Galilee Diary: Purim

February 26, 2013Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

Consequently, these days are recalled and observed in every generation: by every family, every province, and every city. And these days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never perish among their descendants. – Esther 9:28

Purim – the endless celebration. Interestingly, this relatively minor holiday (like Hanukkah, not mentioned in the Torah) has become a major event in the calendar of modern Israel. First, there is the calendrical issue: There is no school on Purim, since it's a holiday. However, you can't have Purim parties in school the day before, because the day before is Ta'anit Esther, the fast of Esther (see Esther 4:5–17), when it is not appropriate to eat, drink and be merry. So the school festivities are two days before. This year Purim fell on Sunday – but the fast can't fall on Friday or Shabbat as it would conflict with Shabbat, so it was pushed up to Thursday, meaning that for the many schools normally closed on Fridays, school festivities were on Wednesday, meaning that families were already deeply involved with costumes and hamantaschen etc. at least five days before the actual holiday. But wait, there's more – according to the Megilah (Esther 9:17–19) Shushan the capital celebrated Purim a day later than the rest of the country; as a result, other cities believed to have been walled at the time the Jews entered Israel also celebrate Purim a day late, "Shushan Purim;" for example, Jerusalem, where Purim came on Monday. Here on Shorashim, there was a musical production by the youth group Thursday night, a festive Megilah reading with costumes on Saturday night – and an adult party with DJ, karaoke, and alcohol, tomorrow (Thursday) night, meaning the festivities will have lasted over a week. And, of course, the country has been eating hamantaschen since Tu Beshvat.

Second, there is the apparent deep need of all peoples for opportunities to step outside the strictures of hierarchy, authority, propriety, and sobriety – but for a limited time only. Many of our Purim customs are remarkably similar to those of the Christian Carnival – which of course carry over customs of the pagan Carnival from Roman times – all of these at about the same time of year. In addition, the similarities in observance between Purim and Halloween are easy to find. As a child growing up in a Reform home and American public schools, I knew that Christmas was not my holiday – but that Halloween and Thanksgiving were everybody's holidays, and joined in the festivities with pleasure. Only later, as a day school principal, did I discover that Halloween was a religious holiday – for other religions – and that, therefore, it was not appropriate to celebrate it in a Jewish school. Even though, of course, it seems that the only people who see it as a religious holiday in North America today are the Jews who refuse to celebrate it. I guess there's a parallel here in the enthusiasm with which many Israeli Arabs celebrate Purim; for them, too, it is not a religious holiday, but a time to masquerade and eat sweets along with the majority.

But perhaps the real reason Purim is so popular here is that it takes place somewhere else, in the Diaspora – a place with which we Israelis have a love–hate relationship. Shushan is a place where the life is easy but precarious; where Mordecai can strive for and achieve the top job (until the next anti–semitic plot…); where a nice Jewish girl can become queen, but at a high price (Esther chapter 2); where mixed marriage seems to be OK (at least if the guy is a king); and where intrigue, alcohol, and violence seem to be unremarkable facts of everyday life. We look with a certain longing at our people's life in colorful Shushan, long long ago and far far away – but also with a feeling of relief and pride in our life here and now, with sovereignty, where the culture is our culture, where we don't have to marry the king to become queen, and where we don't have to fear that the next palace intrigue might send us running for our lives.

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