Laurel Kratochvila and her team begin the process every year around March. They roll out a thin, buttery egg dough and meticulously cut out as many circular disks as they can muster from it. Carefully, they add a sweet preserve filling to the center: Too much and the cookie will explode and leak out in the oven, not enough and the flavor disappears. Then, as tradition calls for, they delicately fold the sides inward to form a triangle and seal it. It takes a gentle touch. Sometimes the exposed fillings are adventurous, like pistachio and rose water. Other times, they opt for classics like apricot. The bakers are making hamantaschen — an Ashkenazi Jewish cookie, triangular-shaped and golden with fillings in the middle, traditionally eaten over the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Every spring, Kratochvila — an ex-pat originally from Boston — and her team crank out hundreds of hamantaschen at her shop Fine Bagels in Berlin, which she opened with her husband nine years ago. The bakery is a tribute to Kratochvila’s Jewish American roots, bringing comfort food like bagels and lox and sweet chocolate rugelach to Berlin’s East Side. They begin selling the hamantaschen in the morning, usually telling excited patrons on Instagram what time the cookies will drop. They almost always sell out within a couple of hours.
This year, Kratochvila is baking and selling more hamantaschen than ever before. Previously, she would make about 300 cookies in total — this year she anticipates making 2,000 by Purim. In response to Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine on February 24 — which has seen more than 2 million Ukrainians flee the country as Russian forces push inward — Kratochvila launched Hamantashen for Ukraine in an effort to raise money for Ukrainian relief. And her once-small bake sale is spreading internationally.
Ukraine is a pillar of the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora, with 43,000 Jewish residents, representing 6 percent of the global Jewish population. Following centuries of devastation prompted by antisemitism, recent decades have brought a thriving, vibrant Jewish community to Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and lost family during the Holocaust. According to the Washington Post, Ukrainian Jews are now fleeing or bunkering in fear of another episode that will tear down the community they have worked to rebuild.
The tradition of eating hamantaschen on Purim started sometime in late 18th- or 19th-century Germany, according to Time. The exact origins are debated, but historians agree that the cookie plays a central role in today’s iteration of the holiday. The cookies are named after Haman, the villain in the Book of Esther, who plotted the annihilation of all Jews in ancient Persia. In the end, thanks to the risk and cleverness of Queen Esther, Haman was stopped and catastrophe averted; Purim, which takes place March 16 and 17 this year, celebrates that triumph. Originally, the cookies were said to resemble Haman’s pockets stuffed with bribe money. Nowadays, the cookies are said to resemble Haman’s ear or hat, depending on who you ask.
On the Hamantashen for Ukraine website, Kratochvila compares Russian President Vladimir Putin to a “modern-day Haman.” “I suppose the parallel that I draw is that of the modern-day evil — here being Putin and what he’s doing to the Ukrainian people,” Kratochvila said. “But also the possibility of good triumphing. It’s pretty universal.” Kratochvila and her husband, who was raised under the Russian occupation in post-’68 Czechoslovakia, felt an unbridled desire to help the refugees right as the war started. “He had a sense of history repeating, but in a much worse way,” she said.
Within 24 hours, Hamantashen for Ukraine had launched with a donated logo, a mobilized network of bakers, an Instagram page, and a website. “I have a really nice network of bakers around the world,” Kratochvila said. “Bakers tend to do a lot of exchange and support amongst each other. I figured they were also looking for any small way to help. So I reached out and people started to get on board.”
The campaign is encouraging bakers to sell hamantaschen this month and to donate proceeds to Polish Humanitarian Action: SOS Ukraine, which is providing aid, including food, to Ukrainian refugees. Quickly, the concept started gaining traction — with about 30 bakers signing up within the first couple of days. “Because people are making their donations directly to the Polish Humanitarian Action, rather than me trying to set up an organization and centralized donation point, it was relatively simple to set up,” Kratochvila said.
Now, the movement is budding with more than 130 participating bakeries, home bakers, delis, and restaurants around the world. Participants represent seven countries, spanning thousands of miles and ranging levels of knowledge when it comes to the Jewish treat.
