If you’ve never lived in the South, you might not be familiar with King Cakes. The brightly colored yellow-green-and-purple treats start popping up in the weeks before Mardi Gras. Though most prevalent in New Orleans, they are popular throughout the South. They’re delicious, they’re often shared at offices and parties– and yes, it’s Catholic in origin.
The name “King Cake” refers to the three kings, or three wise men. It emerged as a treat associated with pre-Lent celebrations, connected closely to Easter. Sometimes, there’s even a little plastic baby hidden somewhere in the cake – representing that same baby the wise men went to visit.
So it’s understandable that a friend recently asked me: “Um… is it weird for Jewish people to buy King Cakes?”
When asked this question, I resisted the urge to laugh it off and instead did a little reflecting (while munching on a delicious cinnamon-swirl piece of this tasty treat). Does the symbolism behind a food mean it’s proprietary to a certain group? Putting aside logistics that would obviously factor in for some observant folks, such as the laws of kashrut or halal – should foods be avoided simply because they’re associated with someone else’s tradition?
I recalled a few years ago, when a local bakery in Jackson, Mississippi, began promoting their all-new seasonal specialty: Purim baked goods. Yes! Fresh-baked, made-to-order sweet hamentaschen in multiple flavors — and savory bourekas, too. I was beyond excited that my favorite local bakery was offering Jewish treats, and so were my Jewish friends… and so were my non-Jewish friends. We all went out and bought those Purim treats in droves. (And thank goodness – if only the small Jewish community of Jackson had shown up to buy the baked goods, that wouldn’t have been very marketable.)
But one person did ask me: “Um, is it okay for a non-Jewish person to eat those triangle Purim-cookies?”
I assured them, without hesitation, that they were welcome to a cookie.
The question is not ludicrous. Eating is sometimes related to a statement of faith, whether it’s by following rules as to what we do and do not eat, or accepting a communion wafer at a Catholic mass.
But there is a difference between foods with ritual meaning and foods with cultural symbolism. Eating hamentaschen doesn’t make you Jewish, but it does give you an opportunity to learn a delicious tidbit about Purim and the story of Esther. Sharing a King Cake with co-workers is a delicious opportunity to enjoy Mardi Gras and share in a communal celebration. It’s a sharing of cuisine that has become a low-barrier sharing of culture.
In fact, I think the story of Esther itself makes the case for sharing in the culture around us. Esther was a nice Jewish girl who managed to save her entire Jewish community, not by avoiding the culture around her– but by fully immersing in it. She married the king, held on to her identity, and stopped Haman. Let’s remember she also did this over an extended dinner party, and now we recall Haman’s defeat by eating cookies shaped like his hat and named for his ears. (Creepy.)
Lots of special-foods have stories unique to one culture or another. Learning about them is fascinating, and feasting on them is even better.
In other words, let all of us eat (king) cake. And yes, I promise, in a few more weeks… I’ll share my triangle Purim-cookies.
In this alliterative Mensch Madness match up, Mordechai and Moses are about to meet!
This match is tough, because both of these mighty M-heroes saved the Jews from oppression and certain doom. At this point in the year, many may think that Mordy has the slight advantage because of his strong performance a few weeks ago during the Holiday of Purim. However, in the coming weeks Moses will steal the spotlight, yet again, as we begin our Passover celebrations.
Reviewing the Megillah (hey, another M!), it was indeed Mordechai who devised a plan that landed his (secretly Jewish!) niece Esther in the palace as the new Queen. Then, while Mordechai was patrolling the palace, he overheard a plan to kill the king. Mordechai gave word to the king, thwarting the assassination attempt, and King Ahashuerus recorded Mordy’s deed in his royal diary. Mordechai’s next challenge was an evil man named Haman (BOO!), who had climbed his way up to become the king’s right-hand man – a Scottie Pippen/Michael Jordan type of relationship. One day Haman was walking though the city and ordered the civilians to bow, but Mordechai refused. Outraged, Haman plotted to kill all the Jewish people. Mordechai communicated with his niece, Queen Esther, and devised a plan to save their people. The plan worked and Haman was defeated. Mordechai saved all of the Team Jewish players, and became King Ahashuerus’ new MVP.
