One of my favourite things about Purim is opening the front door to find little gift boxes outside. They’re usually very homemade, but that’s precisely their charm.
Inside, misshapen hamantashen nestle against each other, their fillings burbling out of their careful folds. There’s fruit, a few herbal tea bags, sometimes a small cake and candy thrown haphazardly into the mix. A handwritten little note will say, “Happy Purim!” And the holiday certainly feels like a happy one when you find thoughtful, homemade little gifts at your door. They add a taste of someone else’s kitchen to your day and a fun, a whimsical touch to this noisy, messy Jewish holiday. No sooner are the gifts in the kitchen than my kids will bicker over the spoils, specifically over who gets the candy and chocolate cake. Those hamantashen are usually the last to go.
Assembling mishloach manot can be quite a workout. I know because most years I create a few of my own, Googling for innovative additions to my boxes and spending hours on my sewing machine so I can add a homemade dishcloth or pot holder. I love finding innovative, useful containers for the mishloach manot, and fight to get the perfect consistency on my pastry so my hamantashen look like they’re intended to. It’s a battle I consistently lose, and the words “DO NOT MAKE” are scrawled across most of my recipes for this peculiar pastry. Still, it’s Purim, and for tradition’s sake, I feel like I have to keep trying.
By the time my mishloach manot are done they’re emphatically homemade, but everything about their appearance says, “I took time and effort to put this together.”
To me, that’s the essence of what a meaningful gift should be. No one who makes mishloach manot in her or his kitchen is striving for a professional gift basket because that’s not what it’s about. Homemade means personal touches, loving thoughtfulness and imperfections aplenty. Professional, by contrast, means “went to the store and forked over money.” Sure, professional looks better – but homemade somehow feels nicer. To me, at any rate.
The Jewish schools in my area are forever fundraising, and over the years, their mishloach manot fundraiser has gathered impetus. It’s a smart scheme for the schools: you let them know the names and addresses of the families to whom you want to send Purim gifts.
You pay a set amount and they do the rest, assembling hundreds of professional looking baskets that contain store-made hamantashen, a few Hershey’s kisses and a ceramic mug or other kitchen accoutrement that will likely gather dust before landing in the trash or the thrift store. For the gift-giver, the only requirement to participate is reading off the digits on their credit card. But recipients get just one little box, no matter how many families decided to send a gift. One box containing not even a whiff of anything homemade. Kind of a raw deal, when you think about it.
So bring back the home-crafted mishloach manot, I say. They don’t need to take hours or cost huge amounts to assemble, and they give the gift-giver an opportunity to be creative, to rally the kids for a baking session in the kitchen and to initiate cute themed baskets, from cookies and milk to OJ and muesli. You don’t have to be a culinary whiz to do this. The fun is in assembling a collection of goodies, packaging them together and personally delivering them to people you care about.
Professional mishloach manot are like the gift cards or cheques you get on your birthday. They say “money,” but not personal effort, deliberation or thoughtfulness. And there’s something about those three attributes taken together that makes a recipient feel special, chosen and loved – and not just on Purim.