The Jewish Feast of Purim, which began on Saturday, March 19, 2011, is a party, not a religious holiday. In fact, it’s a costume party. It’s also a drinking party. Jewish tradition commands you to drink, and tells you exactly how much: “till you don’t know the difference between blessed Mordechai and evil Haman.” That’s a mighty big difference to lose sight of.
There are no special prayers, laws, or religious services, except reading the Book of Esther, Megillah in Hebrew, which means scroll. There are five scrolls (megillot) in the Bible, but The Megilla, by itself, always refers to the Scroll of Esther. The other scrolls are Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes.
Like most Jewish holidays, the theme of Purim and the Book of Esther is, “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.”
King Ahashueros of Persia, who rules 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia, kills his insubordinate wife, Queen Vashti. When we were kids, we learned that Vashti was the bad queen, arrogant and defiant. Queen Esther was the good queen, gracious and brave.
This year, our feminist Rabbi Robin Nafshi presente3d a new interpretation of Vashti as a feminist, who refused to be subse3rvient. The Bible supports the notion that the king’s command that she appear for his guests without her veil was degrading, and she refused.
So now, the two queens are both considered brave, but in different ways.
The king throws a contest open to all the virgins of the kingdom to find a new wife. The winner is a timid Jewish girl named Esther, an orphan who was raised by her Uncle Mordechai. She moves into the palace, with Mordechai outside, watching her back. Mordechai warns her not to tell anyone she is Jewish.
Mordechai overhears a couple of the king’s servants plotting to assassinate the king, and blows the whistle. He also refuses to bow down to the king’s prime minister, the evil Haman. The king rewards Mordechai by dressing him in royal purple robes, and having the most important person in the kingdom, his prime minister Haman, lead Mordechai through the city.
Haman gets the king’s permission to kill all the Jews, who “have their own laws, and do not obey the king’s laws.” The king, who is portrayed as a dummy, easily led by his advisers, does not know Mordechai and Esther are Jewish. He tells Haman to choose the day.
Haman casts lots (Purim in Hebrew and Persian) and comes up with the 15th (full moon) of the Hebrew month of Adar. He builds a special, enormous gallows for Mordechai.
When we read the Book of Esther, and mention Haman’s name, the children of all ages hiss, boo, and make a grinding noise with noisemakers.
Mordechai learns of the plot against the Jews, and convinces Esther to go to the king and plead for her people. Going to the king uninvited can cost Esther her life, but she agrees. Fortunately, the king is glad to see her, and offers her anything she wants, up to half his kingdom.
At the banquet with the king and Haman, she discloses that the order to kill the Jews would include her. The king rescinds that order, and orders that Haman be hung from the gallows he’d built for Mordechai. They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.
The traditional food is a triangular tart called Hamantashen, Yiddish for “Haman’s [three-cornered] hat.” It’s dough filled with poppy seeds, prune jam, or apricots. So everyone, except the “real men,” like me, dresses up as Haman, Queen Esther, Mordechai, or King Ahashueros, or whatever they want.
They sing children’s songs. My favorite is set to the tune of an old English drinking song whose chorus goes “Oh, tonight we’ll merry merry be, tomorrow we’ll be sober.” The Purim version goes, “Oh, today we’ll merry merry be and nash some hamantashen.”
Another tradition is a Purimspiel, a silly play that parodies the Book of Esther. Puns, inside Jewish jokes, and popular song parodies are standard elements. This year our temple’s Purimspiel will be based on the music of Michael Jackson, The Thrilla Megillah.
Until this year, I’ve ignored Purim since elementary school. It’s kidstuff. I went to this year’s Megillah reading, saw all the costumes, and said, “Damn. I forgot to dress.” But as I looked around, I noticed that all the mothers, and none of the fathers and grandfathers, were wearing costumes. So the Purim lesson I learned this year is that real men don’t wear costumes.