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Reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit www.jta.org.
NEW YORK, Jan. 23 (JTA)--Wedged between the drama of life and death, Purim is also a love story. It's the saga of how a young woman met her husband, a man who initially seemed coarse and hard-boiled, but in the end arguably turned out to be a real mensch.
Set in ancient Persia, the story opens with King Ahasuerus banishing his wife. Eager to replace her, he tells his men to gather every beautiful maiden to his palace for his version of speed dating.
Esther, niece of the revered Jew Mordechai, is taken to the palace with the other girls. Mordechai instructs her not to reveal her background, and visits the palace gates daily, hoping for news of his niece.
The king meets a number of potential queens, but selects Esther, unaware of her religion.
The plot thickens when the king's vizier, Haman, builds a gallows for Mordechai, intending to kill him and annihilate the Jews. Esther, with Mordechai's help, sways the king and averts disaster for the Jewish nation.
Because of this, the Jewish people have praised Esther's bravery for centuries. But did anyone ever consider how a nice Jewish girl landed a king?
“I imagine Queen Esther acted like she was happy to there, like she wanted to meet Mister Right," says Robin Gorman Newman, author of How to Marry a Mensch, a recently published book. “She didn't just fantasize about it, she put her best foot forward."
Newman is a love coach who helps single clients of all ages navigate the ever-changing social scene. In the age of JDate, the online dating service for Jews, her tips are timeless, as applicable in ancient Persia as they are now.
She advises clients to seek a mensch. She defines a mensch as a decent, responsible person, someone with good morals and strength of character, someone of whom even the fussiest Jewish mother would approve. While the word mensch derives from Yiddish, it has infiltrated popular culture, applying equally to men and women.
The love coach claims you must be a mensch to attract a mensch. Esther was a mensch, because she risked her safety and happiness in order to help her people.
A mensch is also a person you can trust, someone who will be there in times of trouble, the way King Ahasuerus responded when Queen Esther revealed that she was Jewish and that Haman was plotting genocide against her people. Instead of automatically accepting his vizier's advice, the king listened to his wife, hanging Haman on his own gallows.
Afterward, Mordechai instructs Persia's Jews to celebrate their salvation, something that's relived in present-day Purim parties. Yet in all that joy, it's worth noting that the holiday is not only a tale of redemption but also the joining of two menschen.
Let's imagine our heroine in action. When approaching the king, what did she do right? Did she act like herself, or play by “The Rules"?
The love coach speculates that Esther was a “mensch magnet," meaning that she was adept at making eye contact and starting conversations. “In the dating game, flirting is important, as is giving compliments."
She mentions an attractive client who was too shy to talk to men, until Newman encouraged her to take a chance. Long story short--by chatting a little, she married a great guy.
The Megillah of Esther indicates that the queen was beautiful. But for twelve months before the night she met the king, she was in his harem, beautifying herself with oil, cosmetics and perfume. The night she met the king, she dressed according to the knowledgeable advice of the harem's eunuch--and, Newman hopes, smiling. While today's dating scene has migrated to the Internet, the same tips apply.
“Even on the Internet, you should distinguish yourself with a good photo," says Newman. “Write a punchy profile that shows your personality."
She describes a young man whose JDate profile wasn't drawing much attention. When she saw it, Newman knew why.
“Your picture looks like a military mug shot," she told him. “You're too stiff. You're not smiling."
The importance of appearing friendly can't be overestimated when it comes to attracting a mensch. ”People want to meet someone who's happy," says Newman.
She suggests seeking Cloud Eight. “Too many people want perfection, that knock-my-socks-off feeling." They don't give a comfortable conversation with a nice person a chance.
Yet Esther was probably open to Cloud Eight. “Not a terrible compromise," says Newman. In all likelihood, Ahasuerus wasn't the man of her dreams. Besides having left wife No. 1--there are some suggestions that he had her killed--he was older than our heroine.
Like the king, a good percentage of Newman's clients are mature daters, people who've been divorced or widowed and are looking for mates.
“You can get married at any age, if you have the right attitude," she says. “If you're afraid you're 50-plus and won't meet anybody, you probably won't." As a matter of fact, Newman's father, a widower of 82, has enjoyed the company of several wonderful women.
With spring fever in the air, Purim is the perfect time to think of love. Whether people are single or long married, Newman believes that sweets kindle romance. For that reason, she shares her mother's almond sherry cake recipe, a baking contest winner, which has been stealing people's hearts for decades. Because pies are now trendy, she suggests making her honey cheese pie. One slice sends people to the moon.
No matter how old or new a relationship, nothing is more appealing than homemade mocha truffles or dipping strawberries into white, milk, or semi-sweet chocolate.
“The adage, 'the way to a man's heart is through his stomach,' is truer than ever,'' says Newman. Conversely there's nothing better than a man who bakes. Now there's a real mensch.
In line with the holiday's ritual, which revolves around exchanging gift baskets containing desserts, she suggests throwing a singles Purim party, setting the mood by serving sweets. Invite every unattached person in your circle and ask them to bring friends. You never know who you could meet. If Queen Esther were still single, that's what she would do.
ALMOND SHERRY CAKE
by Robin Gorman Newman
1 (18.25 oz.) box yellow cake mix (without pudding)
4 large eggs
3/4 cup cream sherry
3/4 cup cooking oil
1 (3 oz.) box instant vanilla pudding
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cardamom
1 tsp. flour
1/8 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch bundt pan.
