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Underpinning the Jewish holiday of Purim is a time-honored practice known as mishloach manot. Simply put, it means sending gifts of food. Celebrants are called not just to partake with

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Underpinning the Jewish holiday of Purim is a time-honored practice known as mishloach manot. Simply put, it means sending gifts of food. Celebrants are called not just to partake with

Cookies With a Cause

Making hamantaschen cookies in the kitchen

Underpinning the Jewish holiday of Purim is a time-honored practice known as mishloach manot. Simply put, it means sending gifts of food. Celebrants are called not just to partake with friends or family but also to spread the warmth through the entire community.

And that’s exactly what Greensboro’s Jewish residents do. Led by Temple Emanuel, a legion of volunteers prepares customary hamantaschen cookies — usually filled with jam or poppy seed paste — and delivers them, along with handwritten cards, to elderly members of the community.

Though Andy Koren, the temple’s senior rabbi, describes Purim celebrations as “a mixture of Halloween and Carnival,” the holiday has a darker backstory, commemorating an attempted genocide of Jews in ancient Persia, led by a man named Haman and foiled by the courageous protagonist Esther.

Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC

Temple Emanuel — the oldest synagogue in Greensboro — traces its founding to 1907. photograph by Joey Seawell

Hamantaschen cookies are made with relatively thin pastry dough folded up on the sides to form a triangle but leaving the filling exposed in the center, like mini-galettes. In Yiddish, the word for poppy seed is “mohn,” earning the ingredient a place in some versions of the treat for its aural similarity to the pronunciation of “hay-muhn,” Purim’s antagonist. And more generally, hamantaschen are designed to mock Haman, visually representing his hat, ear, or pocket, depending on whom you ask.

Purim is meant to be a joyous holiday, Koren explains, filled with gift-giving and community togetherness. But that festive spirit was hard to come by three years ago as Purim rolled around amid the Covid pandemic, which hung like a dense fog over any potential gatherings.

“On top of the virus, there was another pervasive situation, which was loneliness and isolation, especially for our seniors,” Koren says. “At a time when human contact was so minimal, it was important for us to reach out to the grandparents and great-grandparents of our community and say, ‘You’re not alone.’”

• • •

Temple Emanuel launched Project Hamantaschen in 2021. Calling on families to bake at least two dozen cookies or write and decorate handmade cards, the temple’s leadership team organized a cookie delivery drive for Jewish seniors in the Greensboro area, offering them a plate with flavors mixed from various batches.

Koren asked congregant Jen Strasser to record a video demonstrating her family’s hamantaschen recipe, which is featured in the temple’s cookbook, Generation to Generation L’Dor Va’Dor: 100 Years of Cooking. The recipe leaves the filling up to the baker but suggests jam, poppy seed, or prune. Congregants used it as a template, in some cases experimenting with ingredients like Nutella, peanut butter, or sweetened tahini sauce.

Strasser, who received the recipe from her mother-in-law more than 15 years ago, has long used it to build community. Years ago, she helped lead a girls’ empowerment program through the temple. For one lesson, the group came to her house and made hamantaschen together, which is how Temple Emanuel first learned of the recipe.

Senior Rabbi Andy Koren at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC

Senior Rabbi Andy Koren helps ensure that its century-plus tradition of service and outreach continues. photograph by Joey Seawell

“When your hands are busy, it’s easier to have conversations,” says Strasser, who trained as a social worker. Over the years, she’s invited friends to bake hamantaschen with her as well, using the time to be together and have good conversations amid their busy schedules.

Strasser loves baking, and she’s drawn to the opportunity it creates for connection. During the pandemic, she often baked with her daughter and filled baggies with stickers reading “Baked by the Strasser family.” They’d walk their neighborhood together and drop the gifts on people’s doorsteps.

Participating in Project Hamantaschen makes Strasser think of her father, who lives alone in New York. How often do seniors like him get to interact with other people face to face? she wonders. These mishloach manot are a way to counteract that isolation with joy. “It brings happiness to people, and it brings community together,” she says. “That’s what I love most.”

