Talkin’ hamantashen at Bethesda Jewish Congregation

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Photo by Jared Foretek

Four women are lining cookie trays and rolling dough in the kitchen of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation.  Their goal: Bake 500 hamantashen before the congregation’s Purim carnival.

The carnival is on Feb. 24. The holiday begins on the evening of Feb. 28.

Leading is Mindy Silverstein, the independent synagogue’s director of congregational education. She’s been teaching members the art of baking the three-sided Purim treats for four years now, thinking it’s both a good excuse to get people to the synagogue and gin up excitement for the carnival and spiel, a loosely-rehearsed cabaret-style show set to the music of Frank Sinatra.

“There are different avenues to connect people to Judaism,” Silverstein says. “There’s the prayer, the community, all of that. And there’s cooking. It’s a very gentle way to get people involved.”

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Over the years, Silverstein has learned some rules to bake by, like always using room-temperature eggs and butter. If you’re making multiple batches on the same tray, let the tray cool off before putting it back in the oven. And fresh eggs are best. She learned that the hard way when on her first try her dough came out the wrong consistency.

But the women under her direction also have their own variations. Congregant Stacey Rose-Blass, a retired federal employee, does not skimp on the jam filling, recalling her childhood trauma of finding under-filled hamantashen. Her approach has its downsides, though. Some of her folded corners collapse under the mass of raspberry concentrate and high fructose corn syrup.

“It’s OK because now I’ll get to eat some,” Rose-Blass says. “They don’t want to serve these.”

Raspberry is a new concept for Diane Blumenthal. She explains that the traditional Ashkenazi flavors are prune, poppy and apricot, although she concedes that the new wave chocolate filling is hard to battle, particularly on the palates of youth.

Still, there’s no question about where her heart is.

“There’s a real loyalty when it comes to hamantashen,” Blumenthal says. “People love their flavors and won’t eat anything else. For me, it’s only poppy seed.”

The women kibbitz as they turn out trays upon trays of the pastries, only pausing to try to the finished product or to wait for a cookie tray to return. The process is simple: take a piece of dough, roll it into a ball, flatten it, fill it, fold it and pop a tray of them into the oven for about 13 minutes (rotating the pan once for even baking).

Meanwhile, Silverstein hashes out some of the theories about what hamantashen represent. Some say the filling represents the bribery that the hateful vizier Haman received, others say it’s the bribery he offered King Ahasuerus to murder the Jews. The tri-corner shape illustrates Haman’s ear (the Hebrew translation of hamantashen means Haman’s ears). Or his pockets. (That’s what hamantashen means in Yiddish.)  Or the triangular die that Haman used to cast lots on the fate of the Jews (Purim is Hebrew for lots).

But it’s no matter for the women here, who just want to enjoy each other’s company and help feed the revelers. To Rose-Blass, hamantashen are Judaism folded into three corners.

“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat,” she says. “That’s the definition of being Jewish.”

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