I once had a funny conversation with a caterer.
We were discussing the menu for my eldest son’s bris, ticking off the usual suspects — lox, bagels, rugelach, coffee — for the ceremonial meal. At some point, I said, “The only thing I don’t want is the whole stuffed fish on the buffet. I don’t like how the eyes seem to follow you.”
“It’s not a bris without the whole whitefish!” he insisted, astounded that I’d asked him to violate this fundamental principle of kosher catering.
I was both confused and annoyed. The mohel would usher our son into the Covenant of Abraham. My husband would give him the name we agreed upon the night before. What did a fish have to do with it?
And yet, I caved. I was lying in a hospital bed, a newborn in the crux of my arm. I lacked the strength to argue about appetizing. In retrospect, however, I believe I got the better end of the deal. While the caterer likely forgot about our conversation moments later, perhaps attributing my misguided perspective to the sleep-addled confusion of new motherhood, this story continues to make me smile more than 20 years later.
I still haven’t come around to his mantra that it’s not a bris if there’s no fish winking up from the buffet. Yet it dawned on me this past weekend that the caterer might have been onto something.
I was in the baking aisle, calculating how much filling I needed to make hamantaschen this year. Our usual Purim plans have shape-shifted. We aren’t hosting the festive meal on Purim day, and with two of our sons out of town, we won’t need the same quantity of triangular treats winking up at us from the cookie tray. Besides, we have so much going on this month, I wasn’t sure I’d find the time to bake at all.
With a container of apricot filling in one hand and a jar of prune butter in the other, I stood there perseverating, unsure what to do. I briefly considered scrapping hamantaschen from our holiday menu altogether. That’s when the voice of the bris caterer rang in my ears, making me question if it would still be Purim without them.
It is a truth we’d all acknowledge that our traditional foods play a significant role in our festive Jewish celebrations, becoming nearly synonymous with the holidays themselves. Golden, braided challah loaves signify Shabbat, cheese-filled blintzes represent Shavuot, and dare I say, matzah is a stand-in for Pesach, though please don’t get mad at me for bringing that up.
Each year, as we begin the countdown to Purim (the holiday begins this year on Wednesday evening, March 20), I think about the Megillah and how Queen Esther risked everything to save us back in ancient Persia. I also wax sentimental about the groggers my boys made when they were small, though I must confess that my hankering for hamantaschen takes center stage.
I keep my eyes on them as they exit the oven, savoring the aroma and the taste as well. But hamantaschen are more than just a cookie. Otherwise, I could happily buy a delicious dozen at the bakery or ask a friend to share from her own tasty stash. For me, what is meaningful is the ritual of it — the rolling out of the dough and the shaping of those miniature versions of Haman’s three-cornered hat. From a young age, I helped my mother prepare them. I made them with my own children, and in the ideal, future Bubbe-hood of my imagination, I will, God willing, bake them with my grandchildren, too.
With that thought in mind, I dropped both fillings into my cart and headed for the checkout — pleased with my decision to bake again, while looking forward to giving most of the output away.
But first, I will put aside two hamantaschen — one prune, one apricot — for myself, to enjoy with a cup of coffee early Purim morning when the rest of the house is still asleep. For as long as I can remember, this has been my private ritual before the tumult of the holiday gets underway. I’m not willing to give it up any time soon.
The difference this year will be that when I reach into the refrigerator for the milk, locking eyes with the tub of whitefish from Costco that sits on the center shelf, I will have the caterer in mind. With a chag sameach and a mea culpa on my lips, I will wish him a “Happy Purim” wherever he is before closing the door with a wink.
Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.