As I strolled down Essex Street on a recent afternoon, I noticed something strange about an otherwise ordinary threesome of garrulous black teens passing me on the sidewalk. One of the boys was holding a square sheet of matzoh, ready to take a bite.
I made note of the episode for its novelty value, but afterward didn’t give it too much thought. Whereas I had to eat it eight days out of the year at the expense of all other grain and never became fond of it, I know some non-Jews who enjoy eating the unleavened bread as a snack.
After an eye-opening visit to Reisman Bros. Bakery in Bensonhurst, the country’s first and oldest kosher wholesale baker, that moment on the Lower East Side transformed from non sequitur to something much more significant.
The purpose of my visit to Reisman Bros. was to check out their hamantaschen, the jam-filled triangular cookie eaten on the Jewish holiday of Purim, which falls on March 6 this year. I learned that these treats aren’t just for the holidays anymore. Turns out, in addition to their secular line of baked goods, Reisman’s makes a fine business of selling these ceremonial cookies year round, mostly to non-Jews.
Shia Friedman, the baby-faced grandson of bakery co-founder Ben Reisman, said that since having introduced hamantaschen?modeled after the three-cornered hat worn by Haman, the villain of the Purim story?to the mainstream market, the cookie’s sales grew dramatically. They are now only second to ruggalah.
“Jewish persons, they associate hamantaschen with Purim,” said Friedman, a gentle kippah-clad redhead. “They’re not going to eat it all year round. But now that we started selling them to non-Jewish areas, hamantaschen sales have grown by four or five times. They don’t care if it’s for Purim or not; if they like how it tastes, they’ll buy it.”
By “non-Jewish areas,” Friedman refers to supermarkets that don’t cater specifically to a kosher clientele. It also doesn’t hurt that for 10 months out of the year, Reisman Bros. changes the name on the package from “Hamantaschen” to “Fruit Tarts”?the cookie equivalent of a box containing matzoh being sold as “crackers.”
Although the gentile world has helped Jewish foods cross over?note the bagel?the newfound popularity of hamantaschen is more akin to eating challah, the ceremonial Sabbath bread, in the form of French toast at a local diner. But unlike bagels or babka, hamantaschen is a food of religious symbolism that is being embraced by those outside of the faith as a fruit-filled cookie.
Friedman maintains that, in the end, people’s tastes aren’t all that different. “When I sampled our chocolate babka in the non-Jewish markets,” Friedman recalls, “Italians would come over to me and say, ‘My mother used to make something that smelled just like this.'”