• • •

Karen Brod is similarly motivated. She volunteers regularly with her kids — now 16, 11, and 8 — through various initiatives at the temple, the Greensboro Jewish Federation, and beyond, eager to teach her children to be giving, considerate, and empathetic.

“I want everybody to feel loved and appreciated and cared for,” says Brod, who is a disability lawyer. “I think it’s easy to assume that people who are in assisted living have nurses to take care of them or they have their own kids, but I want [my kids] to remember these people and take care of them and for them to be included.”

Brod intrinsically understands the importance of being included. When she was a kid, her family relocated to the quiet town of Clinton from a thriving Jewish community outside Toledo, Ohio, for her father’s job as a plant manager at a glass manufacturing company. For most of her time in eastern North Carolina, Brod didn’t know a single other Jewish family in town.

Her parents took turns driving Brod and her brother more than 70 minutes each way to attend a temple in Wilmington. They often made the trek a couple of times a week, especially as Brod prepared for her bat mitzvah. She remembers seemingly endless tobacco fields on those trips before handheld electronics were ubiquitous, the highway her only path to a Jewish community.

Karen Brod and her kids make cards for senior citizens during Project Hamantaschen at Temple Emanuel

For Karen Brod and her kids, making cards for senior citizens during Project Hamantaschen is a way to give back. photograph by Joey Seawell

She never imagined she’d marry someone Jewish — the pool was always small or nonexistent. But she met Andrew, Temple Emanuel’s then-president, and ended up marrying him. Now, their three children are growing up a world away from the detachment of her Sampson County childhood.

“It really is a striking change to have so many kids that my kids can be around and share these experiences with,” she says. But it’s not just about growing up with Jewish peers — she also wants them to be part of an intergenerational community. She wants that for herself, too.

“Through volunteering opportunities like Project Hamantaschen, you’re meeting different people, not just other young mothers,” Brod says. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities in life to interact with other generations than your own. And through these experiences, my kids began to understand how to practice patience, communication, and many other important skills.”

Brod doesn’t consider herself much of a baker, and three years ago when the project started, it made more sense for her family to contribute by decorating and writing cards to senior citizens. She’s grateful for the range of ways that Temple Emanuel has made it easy to volunteer, regardless of one’s age or means.

Koren says that’s intentional. “There’s a lot of elemental Jewish teaching happening here,” he explains. “Purim is really a treasured part of Jewish living, and this project is a way to manifest our tradition.”

“Providing food and shelter is important, but a lot of times people stop short after that and don’t do other projects that address these other critical needs.”

Yes, Purim is a celebration of surviving hatred against Jews, and, as with many Jewish holidays, it’s inextricably linked to a symbolic food. But it also goes deeper. All year, Greensboro’s Jewish community rallies to help people meet basic needs, and Brod and her kids are among those who respond to the call. It’s essential to her that their engagement goes further.

“Providing food and shelter is important, but a lot of times people stop short after that and don’t do other projects that address these other critical needs,” she says. “I really do worry about how lonely our seniors can become.”

That’s why she and hundreds of others have found common cause in Project Hamantaschen, discovering joy and meaning in something that gets to the heart of Purim, something that all too often feels elusive for volunteers and recipients alike: community.


Hamantaschen

From Generation to Generation L’Dor Va’Dor: 100 Years of Cooking Temple Emanuel, Greensboro.
Recipe by Polly Strasser, submitted by Jen Strasser and Louise Van Schaack

Hamantaschen cookies

photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

1 cup sugar
1½ sticks margarine
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
4 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons milk
Fillings: Jam, jelly, prune, or poppy seed are all available premade at the store

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Cream together sugar and margarine. Add vanilla and eggs. In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, and salt, and add to the sugar-egg mixture, alternating with milk. Mix until a ball forms. Wrap the ball of dough in wax paper and refrigerate until cold.

Roll the dough out onto a cutting board and cut into circles. Add a filling of choice to the center of dough circles. Press edges of dough circles to form three-cornered hats. Place on parchment paper and bake until golden, about 10 to 15 minutes.

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This story was published on Feb 26, 2024

Eric Ginsburg

Eric Ginsburg is an independent journalist based in Raleigh. He previously worked as an editor at Triad City Beat and YES! Weekly newspapers in Greensboro.