Community Food Giving: Simchat Purim!

Hamantaschen cookies by Shutterstock

Sarah Zimmerman is an undergraduate at Columbia University studying Sustainable Development and Human Rights, who interned at GRACE in spring 2012. Originally from Philadelphia, Sarah is personally committed to GRACE’s mission of creating more transparency in the food system.

“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

This quip, heard at most every Jewish celebration, is epitomized in the traditions of Purim.

 The story of Purim, for those who are unfamiliar, is a story of the deliverance of the Jewish people. A Jewish woman named Esther becomes the queen of Persia, and, at the insistence of her uncle Mordechai, keeps her faith a secret. Angered after Mordechai refuses to bow down to him, the evil vizier Haman asks the king for permission to kill every Jew in the empire after Mordechai refuses to submit to him. With extraordinary courage, Esther manages to persuade the king to save the Jews. Purim is a joyous celebration of Jewish salvation.

A typical Purim basket might include soda and chips. Not such a healthy gift, for the recipient or the environment—though at age 11, it made Purim my favorite holiday.

The traditions of Purim are special and can even get silly. From yelling and stamping your feet each time the word “Haman” is uttered, to getting too drunk to know the difference between Mordechai and Haman, it is a time of festive revelry. Children dress up as characters from the Book of Esther and eat traditional foods like Hamantaschen, shaped to look like Haman’s hat.

There are more serious traditions, however, that epitomize what I love about Judaism: mitzvah. Simply, a mitzvah is a commandment from God, but today its definition has evolved to mean any good deed. Mitzvot is central to Purim. There are two major mitzvot involved in the holiday: giving to the poor and giving to neighbors.

The practice of giving baskets of food to friends, mishlach manot, is possibly the most iconic image of Purim. Each adult must give at least two different foods to at least one person, and everything in the Purim basket must be premade. A typical Purim basket might include soda and chips. Not such a healthy gift, for the recipient or the environment—though it made Purim my favorite holiday at age 11.

How does one send a greener Purim basket, when everything has to be ready to eat? Here are a couple of ideas, in order of convenience:

  1. An organic Purim basket: Finding organic prepared foods is easier than ever. Stroll down the organic aisle at your local grocery and see what you can find.
  2. A local, sustainable Purim basket: Search the Eat Well Guide for a local bakery that makes organic Hamantaschen.
  3. A DIY Purim basket: Just because the baskets need to include pre-prepared items doesn’t mean that you can’t make them yourself. Try making your own Hamantaschen with homemade fillings. Our resident expert, Elisa Schorr, doesn’t use a recipe, and instead makes "whatever cookie batter [her] kids request at the moment and just shape it into the Hamentaschen and fill it." She also gets creative with the filling, sometimes using chocolate or peanut butter mini chips or chopped up bits of caramel. For an easy how-to on folding, check out this video.

More important than delicious cookies, however, is the sense of community food responsibility that mishlach manot fosters. As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, described: Purim is about “building bonds of connection and community, without which none of us can live fully.” Food gifts are a way to connect with those we love.

The power of food is great. It can bring a community together, acting as a link across boundaries both physical and spiritual. What’s more, giving food to the poor and hungry is the purest form of altruism. This sense of working together to eat better is central to the celebration of Purim, and the rest of the world could learn a lesson or two from its teachings.

Giving food as a present is different than traditional gift giving. However, giving junk food like soda and chips seems to take most of the personal aspect of the tradition away. Make the ritual more personal with our above suggestions for a greener Purim. Finally, age-old traditions like these sometimes require updates: perhaps the creation of a new tradition, like getting together with friends to make your own Purim baskets! Bake some fresh hamantashcen, then pull out the Manischewitz and drink until Haman sounds like Mordechai.

Although I don’t believe in everything my religion has to say, this Purim, I will think of both friends and strangers, and the responsibility we have to both. I will recognize the power of food in bringing us together, and the potential of community-minded eating. In that, Purim can teach us much.

Simchat Purim!

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