they offered more of the stuff they loved,” she says. “To make the girls happy, my husband used to sneak them pastry shoes.”
Several years ago, the Caplan family entertained a doctor who was visiting Seattle from one of Hadassah’s hospitals in Israel. They took him to their Sephardic synagogue for festivities and to hear the Megillah of Esther.
“While he enjoyed celebrating Purim American style, the thing that really thrilled him was the plate of Foulare I served,” says Caplan.
From the other side of the world comes another family story and recipe for Filled Raisin Cookies.
“I have been baking these cookies for so many years that I haven’t thought about the story behind them in ages,” says Claire Baer, a volunteer from Stony Brook, N.Y., who admits to learning how to make these “hidden hamantashen” from her mother-in-law 51 years ago.
The recipe originated with the great grandmother of Baer’s husband, who worked as a cook in a Christian household in Berlin. Every Purim, she not only baked filled raisin cookies for her family, but also for her employers.
Although they devoured them quickly, she never told the Christian family why she made them only once a year.
“These cookies once followed my daughter to college, and now her family looks forward at Purim to the large tin of cookies that I send them,” says Baer. “My youngest granddaughter counts cookies and advises her family how many each person will receive.”
Of course no recipe exchange at Purim would be complete without hamantashen, triangular cookies shaped like Haman’s hat.
This recipe comes from Jackie Woodland, former president of the Chappaqua-Mt. Kisco, N.Y., chapter and later president of the Southern Seaboard Region.
Years ago when Woodland’s daughter, Betsy Karpenkopf, was in 11th grade, she studied Russian in a class taught by Mr. Renhack, a Catholic from Brooklyn.
“He was a portly man who loved food,” Karpenkopf says, explaining that if any of his students arrived in class without their books or homework, the punishment was to bring baked goods the following day.
Mr. Renhack made it clear that plain old chocolate chip cookies or, heaven forbid, slice-and-bake cookies were unacceptable.
“Well, I forgot my homework one Purim, so I presented him with a plateful of hamantaschen made from my mother’s recipe,” Karpenkopf says. Mr. Renhack took one bite and said: “Mmm, cream cheese dough. That’s not very traditional, is it?”
He was correct; cream cheese is an unusual ingredient in hamantaschen dough. However, foods with fillings follow a Purim tradition, symbolizing a story that unfolds.