Place all ingredients listed above into a large bowl. Mix at low speed for one minute, scraping bowl constantly. Then mix at medium speed for three minutes. (Batter is lumpy.) Pour half the batter into bundt pan.
Sprinkle streusel filling (recipe below) over batter in bundt pan.
Pour remaining batter over streusel filling.
Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until cake springs back when touched lightly and inserted cake tester or toothpick comes out clean. Turn off oven, leaving cake inside with door ajar for two minutes. Cool completely on a rack.
Turn mold upside down over a serving plate. Cover with sherry glaze (recipe below).
Yield: 8-10 servings
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
3 tbsp. firm butter
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds, toasted at 350 degrees for 2 minutes
Mix brown sugar, flour, butter and cinnamon until crumbly. Then stir in almonds.
2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
1/3 cup melted butter
1 tbsp. sherry
1-2 tsp. hot water
Place confectioners sugar, butter and sherry in a medium bowl and stir together. With a fork, slowly mix in water, until glaze is slightly thickened but loose enough to drizzle over the top of the cake.
HONEY CHEESE PIE
by Robin Gorman Newman
11/2 cups flour
1 tbsp. sugar
1/4 lb. sweet butter cut into 4 chunks, plus 1 tbsp.
1/4 cup ice water
Fit food processor with cutting blade. Place flour, sugar and 1/4 pound of butter in its bowl and cover.
While processing ingredients, slowly add water through the feed tube and run for about two minutes, until dough forms into a large ball.
Dust kitchen counter and rolling pin with flour. Place dough ball on floured counter and roll into a 12-inch circle. Should dough separate or tear, push it back together with fingers. Cover half the dough circle with foil. Fold dough over foil. Cover half the remaining surface with foil and fold again so you have 1/4 of a circle.
Grease a 9-inch deep dish pie pan with remaining tbsp. of butter. Place dough over 1/4 of pan and unfold until it covers the entire pan. Press into place.
Cream Cheese Pie Filling
1/2 cup whole milk
3 eggs beaten
1/2 cup honey
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
8-ounce pkg. cream cheese at room temperature, cut into 6 chunks
Preheat over to 350 degrees.
Place milk, eggs, honey, vanilla and salt in a large mixing bowl and combine.
Place cream cheese in another large bowl. Gradually add the milk batter above. Mix at medium speed until well blended. Batter will be quite liquid.
Pour into prepared pie pan.
Bake for 40 to 55 minutes, until cake tester or toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool and serve.
Yield: 8-10 servings
by Linda Morel
1 pint of fresh strawberries with attractive crisp leaves
12 oz. chocolate: either semi-sweet, milk chocolate, or white chocolate--or for visual appeal and varied flavors, use 4 oz. of each.
Place strawberries in a colander and rinse under cold water. Put two paper towels on a counter. Place strawberries on top. With a third towel, gently roll strawberries to dry them. Move them to two dry paper towels.
Wait until strawberries dry completely. This may take 1-3 hours, depending on humidity.
Fill the bottom of a double boiler with two inches of water. Place chocolate in the top part and cover with the lid. Fit the top of the double boiler over its bottom part. (If using more than one kind of chocolate, you can rig an extra double boiler or two by placing a heatproof bowl over a saucepan and covering them with aluminum foil.)
Bring water to a rolling boil. Stir chocolate every couple of minutes, until it melts completely.
Turn off flame but keep top of double boiler over the hot water.
Line a cookie sheet with waxed paper.
Twirl one strawberry at a time into melted chocolate, submerging about halfway. Let excess chocolate drip back into double boiler. Place strawberry on waxed paper and repeat until all strawberries are coated.
Place cookie sheet in the refrigerator, making sure that it rests on an even surface. Cool for 2 hours, or until chocolate hardens completely.
Gently peel each strawberry from waxed paper and place on an attractive platter. Serve immediately or refrigerate until serving.
Yield: approximately 25 strawberries
by Linda Morel
8 oz box of semi-sweet baking chocolate squares
2/3 cup heavy cream
1/8 tsp. vanilla
3 tsp. coffee liqueur
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa, sifted onto a plate
Fill the bottom of a double boiler with two inches of water. Place baking chocolate and cream in the top part and cover with the lid. Fit the top of the double boiler over its bottom part. Bring water to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally.
When chocolate melts completely, stir briskly until cream is fully incorporated.
Remove top of double boiler from the bottom part. Immediately add vanilla and liqueur. Stir vigorously until well combined.
Divide the mixture in half and put in separate bowls. Cover both bowls and refrigerate for 3 hours, or until firm to the touch.
Take one bowl from the refrigerator and leave for 10 minutes.
Cool your hands by running under cold water and drying well. Repeat periodically so hands don't melt chocolate.
With a round melon baller, cut out truffles. With fingertips, ease chocolate from melon baller. They should look roughly like half spheres, but don't worry if the shape isn't perfect.
Roll spheres into cocoa, coating all around. Place on a platter, if serving soon, or in a shallow plastic container for later use.
Continue making truffles until only the chocolate between the scooped-out areas remains. Scrape odd chocolate pieces together with melon baller. With cool fingertips, remove and form into roughly shaped half spheres. Continue until all chocolate is gone.
Repeat this process with the second bowl of chocolate.
Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Yield: approximately 50 truffles