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At Purim, communal connections heat up

For the last 45 years, in a temple kitchen in Anaheim, Calif., much more has been cooking than just hamantashen. (Edmon Rodman)

For the last 45 years, in a temple kitchen in Anaheim, Calif., much more has been cooking than just hamantashen. (Edmon Rodman)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Who would have thought in this cookie cutter world, a heimishe hamantashen controversy?

Let me tell you the whole megillah.

Out in Anaheim, Calif., where Mickey and Minnie live, in the community where I grew up, there is a changing group of women and men who are a bunch of Purim pixies. Baking in the Temple Beth Emet kitchen for the past 45 years, they have turned out tens of thousands of hamantashen.

Working in two shifts, with a division of labor and specialized tools, and using a not-so-secret recipe, each year they baked hundreds of dozens of prune, mohn (poppy seed) or apricot.

That is until two years ago, when the chocolate chip controversy began.

But while the controversy bakes a bit (350 degrees for 20 minutes, or until brown), you need to hear the rest of this Purim story. It goes beyond fillings and shapes to asking how has the baking filled and shaped the bakers’ relationships? And are they somehow providing their synagogue with more than sweets?

For a fully baked answer, I took the 30-mile drive from Los  Angeles to Anaheim to see if I could discover what has kept things cooking over two generations — through Vietnam, Watergate, several Middle East wars and eight rabbis.

First, I must tell you in complete journalistic disclosure, since I grew up in the Temple Beth Emet community, I know most of the bakers. The temple has largely aged in place. Among the afternoon baking crew are my junior high school social studies teacher, several friends of my family, a woman who is the sister of a former college roommate and, for good measure, my mother-in-law, Shirley.

Was baking one of the activities that held them to this spot half a mile from the Magic Kingdom?

As I entered their kitchen, I could smell the answer.

In the well-known 1988 essay “The Tent-Peg Business: Some Truths About Congregations,” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote that “Since no one can be sure of what someone else must do to serve the Holy One, anyone who thinks he has a new idea or an old idea must be given a chance.”

In 1965, when Ruth Notkin began baking hamantashen with a group of congregants as a means to financially support the temple Sisterhood (now called Women’s League), she and her co-bakers had little idea how the act would bring  together generations — mother and daughters, granddaughters and grandmothers.

“This is what we do,” Notkin said while feeding balls of dough into a machine roller and then turning the crank.

Not a religious act, yet each year the result of the cranking is thousands of dollars of tzedakah. The sale of the hamantashen helps keep the synagogue healthy, and the donation of the finished hamantashen to local retirement homes keeps people happy.

I watched as the women went about their work mixing, rolling, cutting out circles of dough using a Yuban coffee can, folding, filling and finally baking.

“We each have a specialty,” Notkin noted.

As the dough rolled, they talked about friends, relatives and how they had first came to the task.

“I got a phone call. They said we want to honor you,” related Ruth Wilkoff over the whirr of a commercial-sized mixer.

“Religious institutions directly support a wide range of social activities well beyond conventional worship,” political scientist  Robert Putnam wrote in “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community,” his groundbreaking 2000 book about civic disconnection.

As I watched this team filling tray after tray with hamantashen (they sell 2,000 to 3,000 pastries per year), I began to  wonder if their volunteer baking helped connect the crew to the synagogue and to each other.

I found out firsthand.

“Would you like to try it?” one of them asked.

After washing up, I folded, cut and cranked. Only then could I see how each task was interdependent and how you really didn’t want to mess up someone else’s work. Each piece was inspected — this was handmade love going out to their  fellow congregants.

Later I spoke with Polly Schechter, a former neighbor, who leads the morning shift. Asked about her crew, she told me that “it ties us to the temple, even for those who don’t necessarily come to services. At the end of the day we have something to show for it. It’s a high.”

The controversy? As you might expect at a synagogue, it’s about tradition.

Two years before, the morning group broke the baking “minhag,” or custom, of more than 40 years by introducing three new flavors — raspberry and apricot with chocolate chips and plain chocolate.

“They caught on like wildfire,” Schechter said, adding that “Kids like the chocolate chips better.”

The afternoon group won’t make them.

“We’re too traditional for that,” Notkin said. “The morning group, they’re more modern.” 

“Do you sense a little competition?” another baker asked.

No, but perhaps a small crumb of pride.

At the end of my shift, I sampled a traditional apricot.

In so many ways it tasted just right.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA  columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)

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