Purim in Paris: Hamantaschen, Queen Esther and Revelry from the Marais to the Louvre

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Purim in Paris: Hamantaschen, Queen Esther and Revelry from the Marais to the Louvre
You don’t have to be Jewish to take a big bite out of Purim (Pourim) festivities in Paris.   When fresh, fragrant hamantaschen (triangular cookies stuffed with jams, poppy-seed paste, or similar sweet creamy stuff) beckon from the windows of “Yiddish” bakeries in the Marais, you know Purim is on the way, accompanied by costumes, Purimshpils (satirical plays) and lots of permission to indulge. Purim celebrates the story of Queen Esther, who prevented the ethnic-cleansing of the Jews in ancient Persia (ca. 500 BCE). Purim always falls on the 14th day of Adar on the Jewish calendar, which follows a lunar cycle. Therefore, Purim does not have a fixed date on the Gregorian calendar (which became the international calendar by the first quarter of the 20th century). Usually, we can see signs of Purim, such as hamantaschen and advertisements for annual Purim plays, carnivals and costume parties a few weeks after Mardi Gras, unless it’s a leap year with two Adars and Purim comes later. This year the holiday begins on the evening of March 20th and lasts through March 22nd in Paris. To find out more about public Purim events, you can search on the internet by typing “Pourim à Paris” or go to Chabad/Beth-Loubavitch-Champs-Elysées, a good source for learning about Jewish practices and events open to tourists in Paris and its suburbs. Most events need reservations, so look for that information as well. If you are not in Paris on Purim this year, you can still experience the fun of Purim-esque activities on Sunday, March 24th at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism (le Musée de l’art et d’histoire du Judaisme). Come in costume to dance at the Purim Ball with the Kif Orkestra– which will take place from 3:30 pm to 6 pm. Throughout the day there will be activities and cooking ateliers for young and old alike. For more information, please visit the museum’s website. The fun of Purim comes from themes repeated in the Book of Esther: concealment, deception, reversals, and feasting. Similar to Mardi Gras (Carnival), Purim requires costumes, lots of music, parades, silly behavior, special sweets, and plenty of drinking to let go of rational perceptions. The saying goes: “one should drink until it is impossible to tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman” –that is, good from evil. The traditional Purimshpil performs the Esther story recited from the Megillah Esther (a scroll), often using contemporary subject matter as satire. When Haman’s name is mentioned, the audience drowns out the sound with plenty of noise from tin or wooden groggers, beating a drum, stamping feet, or booing with all one’s might. There are four requirements for Purim: 1) Read the story of Queen Esther from the Megillah Esther (also available in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament), 2) give donations to charity, 3) give “large portions” of various sweets to friends and relatives known as mishloach manot, and 4) enjoy a festive meal. To learn about and purchase decorative gift containers for Purim mishloach manot, visit Jewish specialty shops in the Marais or search for Judaica websites online. Sampling the traditional hamantaschen at Murciano and Florence Kahn, “Yiddish” bakeries in the Marais (4th arrondissement), makes Purim in Paris unique and memorable. Why are hamantaschen (Haman’s packets in Yiddish), also known as “oznay Haman” (Haman’s Ears in Hebrew), eaten during Purim? What do they mean? These three-corned pastries should remind us of Haman, the villain in the Esther story, and his demise at the end of the Book of Esther. He is devoured to cancel him out, thereby destroying evil. Hamantaschen dough can be similar to sugar cookies or American “Danish” yeast pastry.   “Taschen” means pocket, a pastry with filling, and should remind us of the hidden identity of Esther and the hidden forces of God that put Esther into her position as queen in order to save her people, the Jews, when Haman decreed their annihilation on the 14th of Adar. The original word from its Ashkenazi source may have been “mohntaschen” or “poppy-seed pockets” that evolved into “hamantaschen” – to sound like Haman’s name. Poppy seeds symbolize fertility and growth, expanding goodness with acts of kindness and courage, as…

Lead photo credit : A photo of poppy-seed hamantaschen in Florence Kahn’s window, with permission from Liz Rueven, Kosher Like Me

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Mercy College in Westchester, New York. She published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art." Her most recent book is a translation and annotation of "Pablo Picasso, André Salmon and 'Young French Painting,'" with an introduction by Jacqueline Gojard.


  • Ellen A.
    2019-03-21 15:50:34
    Ellen A.
    What a thorough and thoroughly enjoyable telling of the tale! Being Catholic, I have always wondered about the origins of Purim and connection to Queen Esther, but never took the time to learn the story. Strong heroines are so inspiring for our daughters. Thank you for this, and the references to the art works.