Yes, the news is full of bomb threats and vandalism. In the United States, there are not many Jews alive who can remember a time when there was so much open anti-Semitism. This is exactly the sort of time for which Purim was made: it is when we feel most threatened that Purim comes to buck us up, to remind us that we’ve seen it all before.
Celebrate in spite of it all. That principle is at the heart of Jewish survival.
So here are some videos to help you get in the mood for the holiday. Enjoy!
And some fun traditional children’s songs, in Hebrew:
The Jewish world will soon be observing the holiday of Purim. I said “observing” when truth be known, we Jews don’t just “observe” Purim; we CELEBRATE it! We dress in costume. We hold the most raucous, noisiest worship service of the year. We sing and we shout and we stomp our feet. We eat and we drink (and I am not just talking about iced tea or punch but the hard stuff, for on Purim the Talmud commands us to drink so much that we can no longer tell the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.”). And then, of course there is the Purim Seudah (feast – in our case, a pizza dinner) and the ever popular Carnival. We eat hamantaschen, send shlach manot (food gifts to our loved ones) and matanot le’evyonim (gifts to the poor). It is Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve…
Image: Three members of Temple Sinai, Oakland on Purim: a Chicago Cubs fan, a fool, and a cowboy. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.
Hard to believe that it’s almost Purim, but the festival is less than a month away. Purim spielers have been practicing for a while now to perfect their silly songs. Those who chant the megillah have been practicing its peculiar trope.
What about you? I have been so busy with winter and flu and politics that I haven’t given Purim much thought. Now that I’ve realized it is upon us, and I’m putting together my to-do list. Here it is:
Mishloach manot – These are snack package to a few Jewish friends, to help them enjoy the day. I’m going to make brownies and a healthy snack mix, and send them in pretty little cloth bags.
Festive meal – I’ve been sick this winter and the house is a little wild, but I’d like to have folks over for the traditional festive meal. I need to think more about that.
Hearing the Megillah – I will certainly go to the Purim program at my synagogue, and during the day I will reread and study the Book of Esther.
I like to wear a silly costume, or at least a hat, on Purim. It adds to the fun for everyone. Not sure I have time for a whole costume this year, but if I’m going to wear a hat, I need to rummage around in my closet!
Image: A hand holding a grogger. Photo by Yonina, public domain.
I don’t know about you, but the news of late had really wounded me. I felt sad and angry for the poor people in Istanbul and Brussels, blown up and terrified. I have felt angry and helpless, watching certain candidates in the 2016 American election compete to see who could say cruel things about immigrants, African Americans and other underdogs in our society. I was angry with the behavior of my fellow Jews at the AIPAC Policy Conference, applauding speech that simply should not have been welcome there. (It is supposed to be a nonpartisan organization for improving relations between Israel and the U.S. Trashing the sitting President of the U.S. should not ever, ever be OK there.)
And I’ve done the things I do: wrote letters to my elected officials, wrote letters to Jewish community leadership, sent money to organizations that fight hate speech and ignorance.
Still, my heart was hurting. I felt blue. I did not feel like going to Purimshpiel last night, but I had promised to be there. And after all, it’s a mitzvah to hear the megillah. So I went.
As soon as we were inside the synagogue we were greeted by excited kids and grown-up “kids” getting ready for the Purim show. We admired each other’s silly outfits. I wore a top hat with a big pink scarf knotted around it – not a great Purim costume, but something. I’m so glad I did, because dressing up connected me to the healing silliness of the night.
First we gathered in the chapel to hear the Megillah. Cantor Keys did it beautifully, and I got caught up in listening to the story (learning Hebrew really does enrich Jewish experience!) I anticipated the mention of “HAMAN” so that I could cue the roar of groggers. Cantor Keys is a scholar and a cantor, and it was a treat to hear her do the Esther chant with all the little trills and ornaments. It was fun to try to catch the HAMAN’s.
