Friday, March 21, 2008

Be happy

Ok, I'm a little late on this, since the sun has almost set, but today was the Jewish holiday of Purim, and since Queen Esther is a major player, I feel obligated to say something about it in my blog.

For the uninitiated, Purim is one of the most festive days on the Jewish calendar - sort of like a combination Mardi Gras and Halloween. Well, I've never actually been to Mardi Gras, but it's what I think Mardi Gras would be like - lots of parades, parties and drinking to excess.

When I lived in Israel in 1997-98, I looked forward for months to celebrating Purim. After all, how many holidays are there with a heroine named Esther?

The Book of Esther commemorates the salvation of the Jews of Persia thanks to the efforts of Mordechai and his cousin, Queen Esther. They manage to thwart the evil plan of Haman, an adviser to the Persian king, who wanted to do away with all the Jews in the Persian Empire. (By the way, it's also the only book in the Bible that doesn't mention God.)

The name of the holiday comes from the word pur, a game of chance used by Haman to determine the month and day when all of the Jews would be killed. On Purim, we're commanded to be happy because the holiday celebrates the downfall of a tyrant. (I know, it sounds like that joke summing up Jewish history in three sentences: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat).

I have great memories of celebrating Purim in Tel Aviv. The night it began, I went to a temple to hear the Megillat Esther, or Scroll of Esther. The sanctuary was decorated with balloons and streamers and masks. The rabbi had his face painted. Kids in costume sat on the floor. (For anyone who knows anything about Israel, this was not, needless to say, an Orthodox synagogue).

The person who read, or rather chanted, the text, made a dramatic pause before reading the name of Haman. That was a signal for everyone to rattle their noisemakers, stamp their feet and drown out the name of the villain. It was kind of difficult to keep my place in the text, but luckily, my name is mentioned a lot, so I could always look for the next reference to Esther and wait for everyone else to catch up!

That year, Tel Aviv revived a citywide parade called Adloyada, a combination of three Hebrew words that translate as until you don't know. On Purim, we're supposed to drink enough wine so that we can't tell Haman from Mordechai. (Just for the record, Israelis don't drink that much. I only saw one person at the parade with a beer bottle, and I didn't see anyone drunk).

The procession was led by one of the biggest collections of vintage American gas-guzzlers I've seen in a long time. Where they came from, I have no idea. There were dancing hamantaschen, a traditional Purim treat (see photo at top), dancing pita filled with felafel, clowns, puppets and a giant rabbit wearing a gas mask.

As I walked around downtown afterward, I realized that this was one of the few holidays where I've seen the streets filled. Usually on religious holidays, like Rosh Hashana, the streets are empty because there's no public transportation and most businesses are closed. People are celebrating at home, with friends and family. But Purim is one of the holidays when the buses are running. The kids were off from school and most people had the day off from work. And the celebration is public. It was a crowded but joyous atmosphere.

The day before, in the elementary school where I taught, there was a Purim party, with all the kids in costumes - soldiers, queens, cowboys, devils and at least one Scud missile. (Now I know where all the Halloween costumes and gory makeup go after Oct. 31 - they're sent to Israel).

I felt really old when I correctly guessed that a girl with a shoulder-length platinum blonde wig was Marilyn Monroe. "How did you know?" she asked. "Everyone else thought I was Madonna."


chris caggiano said...


Thanks for the Purim primer. I consider myself an honorary Jewish person (Italians are the lost thirteenth tribe: right after Zebulun and right before Gad, there's Guido). But I've never really understood all the holidays. A lot of my Jewish friends, don't either so I don't feel so bad. ;-)

Hope you had a happy and healthy Purim.



Esther said...

Chris, you're a very welcome honorary member of the tribe! And thanks for reading. I'd forgotten a lot of what I learned about the holidays when I was a kid. But living in Israel for a year and working in an elementary school was a great refresher course. Since we barely had the Internet back then, it's been fun to go back through what I wrote and post some of it on my blog. I hope it's not too self-indulgent!

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I remember you telling me about your namesake's role in Purim, but failed to pick up a Purim card for you. I'm so very sorry.

Is it appropriate to wish someone a Happy Purim? If so, please accept my best wishes!

Esther said...

Steve, You can be an honorary member of the tribe, too!

It's very appropriate to wish someone a happy Purim. Thanks! And don't worry about the card. I don't think they sell them - here or in Israel!

BroadwayBaby said...

A belated happy Purim, Esther. And I allow me to mention that my middle name in Hebrew is Mordecai...:-)

Esther said...

Thanks BroadwayBaby! I'm looking forward to meeting you. And I have a good friend whose Hebrew name is Mordecai, so I'm very partial to it!