The Case for the Essential Hamantaschen in Troubled Times

An international law expert draws on current events, fake news and Iran in a bid to put to rest the eternal latke-hamantaschen debate once and for all.

Allan Gerson
Allan Gerson
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A hamantaschen facing off against a latke.
A hamantaschen facing off against a latke.Credit: AP
Allan Gerson
Allan Gerson

In these troubled times as we come upon this year’s Purim, the future may rest on which choice we make: the latke or hamantaschen.

I confess, being a lawyer, to value the profoundly rational. Yet, being Jewish, I am undeniably emotional. So my argument for the supremacy of hamantaschen merges reason with emotion to hopefully bring all doubters to their senses.

I turn first to Aristotle, to guide us with an overarching principle. “Happiness,” he exclaimed, “is the goal of all our conscious efforts.”

So ask yourselves: Does true happiness lie in the latke or hamantaschen? Would you believe that true happiness can reside without being secure that while you are munching on your latkes, enemies do not lie ready to lurch?

Don’t get me wrong, latkes are all well and good; I truly love them. But latkes can’t hold a candle – so to speak – to hamantaschen. For latkes are a food borne of miraculous events – a drop of oil lasting for eight days.

Don’t get me wrong, I like miracles as much as I like latkes. But hamantaschen remind us that miracles – some call them alternative facts – are particularly unreliable, little more than a crutch in troubled times. Plus, latkes require almost no effort. You simply throw a blob of potato mash on a hot frying pan. Consequently, under Aristotle’s principle, they give little reward.

Making latkes while the world around us is falling apart and enemies abound is like Nero fiddling as Rome burns. When the world is burning, should the Jewish soul seek sustenance in the latke? Or realize that hamantaschen are the indispensable step to security?

This brings me to my first proposition: You can have your latke and eat it too, but only if you have the hamantaschen first.

Hamantaschen are the mother and father of latkes – and they are a guiding light to happiness. The Maccabees would never have even recognized the potato latke, much less eaten them in the 2nd century BCE, as potatoes only came over from the new world in the 16th century. By contrast, any Persian of Queen Esther’s time would have recognized hamantaschen as representing evil Haman’s three-cornered hat.

Moreover, hamantaschen – making the filling, kneading the dough, folding it into triangles, baking it just right – take effort. They take work. They take the kind of resilience against odds the Jewish people are known for. In short, mindless frying may end up with you in the frying pan; but conscious baking, the signature of hamantaschen, is the road to lasting happiness and security.

This leads me to a corollary to the first proposition: In a world of priorities, hard work comes before the pleasure of fond foods.

Hamantaschen and latkes work and love, respectively. That is not to say that hamantaschen are without love or that latkes are made without work – but hamantaschen certainly have more love in them than latkes have work put into them!

Thus I come to my second proposition: The Jewish priority must be reality, not delusion.

Iran, under its current rulers, is bad, bad, bad. That is not an illusion. That’s the reality. Haman of Persia is yesterday’s incarnation of the worst today’s Iran. Hamantaschen ring the warning bell. Now, I know something about terrorism.

I represented the families of the victims of PanAm 103 in their case against Libya, and I now represent families of the victims of 9/11 in their search for justice against Saudi Arabia. As a lawyer, I search for accountability. And the shape of hamantaschen, based on the hat that the Persian Haman wore, resembles not coincidentally the letter A, for accountability.

Esther held Haman accountable for his plot to kill the Jews under Ahasuerus’ reign. You see, God did not deliver the Jews from Haman, at least not according to the Book of Esther, which Jews traditionally read on Purim.

It’s the only book in the Bible where God is not even mentioned. God did not bring forth a miracle and suddenly there was Esther eating potato pancakes over Haman’s grave. No, Esther took the risk, took charge, and saved the Jews herself, along with her uncle Mordechai – three centuries before the revolt of the Maccabees, mind you.

And how do we commemorate the Jewish victory over those Persians who wanted them slaughtered? We make hamantaschen – to remind us that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

If you make latkes, you commemorate a miracle. Noble and honest as that may be, relying on miracles is surely not a time-tested method for survival. But God helps those who help themselves. As opposed to latkes, making hamantaschen is a mark of responsibility.

And bear this in mind: The hamantaschen shape is a triangle – the sturdiest, the strongest, the most dependable of geometric shapes. What shape is a latke? The shape of a miracle – amorphous, without foundation.

It looks like a cloud or pie in the sky, the stuff alternative facts are made of. Triangles, however, can be used to build anything if you have enough of them. Hamantaschen -type triangles, when interconnected, build skyscrapers, pyramids, even bridges.

It is far better, safer, and ultimately happier to live in a world of reality rather than miracles. Miracles, which latkes represent in commemorating the oil that kept burning for eight days, are the stuff of alternative facts.

If you’re lucky, you may hit the jackpot on one of the non-facts. But over time, facts are facts. However, if your priorities are straight, you can have your latkes and your hamantaschen, too.

Now, the word happiness comes from the noun hap – as in happenstance. Hamantaschen take the happenstance out of happiness. They provide you with a clear and effortful path toward earning happiness.

When you eat latkes, you may be happy, but without the safeguards of hamantaschen, it is the happiness of a drunkard on a burning bridge. Hamantaschen are the happiness that Aristotle recommended.

Finally, I would like to say this. We all know the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Not bad. But in a troubled, difficult world, Esther’s golden rule provides a sturdier guide, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Just make sure to do it first.”

What are we then called to do? We are called on to make hamantaschen, wherever we may be. For evil lurks from generation to generation. M’Dor L’Dor! This is the spirit of Israel today – resilient, hardworking, and vigilant. The flag of Israel’s Magen David has in fact the hamantaschen incorporated into it so we never confuse reality with illusion, facts with non-facts, the essential with the superfluous.

This Purim and every Purim, and in between, may you reap the superior blessings of hamantaschen!

Allan Gerson is chairman of AG International Law, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm. Mr. Gerson was counsel to the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations, 1981-1985, and is the author of “Israel, the West Bank and International Law.”

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