We all know that hamantashen are a simply delicious holiday treat. But less known is the fact that the word “hamantashen” has a rich etymological history, steeped in the intrigues, both esoteric and exoteric, that have accompanied the Jewish people on their journey since the revelation at Sinai. The linguistic history of hamantashen serves as a metaphor for Jewish pride, Jewish ingenuity, Jewish humor, and also for our ever-tenuous relationship with the nations.
Our story begins in the opium and ganja-filled back alleys of Kingston, Jamaica, where the great sage and medical scholar we now know as Maimonides fled to after the Haitian expulsions of the 12th century. Although able to build a profitable medical practice in Kingston’s Jewish quarter, Maimonides could not secure a congregation among the suspicious and inward-looking autochthonous Jewish settlement. He came to soft-peddle his rabbinical wares among the local infirm gentile population, enticing them into his book-filled ante-room with small three-cornered cookies filled with his special recipe of opiated pain-easing poppy seed paste. So endeared did he become to his grateful patients/students that they came to call him Papa Doc, a name which captured both his spiritual and medicinal talents. Many in the Jewish community, somewhat concerned with Papa Doc’s dispensing opium-laced cookies to the outside community, came to call him “Poppy Doc” instead, a humorous jab expressing their distaste for his drug business. (Of course, we all know that the descendents of Papa Doc went back to Haiti, but that’s another and far more shameful story that we won’t pursue right now, especially on such a joyous holiday as Purim.)
Late in Papa Doc’s long life, Jamaican society was transformed rapidly and irrevocably with the emergence of the Rastafarian movement. Along with this religious upheaval inevitably came linguistic upheaval as well. For our purposes, the most important linguistic innovation of the era was the introduction of the new vocative form “mon,” deriving from the English word “man.” Calls of “hey mon!” became the new greeting throughout Kingston and the rest of the island. Rastas even extended their new greeting to Jews, including Papa Doc. Our aged sage, overjoyed by this badge of acceptance bestowed upon him by his host community, officially changed his name to “Heymon,” despite the bad associations that the name possessed among his co-religionists. Never intending to slur his own people, the newly-monikered Heymon found himself in that ancient Jewish quandary—how to successfully navigate between two societies that have so little in common with each other, and which, at any moment, might erupt into antagonism. Fortunately anti-Semitism went largely unpracticed in Jamaica (witness the kashrus customs and the Jewish symbols that remain in the Rasta religion to this day).
Now the story gets complicated. The Jewish community, somewhat resentful of Heymon’s apparent (but only apparent) abandonment of his people, nonetheless could not deny that he had always been an upstanding member of the community, and that, despite his questionable cookie business, had helped establish successful relations between the Jews and the gentile population. Turning to their knowledge of both Hebrew and Yiddish, the community once again used linguistic humor to ameliorate their conflicted views of this increasingly complicated man. They came to truncate the name “Heymon” back to, simply, “Mon,” a name-change which was an almost perfect reflection of the community’s conflicted relationship to Heymon. First, it was an already established word among the gentile community, and could serve the Jewish community as a harmless gesture of assimilation. Second, of course, whereas before he was jokingly known as “Poppy Doc,” the name “Mon,” indeed means “poppy seed” in Yiddish. This new appellation thus accurately reflected both the man and his cookie.
After his death, Mon’s legacy underwent a major rehabilitation in the Jamaican Jewish community. This was due, in great part, to the unearthing of a vast catalogue of his unpublished scholarly books and papers, the intellectual reach of which extends all the way to today’s Yeshivas and universities. The Kingston community, upon learning that all posthumous publication profits were to be returned to the Jewish community that he always loved and never really abandoned, quickly reclaimed Mon as one of their own. “That’s my Mon!!” became the catchphrase of the day. Even down to today, if you walk those same Kingston back alleys where Maimonides once tread, the phrase “That’s my Mon!!” can still be heard whenever someone is taking pride in their work, pride in their children, and pride in their people. The route from “my Mon” to the Hellenized “Maimonides” is of course obvious.
Due to the warm Jewish-Rasta relations, intermarriage was an inevitability. In the 18th century, a descendant of Maimonides married into Kingston’s prestigious Tosh family, who’s proudest son was the famed reggae musician Peter. In yet another sociolinguistic twist, the mon-filled cookie took the name that persists to this day: Heymon Tosh, Yiddishized as hamantash (pl. hamantashen).
The opium-hamantashen-Maimonides link was enjoyed and savored in that peculiarly Jewish fashion until the 1930s when, understandably, attention was turned elsewhere, and all public acknowledgment of the connection dropped from view. A brief resurgent interest in the etymology gained some ground in the 1960s, only to disappear once again in the Just-Say-No Nancy Reagan years.
I hope my little re-introduction of this corner of Jewish etymological history will serve to spark your interest sufficiently so that you tell your children, and your children’s children about this wondrous and almost forgotten story. Enjoy the holiday everybody!