There was something therapeutic about the sound of my grogger. It GROWLED. It growled out all my pent-up frustration, all my fury at world events and stupid politicians. It gave a sound to the feeling in my heart. It expressed my anger at all the Hamans in the world.
Then we ate pizza. (“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”)
Then we had a Purimshpiel, a crazy riff on Star Wars that made no sense at all, but which had all of us laughing at the ridiculous puns and inside jokes.
I woke up this morning with my heart was in an entirely new place. I’m still not at all happy about those things I mentioned above, but I no longer feel defeated by all the evil in the world. I feel ready to fight for goodness and Torah. I will write more letters, I will write an op ed and send it to the paper, I will teach and I will get in faces and I will do what I can. In June, I’ll vote in the California primary.
I’m ready to be an agent for good in this world.
So, my lessons from the grogger?
The obligation to hear the megillah is what got me to synagogue last night. Had I stayed at home, I’d still be feeling blue. Sometimes it is good to be commanded.
Groggers are fun, but they are also expressive. My grogger said what words could not say about my feelings.
Sometimes we need to get mad. Anger can be a motivator.
Haman is all around us these days, but he will lose if we fight him. Evil will only prevail if we allow it.
The name of God appears nowhere in the text of the Book of Esther [Megillat Esther.] What are we to make of this? Is Purim a godless holiday?
There are a number of ways to read this absence. Chapter 9 of the scroll says that the story was copied onto scrolls and sent far and wide to be read by the Jews. Perhaps the writer (traditionally, Esther herself) felt that it was better not to put scrolls with holy words into general circulation where they could be desecrated. So she chose to omit the name of God, in order to protect the holy Name.
However, modern scholars are fairly certain that Esther is a novella, a fiction, not a history. It has a number of assertions about the Persian court that any Jew of the time would recognize as fake. It is more likely a parable about life in Diaspora.
If that is the case, then the absence of God’s name perhaps has a more deliberate meaning. Jews in Diaspora do not live in Jewish space. The Jews of Megillat Esther live in Persia, under the rule of a Persian king and his court, and as the story illustrates, powerful men can turn on them at any time.
When this happens to Jewish communities, it is natural to ask, “Where is God?” And the Book of Esther directs us to ask that question: where is God, when our enemies slander and betray us, when they imprison and kill us for no good reason other than hatred?
We cannot “see” God in the Esther text. God is apparently missing, and in the context of this story, that poses a theological question: Where is God?
Esther and Mordecai do not have the luxury of waiting for God to appear. They do not have the luxury of miracles. This is not a Red Sea moment, when the waters pass and we all walk to safety. Rather it is like so many other moments in Jewish history, when God seems to be somewhere else, and it is up to good men and women to improvise salvation. Esther married a non-Jew, and Mordecai was the architect of the massacre in Chapter 9. We can disapprove of them if we wish, but once Haman turned on them, they had very few alternatives.
Where is God in the text? We can say, “Thank God!” that Esther was queen, married to the heathen Ahasuerus. We can say, “Thank God!” that Mordecai saw a solution to the problem of the king’s ring and seal. God IS in the text, in the courage and ingenuity of Esther and Mordecai!
Where is God? God resides, as always, in the hearts and hands of good men and women.
Plan our festive meal (yes, another Purim mitzvah!)
Plan where we will hear the megillah [Scroll of Esther] If you want to hear the whole scroll chanted, it is wise to phone ahead. Some synagogues have only a Purim shpiel.
Plan costumes for yourself and your family! (Not a mitzvah, but still fun.)
Also, while officially we don’t begin preparation for Passover until after Purim, in reality many Jews begin the Passover prep before they put on their masks. If you want to start thinking about that process, I recommend taking a look at Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt. It’s a guide especially for those who have never kept Passover before, or who find the prospect of cleaning for Passover overwhelming.
Shake off those winter blues, and get ready: Purim’s coming!