That Purim Pastry

By Philologos

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
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This year, I thought of it in time. Annually, whenever Purim has come around, I’ve always remembered too late that I should write a column about hamantashen. Or hamantaschen. Or hamantashes. Or homentaschen. Or hamentashes. Maybe that’s why I’ve always forgotten. How do you write about something with half-a-dozen spellings and two different plural forms?

As for the spelling, it’s usually either “hamantash” or ‘hamantasch,” and there’s something to be said for each. Since our word for the traditional poppy-seed-or-prune-jam-filled Purim pastry comes from Yiddish homntash (plural, homntashn), and the preferred transliteration of the Hebrew/Yiddish letter shin in English is “sh” rather than the Germanic “sch” (hence, “mentsh” rather than “mensch,” “schlemiel” rather than “schlemiel,” etc.), “hamantash” has a point in its favor. On the other hand, although “sh” rather than “sch” is a way of distinguishing Yiddish-derived words from German-derived ones, the spelling “hamantash” tends to suggest an American Indian term (think of “succotash”), so that “sch” in this case may actually make “hamantasch” seem more Jewish. Not knowing how many people might be fooled by “hamantash” into thinking that Native Americans baked poppy seed pastries, I have no firm opinion on the matter.

I can’t say the same, however, for “hamantashen” vs. “hamantashes.” This strikes me as being a strictly “us” vs. “them” issue. A Jew worthy of the name will pluralize “hamantash” as “hamantashen” and leave “hamantashes” to the assimilated and the uncircumcised, even if there is evidence that the latter are sometimes led by this to conclude that “hamentashen” is a singular form that should be pluralized as “hamentashens.” Personally, I’d rather eat one hamantashen than 10 hamantashes any day of the year, let alone Purim.

This isn’t the only thing that the hamantasch gives us to argue about. Is Yiddish homntash — that is, “Haman’s pocket” — really, as is often stated, a folk etymology for montash, “poppy seed pocket,” the theory being that because these pocket-shaped pastries were baked on Purim, they became associated with the name of the holiday’s villain? This sounds logical — why else assign pockets to Haman and then eat them? — except for the fact that the German word Tasche, “pocket,” is never used, to the best of my knowledge, for a filled pastry. Perhaps once upon a time it was. That homntash is an old word we know from the fact that the word for “pocket” in Eastern European Yiddish is not tash or tashe but keshene (from Polish kieszen); hence, Jews most probably took the word homntash with them when they migrated from Germany to the Slavic lands in the Middle Ages.

Also medieval in origin are the Italian-Jewish and Ladino terms orecchi di Aman and orejas de Aman, “Haman’s ears,” which describe a different traditional Purim food — twisted strips of dough flavored with lemon or orange rind and deep-fried in oil. Of these two terms, the Spanish one is almost certainly older and must have reached Italy with Jewish exiles from Spain after the expulsion of 1492.

The traditional explanation of why these dough twists are called “Haman’s ears” is that there is a passage in the Midrash describing Haman after his downfall as having, in Hebrew, oznayim mekutafot — an ancient rabbinic phrase sometimes translated as “clipped ears” but probably better rendered as “twisted ears” (that is, ears grabbed and twisted in punishment). Yet, a friend who hails from the French city of Lyons tells me that the Lyonnaises eat a deep-fried dough shaped like a triangle and called oreilles, “ears,” because it resembles the ears of a cat or another animal. Perhaps the original orecchi or orejas de Aman were triangular, too. Probably for the same reason, in modern Israeli Hebrew, an ozen Haman, a “Haman’s ear,” has come to designate not the Sephardic dough twist but the triangular Ashkenazic hamantasch. This is an interesting example of cultural synthesis, in which a term for a food from one part of the Jewish world bonded with an actual food from another part.

The three corners of the hamantasch are also what have given it, among some English speakers and writers, the name of “Haman’s hat.” Although this has been picked up by Jews speaking others languages too, such as Spanish, in which hamantaschen are now sometimes called sombreros de Aman, it is, as far as I can make out, American Jewish in origin. It certainly isn’t very traditional: tricornes, or three-cornered hats, having come into temporary vogue only in the late 18th century, just in time to be worn by George Washington. Perhaps it was invented when American Jews were asked by non-Jews what the triangular pastries appearing in Jewish bakeries in late winter were called. “Hamantaschen”? What kind of a word is that! “Haman’s pockets?” But most commercial hamantaschen are too flat to look like pockets. “Haman’s ears?” Ugh, gross! Hey, why don’t we call them “Haman’s hats”?

Frankly, I find “Haman’s hats” as goyishe-sounding as “hamantasches.” But to tell the truth, whatever you call it and however you spell it, I’m not much of a hamantasch fan. The prune jam ones I can eat if I have to, even if half the dough ends up sticking to my gums, but the poppy seed ones are definitely not for me. I’ve suppose that’s why I’ve put off writing about them year after year.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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