Liz Rubin's family had a Purim tradition when she was growing up in Los Angeles. Every year, she and her family would buy tons of candy, grape juice and hamantashen. They organized it all in the dining room, then put it together in themed packages for friends and relatives.
"It was almost like a whole section of the house was dedicated to mishloach manot," said the 21-year-old.
Once Purim finally arrived, Rubin said that her father would load everything into the family car and spend a few hours that morning driving all over the city delivering the treats.
Although she's now a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, Rubin got to relive some of her childhood memories earlier this week when she and a few dozen other members of Penn Hillel gathered on their way in and out of the dining hall to put together Purim baskets for the Friendship Circle, which provides assistance to families with special-needs children.
Though perhaps not as widely known as the traditions of the Passover seder or lighting the Chanukah candles, making Purim baskets is a Jewish custom that dates back more than 2,500 years to the origins of the holiday.
It originates in the Megillah itself, which in Chapter 9 states that days of feasting and merrymaking should be observed in celebration of the Jews' victory over Haman.
Still, the practice remains one of the lesser known conventions of contemporary Judaism.
One reason why, according to Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington, is that it lacks the communal aspect.
"Purim, for most Jews, is coming to synagogue and hearing the Megillah and dressing up" in costume for Purim festivities and carnivals, he said, observing that those activities become the central focus of the holiday.
He noted that Purim, which begins on the evening of Feb. 27, comes with four obligatory commandments: hearing the Megillah, giving alms to the poor, eating a festive meal and bestowing gifts of food.
While there are halachic laws concerning when to send the gifts and who should receive them, the rules regarding the baskets' contents are fairly straightforward: All that's required is that a pair of ready-to-eat foods be included.
Rabbi Jeremy Gerber of Congregation Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Wallingford, opined that the tradition of handing out small gifts to one's friends and neighbors was easier when Jews lived in close proximity in smaller communities.
"I think it was probably relatively common in the shtetls, but lost relative interest over time," said Gerber, adding that it's gaining favor again — in large part because of the Internet, which makes it nearly effortless to coordinate the mechanics of sending baskets to those in the immediate community, as well as those who live much further away.
Many synagogues now use the Web to organize their holiday bounty, allowing members to browse through a list of congregant names, click on those they want to get a gift and then pay a nominal fee per name. Those on the receiving end get a single basket, along with a list of everyone who contributed to it.
Proceeds from the project often serve not only to pay for the food, but are used toward a tzedakah fundraiser.
Just Chips and a Coke?
Technically, mishloach manot can be as simple as a container holding a can of Coke and a bag of chips, but for those who prefer more abundance and sophistication, Web sites sell baskets at varying prices and varying levels of elegance.
For the past several years, members of a minyan at Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia have made a habit of giving eco-friendly packages.
Betsy Teutsch of Mount Airy said that the group — called Minyan Dorshei Derekh — has almost always relied on old clementine cartons to hold the treats, which, in addition to chocolate, nuts, dried fruit and baked goodies, also include some kind of environmental component.
In previous years, they have added gladiola bulbs or compact fluorescent light bulbs; this Purim, they're planning to use seed packets.
The packages go out to about 65 people, all of whom donate to the cause. Excess funds — generally between $1,000 and $1,500 — go to both Jewish and secular programs to help the hungry.
The slogan, said Teutsch, has always been: "Maximize the mitzvah, minimize the waste."