Joyous Holiday Both Spiritual and Silly
The Jewish holiday Purim begins at sunset on Saturday, March 19.
There’s a popular song taught at Jewish religious schools from Teaneck to Tampa to Tel Aviv over that expresses a major theme of Purim. Usually sung in Hebrew, it translates to, “When Adar comes, joy increases.” Adar is the month in the Jewish calendar when Purim is celebrated, and just like Carnival or St. Patrick’s Day, Purim is a holiday that is all about joy and merriment as winter finally ends and spring begins to appear.
The Book of Esther tells the story of Purim, an attempted genocide of the Jews that took place in Persia sometime between the fourth and sixth century BCE. In the story, a beautiful, young Jewish woman named Esther becomes Queen of Persia when the King Ahasuerus chooses her to ascend the throne. Soon after, her cousin Mordechai uncovers a plot to kill the Jews by the king’s vizier, Haman. Mordechai implores Esther to reveal herself as a Jew to the king, so that her entire community may be spared. So enthralled with her beauty and devotion, Ahasuerus agrees and instead Haman is hanged, along with his 10 sons.
How exactly this tale of thwarted genocide has evolved into a holiday celebrated by giving gifts to friends and the needy and retelling the story while wearing costumes and enjoying alcoholic beverages has puzzled rabbis for centuries.
“Purim is the fun child-friendly carnival, complete with costumes and three-cornered sweet treats, against the very adult backdrop of a holocaust narrowly averted,” said Rabbi Don Rossoff of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown. “But there is a message in the Book of Esther for those in search of God.”
Jewish tradition sees God in the Purim story, but hidden behind the scenes: helping Esther to overcome her fear and giving Mordechai the strength not to bow down to Haman when the villain demands his obedience. Ultimately, Rossoff said, “the story told in the Book of Esther is the Jewish people’s adaptation of "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights," complete with shrewd hero, hateful and hate-filled villain, feckless king and a heroic queen of simple wants who uses her wits to save the day.”
This sense of triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds, combined with the end of winter’s confines is the perfect recipe for a holiday that is dedicated to feasting, gift-giving and even being a little silly.
“My favorite part is watching the children, and watching the children watch the adults,” said Melissa Weiner, director of education and life long learning at Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael. “So many of our holidays and rituals seem somber, but Purim is a time to let loose.”
This year, MJCBY began the Purim festivities with a kids’ carnival at the Speedwell Avenue synagogue on March 13. At 8 p.m. Saturday, March 19, the congregation will mark the official start of the holiday with a "Guys and Dolls"-themed and reading of the megillah (another name for the Book of Esther). Boychicks and Boobahs will include “moonshine” and craps. Sunday morning, On March 20, at 10 a.m., MJCBY will read the megillah again and perform a Purim shpiel, or satirical play. All events are open to the public.
David Iskovitz, director of education at Temple B’nai Or, agreed that Purim’s irreverence is part of what makes the holiday a favorite for many. “The megillah reading is usually done in a fun way, and it is traditional to make all the noise possible when Haman’s name is mentioned,” he said. “What is better than to act out in a sanctuary?”
The festivities at B’nai Or begin on Sunday, March 20, with a musical retelling of the Purim story, followed by a costume parade for young children. After the parade, there is a carnival with games, activities and lots of food, including triangular-shaped cookies called hamentaschen that are named after the shape of Haman’s hat.
“It’s just an engaging and fun filled day,” Iskovitz said.
Rebecca Missel is the founder of Jersey Tribe, an organization occasionally featured on Morristown Patch.