Russ & Daughters, the iconic Jewish appetizing shop in New York City, will be pumping out the cookies with traditional raspberry, poppy seed, prune, and apricot flavors, like it does annually. But this year, proceeds from sales on March 14 and 15 will be donated. “Hamantaschen symbolize resilience in the face of flagrant wickedness,” Russ & Daughters posted on its Instagram account. “Aligning stomach with soul, Jewish past with current events, we’re partnering with Hamantashen for Ukraine this Purim.” Russ & Daughters’ offerings reflect tradition: Poppy seed hamantaschen — or mohn in German — are the OG flavor when it comes to these cookies, experts like the Nosher say. But it doesn’t always mean they’re the fan favorite. The filling is an acquired taste, with flavors like apricot and chocolate towering in popularity according to informal surveys.
For bakers with less familiarity with Jewish food than Russ & Daughters, Kratochvila has been sharing a recipe for poppy seed hamantaschen online, along with photos. “I tell them all that poppy seed filling isn’t for everyone, but even in France where I’ve always had trouble finding ground poppy seed, bakers are actually much more enthusiastic about trying a traditional filling rather than making up their own,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of folks falling in love with poppy seed filling right now.”
Hamantaschen novices participating include Sister Pie out of Detroit and Cup-A-Joe, a coffee shop and bakery in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Brooke Erceg, who co-owns Cup-A-Joe with her husband, had never made hamantaschen before this week. She heard about the fundraiser on Instagram and felt a pull to get involved. “I love to read different recipes and the comments,” Erceg said. “My first try was an epic fail, but I later used a pate sucre recipe that I had frozen in my freezer. It was a success — I will have poppy seed flavorings and a passion fruit curd.”
Erceg added that communities — local ones like her Cup-A-Joe customers, as well as specialty-based ones like bakers — bring people together. “When we endure hardships, we look in our communities and I’m extremely grateful for the online baking community,” she said. “We need these relationships so we can feel supported by each other.”
Kratochvila says there’s beauty in bakers and patrons trying something new, and this obviously isn’t the first time bakers have banded together for a good cause in recent years. In 2016, bakers across the country responded to election results by launching nationwide bake sales benefiting Planned Parenthood, a tradition that continued for several years. PP bake sale founder Natasha Pickowicz told Bon Appétit in 2019 that the sales were a way to channel anger into something productive: “I wanted to find a way to express my passion for pastry as a form of activism.” In 2020, Paola Velez, Willa Pelini, and Rob Rubba formed Bakers Against Racism to raise funds for Black Lives Matter and anti-racism efforts; to date, the international effort and its 3,000 bakers have raised upward of $2.5 million. (BAR has also activated its own effort, Bake for Ukraine, for refugee and war relief.) And in recent months, as anti-Asian hate crimes continue to rise nationwide, bakers have been raising funds for organizations like Stop AAPI Hate.
“Bakers tend to be pretty socially minded and community-oriented. It’s a hard job and you only do it if you love it and care about what you have to offer through your craft,” Kratochvila said. “As far as bakers coming together at the drop of a hat for a good cause, I’m not surprised at all.”
It’s hard to say exactly how much money has been raised by Hamantashen for Ukraine so far. Each bakery is sending its proceeds independently. But, Kratochvila is asking each group to announce their contributions to motivate others and celebrate. She estimates that combined, they’ve raised about $20,000 to date, but expects that figure to surge this week, as more of the Jewish community begins to do their Purim shopping.
Her hope is that after the holiday is over, people remember that war is ongoing and relief is still necessary. “Even though Purim is in a week and this movement will fade, Ukrainians are still going to need aid for a long time,” she said. “So bakers should consider continuing with any of the other movements happening, like #cookforukraine.”
Emily Bloch is a journalist specializing in youth and internet culture writing for outlets including Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and the Lily. She’s constantly on a quest to find the best cafecito and boiled peanuts.