‘Like today, last Hanukkah was another of my faltering attempts to mark a holiday we’d never celebrated as children, with gaps in space and memory filled in using the internet. I learned to pronounce the prayers from a YouTube video, and met up with my sister over Zoom each night to light a menorah I ordered from Amazon. It’s an insubstantial thing, just a sheet of aluminium with a row of holes punched through it for the candles. It was cheap and had fast shipping. One nice touch is that it uses little cups of olive oil instead of wax candles. You only light one on the first night, then two the next and so on. Over the eight nights, the unburned oil turned pink as it oxidised in the air.”’
Becca Miles’ creative nonfiction piece Hamantaschen is a wonderfully wholesome piece of nonfiction writing about establishing your own traditions.
In Hamantaschen, we follow the narrator as they symbolically bake the traditional Jewish biscuits hamantaschen on the holiday of Purim. Some of us, myself included, associate baking with their childhood and afternoons spent with parents or grandparents. In this specific case, the expectations of the homely and nostalgic feelings are quite skewed. The narrator does not have any experiences or memories of baking hamantaschen as a child. They have to build the tradition, and the memories of it, themselves. Technology, an unlikely hero, helps them learn what they can’t remember. The narrator’s effort and consideration for something of the past is a sign that, for them, honouring their roots is an essential part of moving forward.
The slow process of experimenting with tradition that occurs across this piece is accompanied by the interspersed narration of the family history of the narrator. Although most of the past has been handed down by word of mouth, it is extremely interesting to follow the narrator as they try to piece together their somewhat bare family tree. When the memories are scarce, it is bittersweet to imagine how it would have been then, how your kin must have felt rolling the hamantaschen dough on the same holiday – just as you are doing in the present moment. Becca writes, ‘It’s at this point I realise that my daydreams are plagiarising ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. I suppose it makes sense; the 1971 film of that musical was my first point of reference for that disappeared world. Our birth mum would put in the VHS tape for us to watch and tell us “That’s where your family came from.”’ This aspect of Hamantaschen is the most quirky and fascinating. Becca skillfully intertwines the present and the past in a perfect circle of life moment, in a way that is a pleasure to read and lose yourself in.
Another remarkable element of this piece is the transpiring concept that identity is primarily subjective. Although this is not dealt with in detail, there is a build up throughout the piece to the narrator realising that they should have the freedom to define themselves as Jewish. And they have a full right to do that, even though they may not always have followed Jewish traditions and holidays. Becca writes, ‘I found myself talking about a friend of mine who died a few years back, who once told me I didn’t need permission to call myself Jewish. “What a gift they gave you,” someone replied.’ This idea can be applied to many other contexts, and it is especially important within the theme of the piece about tradition. After all, there’s something about understanding your culture and creating your own traditions that can really help shape your identity – at least in your own mind.
Overall, Hamantaschen reminds the reader that sometimes, although it may be hard, messy, and confusing, it is necessary to reconnect with the past, even the kind of past that is so far back that we couldn’t have experienced it, to truly understand ourselves. You can follow Becca on Twitter here.
Linda Arrighi, Nonfiction Editor