It’s Purim and we’re in stitches

Hamantaschen. (Anne Gordon/The Times of Israel)
Hamantaschen. (Anne Gordon/The Times of Israel)

Apart from the time when my son asked me to buy a bee costume for my Sydney granddaughter, I don’t think I have ever bought or hired a Purim costume for my family. When my kids were young, Purim was a time to get creative: to zhuzh up clothes in the cupboard, to combine the weird and the whacky or to cobble together a costume on my sewing machine. So, this year when the former bee wanted to be a hamantaschen, I was truly excited by the challenge.

Only after she decided to dress up as the traditional triangular biscuits we eat on Purim, her school announced the Purim theme for this year: the jungle. The two of us discussed the conflict of costumes, but I was unfazed. Surely somewhere in the deepest, darkest part of the jungle lives a hippotaschen or a monkeytaschen, never witnessed by humans and to be revealed to the world for the first time this year on the 7 March, 14 Adar. These strange creatures have the head, the paws and tail of an animal and a triangular, pastry-coloured body with a jungle-themed filling, perhaps banana or coconut. The combinations are only limited by one’s imagination.

In Melbourne my granddaughter, like many other young girls, will dress up as Elsa of Frozen fame. I don’t have a problem with that, but I would prefer that she be Esther rather than Elsa. Esther was one of the great heroes of the Purim story and, indeed, Jewish history. She saved the Jewish people from annihilation using her intelligence and unique brand of dinner-table diplomacy. All this was achieved without disclosing her religion or identity. Espionage and statesmanship from a smart and beautiful young woman, a role model for every girl. I have an embroidered caftan that I bought at the shuk in Jerusalem over 40 years ago. Combined with a tiara that I once made in millinery class and some pointed jeweled slides amongst my summer shoes, I too could be Esther for a day.

Purim in my father’s hometown of Kosice, Slovakia was celebrated according to Jewish law and long-held tradition rather than the individual’s imagination. Costumes, traditional or otherwise, didn’t feature much in his recollections; perhaps with the changing political situation in 1930s Europe, Jews of that time and place did not make such a public display of the festival as we do today. Mishloach manot, gifts of food, included homemade kindel (a rolled biscuit), fruit and nuts presented on real plates, before the proliferation of disposable dishes and boxes. Some of the more daring boys in the community would knock at the doors of Jewish families and sing a ditty in Yiddish, requesting a piece of cake or a coin. In the afternoon, the Purim spiel (play) was presented by an all-male cast of youths performing the Purim story. Queen Esther was also played by a youth who raised the pitch of his voice and spoke this central character’s lines unseen from the wings.

I don’t think hamantaschen were known of in Kosice, but around the world the biscuits shaped like Haman’s hat, pocket or perhaps ears have become synonymous with Purim. Every year, I make a batch of them that are gluten free and low fructose to cater for those in our family with allergies and intolerances. With a bit of cutting, filling, folding and pinching, circles cut from dough become 3D triangles with jam and nuts tucked within its folds. I had found a wicker basket full of old tablecloths as I started to clean for Pesach, and amongst them was a beige patterned, flannel-backed cloth. I stitch two extra-large circles into triangles with some pink boucle for the jam filling. Two Velcro tabs on each side, twelve in all, the costume is ready, the filled triangle worn in front and the unfilled triangle with the unstitched side facing out worn at the back. Ready for postage.

Another homemade costume has also travelled around Australia, and I think to the US and back. When my niece was a young girl, her grandmother, my mother, sewed a Snow White Purim costume for her. Mum learnt dressmaking at an ORT college in Brussels after the Holocaust, and she is an excellent and exacting seamstress. The costume was glorious and bold in primary colours with a while collar; I can still picture it in my mind after all those years. A number of girls in my family over two generations have been Snow White for Purim, and I think the dress will stand the test of time like the story itself.

The true story of Purim, part of our past and more ancient than Snow White or Frozen, is one to celebrate. And on Tuesday when the streets of Caulfield are ablaze with the colour of costumed Esthers, Elsas and Snow Whites, and full of the sounds of car horns, music and joy, I will rejoice for that wonderful chapter in Jewish history.

About the Author
Pauline Schwarcz is a freelance writer with a background in genealogy. Formerly a health professional, she enjoys writing about family history and her reflections on life. Pauline was born and lives in Melbourne and is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.
Related Topics
Related Posts