Last week I drove my daughters up to Irvine to celebrate the Jewish holiday Purim. We still belong to a temple up there with my mom, though I’ve long meant to find one down here before I turn around and my kids are 13 and ready to have a Bat Mitzvah. Because it’s so far, we don’t go for services nearly enough; this was the first Purim we’d managed to make the trip.
For some reason, the 405 freeway was incredibly crowded that Wednesday and the drive was a slog.
“Maybe everyone’s going to Irvine for temple,” my 5-year-old offered.
I smiled to myself and remembered when I first found out just how much in the minority Jews are in America. I guess for me, as with my daughter, I grew up assuming that our normal was everyone’s normal. Even though I was about her age when my own mom corrected my notion that, “Most people are Jewish, right?” it felt like I was changing a consciousness that I’d held, well, for a lifetime before that.
Once I did make that shift, it wasn’t long before all the stories of Jews being followed by persecution wherever they went began to take on meaning for me. Jews actually seem to create entire cultural traditions out of being the (ever-unpopular) minority. But for the Jewish people, telling the story of our exodus out of Egypt where we were slaves, or of the modern Nazi Holocaust, is about remembering lest we forget and these atrocities are allowed to happen again. For us, it’s about trying to be more just, living in a more-just world.
So I do honor the intentions behind the re-telling of such gruesome tales, even as I spend an entire night looking for an appropriate Chanukah story to tell my kids’ pre-school class that doesn’t have to do with war or ghettos. Someday, I hope that these histories will help develop my daughters’ sense of self and history, as well as contribute to making them better members of society. But for now, I still do some tap dancing when it comes to holiday tales.
The Purim story is no less bloody then the rest of them, though, and this week I found myself thinking twice about ways to explain the holiday’s traditions. When it’s told in temple for example, every time the villain of the tale, Haman, is mentioned, a great fuss is created with rattling noise-makers and booing from the congregation.
Why do we dislike Haman? Because of a plot he concocted to kill all the Jews in Persia. Why do we cheer at the end of the tale? Because Haman is hung on the very gallows he had built for that evil purpose.
“What’s a gallows Mommy?” was not a question I wanted to answer that day.
For now, what my kids clearly understand about Purim is that it’s a light-hearted day where people dress up in costumes, have carnivals and get to yell in Temple. They also know stories of Purims past when their grandmother was crowned Queen Esther at 8 years old, or I baked the traditional holiday cookie, hamantaschen, with my pre-school class.
The entire story behind the holiday appears in the Biblical Book of Esther. In it, Haman is the Grand Vizier of Persia and a rabid anti-Semite. When Mordechai, a Jewish member of the king’s court and relative of Queen Esther, refuses to bow down to Haman, the Grand Vizier plots to have all the Jews in the kingdom massacred. However, Queen Esther and Mordechai discover Haman’s plot and are able to foil it when the brave queen asks for an audience with the king, confesses that she is a Jew and asks him to spare her people. In the end, Haman is executed on the gallows he planned to use on Mordechai.
Jews eat hamantaschen cookies on Purim as part of the celebration of the holiday. One explanation for the triangular shape of these pastries is that Haman wore a three-cornered hat. Another explanation is that the three corners represent Queen Esther’s strength and the founders of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Popular fillings for hamantaschen are fruit marmalade, chocolate, cheese or poppy seeds. The poppy seeds are sometimes said to represent all the bribe money Haman collected.
There are several theories for why Jews dress in costume and masquerade on Purim, and many agree the tradition shows influence from any number of Roman holidays. Some say we dress up to represent the way that Queen Esther hid her Judaism. Other texts suggest that because giving charity is a significant part of the day, we cloak our appearances to protect the pride of the needy.
One thing is for sure: Purim is a topsy-turvy holiday that kids and kid-like grown-ups alike treasure. This year, our rabbi, Arnie Rachlis, cast off his usual gravitas to wear a Donnie Darko-style bunny costume and told the congregation one bad joke after another, starting with the one about how he added a “t” on Purim to change rabbi into rabbi-t. Ruti Baer, our usually soulful and sweet cantor (who sings the prayers and stands by the rabbi’s side during services), wore a tasteful flapper costume complete with feathered boa. Both she and the rabbi made every effort at outrageous noise-making, using everything from a washboard on the rabbi’s chest to good old-fashioned kazoos.
It was quite a scene to behold and the mood was infectious. Later, at the carnival, I spoke with our rabbi and cantor as the kids enjoyed the crafts and jumpy houses. They both told me how much the service had taken out of them, but how much fun they’d had as well. Too, our cantor reflected, “It’s good for the congregation to see this side of their rabbi, to see that he has a silly side too and how much fun he has celebrating our faith.”
I couldn’t have agreed more and I know this day really helped solidify some connections for us all. There’s just something so bonding about wearing a zebra mask as a grown women along with a hundred others in Hogwarts capes and Dr. Suess hats. Now my family is planning our costumes for next year. By then, my eldest will be 6, and if the past year of quick maturation is any indication, she’ll be explaining to us what a gallows is without batting a little masquerading eye.