Quick game recap for the other player today: Moses not only saved the lives of thousands of Israelite people, but also defeated the evil Pharaoh, led the Israelites out of Egypt, delivered God’s laws, and helped create a new civilization. What impresses this ref most about Moses is that he did all of this without growing up within the Jewish community: since all Jewish baby boys were supposed to be killed, Moses’ mother put him in a basket and sent him down the Sea of Reeds to save his life. After being discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses was raised as an Egyptian Prince. Thus, after growing up as an iconic Egyptian royal figure, he dishonored what he thought was his heritage and took a chance that ultimately made him the greatest Jewish prophet in our tradition.positioned his niece Esther to become the queen of Persia. Then, while Mordechai was on patrol, guarding the Kings palace, he overheard a plan to kill the king, and thwarted that plot. King Ahasuerus recorded Mordechai’s deed in his royal diary. Mordy’s next challenge was an evil man named Haman. Haman had climbed his way up to become the king’s right-hand man – a Scottie Pippen/Michael Jordan kind of relationship, you might say. One day Haman was walking though the city and ordered the civilians to bow, but our man Mordy refused. Outraged, Haman plotted to kill all the Jewish people. Learning of his plot, Mordechai communicated with his niece, now Queen Esther, and devised a plan to save their people. The plan worked and Haman was ousted and hung. Mordechai became a well respected, high ranking man in the eyes of King Ahasuerus – the new all-star on the team.
As impressive as it was for Mordechai to save the lives of so many Jews in Persia, Moses, along with help of God, created the lasting Israelite nation. The Torah states, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom Adonai singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that the Adonai sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10 – 34:12).”
Looks like the Big Coach weighed in on this one – and so, Moses hits the shot at the buzzer and defeats Mordechai.
Who will go on to win Mensch Madness? Stay tuned, Southern & Jewish sports fans!
Below, Michele Schipper explains why she lets her kids trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out “Why I Don’t Let My Kids Trick-or-Treat.”
What happens when we post a photo, in October, of an Education Fellow reading some students a book about witches, while wearing a witch hat? An immediate assumption by many that the religious school students are celebrating Halloween – followed by a lot of strong opinions shared on Facebook!
First, to explain the picture: The Education Fellow was reading a story from Yiddish folklore, The Rabbi and the 29 Witches by Marilyn Hirsh. It’s a wonderful children’s story, and as the synopsis describes: “Once a month, when the moon is full, twenty-nine of the meanest, scariest, ugliest, wickedest witches that ever lived come out of their cave to terrify the villagers . . . until one day the wise rabbi invents a plan to rid his village of those wicked witches forever. The rabbi’s clever plan works–with hilarious results!”
The book has nothing to do with Halloween – and had we posted this photo of the Education Fellow reading this book in January (which we easily could have, as they share this story on the road throughout the year!), I don’t think anyone would have had Halloween on their mind. But even still, the wide range of reactions to the photo was surprising; especially how many negative responses were shared. Several of us began thinking about Judaism, the celebration of Halloween and our own personal practices.
Despite Halloween’s religious origins, most Americans consider Halloween to be a national tradition, without the attachment of any real religious meaning. Many American Jews have adopted this tradition as their own with the understanding that the holiday has become wholly secular. Although I know that Purim is indeed the Jewish holiday where you get to “dress up,” I grew up and experienced both Halloween and Purim, and my children have gotten that same experience. My sister, whose birthday is October 30, had at least 1 Halloween themed birthday party.
I also remember when I was about 8 years old, I was sick during Halloween and couldn’t go trick or treating with my friends and family, so my Southern Jewish mother let me “trick or treat” in the house, knocking on all of my family member’s bedroom doors, so they would give me candy and I wouldn’t feel that I had missed out…
That important feeling of being included, of not missing out and being part of the larger community, is important to us. My husband and I have enjoyed “fall festival” activities with our kids; going to the pumpkin patch, carving pumpkins, deciding on costumes– and of course, my husband is famous (infamous) for laying claim to his favorite candy from the trick or treating “loot”. I don’t worry that my kids are confused. They are now almost all teenagers, and do not seem to have suffered any adverse effects, and neither have I. Halloween did no damage to our Jewish identity.
So I say, enjoy Halloween – and make sure you’re the house that gives out the good candy.