When you think about it, it’s kind of weird that us Jews celebrate the defeat of the Purim story’s enemy by eating a cookie named after said evil dude, right? Legend has it that Haman — Resident Purim Villain — wore a three-cornered hat, which is the reason behind hamantaschen, the triangular shaped holiday pastry. If you’re not a fan of the hat theory, in Israel, hamantaschen are called oznei Haman, or Haman’s ears.
Um, what in the actual fuck is up with that? Firstly, in what world does a triangle look like an ear? And why would anyone willingly eat Haman’s most definitely nasty wax-filled ears? There are just so many other things I’d rather do — like, go to the dentist I’ve been avoiding because no, I am never going to floss — to celebrate the Israelite’s victory over an anti-Semitic icon.
But the most messed up part about this offensive symbolic treat? Apparently, Hamantaschen were never supposed to represent Haman’s (boo!) ears or hat at all. Rather, they were meant to be a symbol of what the cookies obviously looks like: a vagina. (Note: Vagina is used colloquially, “vulva” is the more anatomically correct terminology.)
Nu? How in the heck did a symbol for, as Ilana Glazer describes it, a “delicious, juicy” vagina, get warped into one for Haman (boo!)? We’ve now reached the historical background section of this TED talk, hooray!
After finding this gem from a 1998 issue of Lilith about the “herstory” of hamantaschen, I went down my own little historical rabbit hole and here’s what I found. In Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther), the Jewish queen’s real Hebrew name is revealed to be Hadassah, which means myrtle in English. So where does Esther come from? Oh, none other than Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sex, war, justice, and fertility. Scholars have made the case that Queen Esther is the personification of Ishtar, and her uncle Mordecai is associated with Marduk, the god of war. The link between the Purim story and Babylonian myth is contested, but intriguing: In “The Meaning of the Name Esther,” author A. S. Yahuda writes that Rabbi Nehemia believed Esther’s true name to be Hadassah, but that non-Jews referred to her as Esther after the “star-Venus” (along with the lion, the star was one of Ishtar’s symbols because of her association with Venus, the Roman goddess of love and fertility). Though another rabbi, Rabbi Jehoshua, argued that Esther was her true name, and the name Hadassah/Myrtle came about “because of the greenish colour of her face.” Notably, green is a color associated with fertility, and thus, Ishtar.
Before the Israelites became a monotheistic nation, Jewish women actually worshipped Ishtar for protection, food, and healthy children, baking small cakes in her image and drinking wine to celebrate her deity. Don’t believe me? As much as the ancient rabbis attempted to erase Ishtar from history, in Jeremiah 44:19, it’s written (I am channeling such Saturday morning rabbi sermon vibes right now) that after Jeremiah the Prophet confronted the nation about their worship to idols, the women retorted: Do you suppose that we were burning incense and pouring out liquid offering to the Queen of Heaven, and making cakes marked with her image, without our husbands knowing it and helping us? Of course not! To boot, ancient artifacts of the molds that baked said “cakes marked with her image” have been discovered in Mari, Syria. Portrayed as an often pregnant voluptuous woman with cleavage up the wazoo, I argue that these Ishtar-shaped fertility cakes are what preceded mahn (poppy) taschen (pocket), later to be known as hamantaschen.
A modernized version of Isthar’s fertility cakes arose in 18th century Europe when German bakers popularized their newest invention: the mahn taschen. I like to imagine the baked good resulted in the same chaotic energy that the cronut sparked, except that mahn taschen have actually survived the test of the time. Just a century later (time flies!) the triangular poppyseed-filled pastry became so popular on Purim that the rabbis just had to find any sort of rabbinical significance, so they absolutely just made shit up.
Let’s rewind a bit, or rather, two centuries prior to the Poppy Pockets craze (yes, that is a Polly Pockets reference; no, I am not sorry). In 16th century Italy, Jewish playwright Leone de’ Sommi wrote a Purim Spiel poking fun at the sages’ obsession with pulling explanations for new religious traditions out of thin air. In the sketch, Sommi jokes that Haman is a homonym for manna, the carb-like food God served his Children of Israel for breakfast, lunch, and dinner during the 40 years they wandered in the desert. Fast forward to the 18th century fertility cake trend, and the rabbis proved Sommi’s point by ruining everyone’s fun and retroactively explaining the new Purim treat with reference to the Book of Esther. “Mahn” sounded like Haman, and thus hamantaschen, the official food of Purim, was born.
What a load of crock.
As author Lesley Hazleton said, “One look at the dark seeds bursting out of their pasty envelope and you need no Freud to figure out the sexual symbolism.” Mahn taschen were never intended to represent Haman (BOOOO!!!) but to be noshed on in celebration of our fertile Myrtle (Esther) who saved the Jewish people with her seductive, witty ways.
Steven Benko, author of The Virgin Goddess, agrees: “Very likely, therefore, ‘hamantaschen’ have nothing to do with Haman… What these cakes with their triangle-shape and poppy seed filling indicated was the pubic mound of Ishtar.”
I guess you could say the rabbis inseminated our (er, Esther’s) vaginal mahn taschen with their patriarchal poppy seeds because they’d rather a cookie represent an anti-Semitic man over the powerful womb of our Queen Esther, the true heroine of Purim (along with Vashti!!).
Who’s to say we can’t take back what the patriarchy stole? This Purim, I call upon my fellow Jewesses to reclaim mahn taschen by baking triangle shaped fertility cakes of all flavors (as long as they’re fruit, you know, of the womb!). The renaissance of vaginal shaped pastries has arrived, and we’re going full throttle to honor Queen Esther for using her mahn taschen prowess to save the Jews from extermination.
In a climate where the sexism and anti-Semitism found in the Purim story doesn’t seem so far fetched (besides King Ahaseurus making Esther his queen after ONE Tinder date), baking vagina-shaped Jewish foods is the ultimate way to show how these Jewish pussies grab back.