With all of its festive, playful and often mischievous themes, Purim can sometimes be seen simply as a “kids holiday.” But while carnivals and shpiels and costume contests are great fun for the whole family, the story of Purim is by no means tame.
“The story we find in the megillah is both farcical and dark, containing the themes of Antisemitism, sexism, assimilation and genocide.” says Rabbi Andrea Goldstein. “Some aspects aren’t really appropriate for young children, so we have to water it down a little bit in sharing it with them, and I’m afraid this watering down has seeped into our own adult understanding of the story.”
The megillah is filled with all of the danger, intrigue, innuendo and drama of the best Hollywood films. There’s the king’s humiliating divorce from Vashti, Haman’s all-consuming rage at Mordecai’s refusal to submit to his authority, the threat of genocide, a beauty contest to choose a new queen, secret identities, the decision to embark on a virtual suicide mission in order to save thousands of people, passionate love between a husband and wife and ultimate victory over pure evil.
And – as if that weren’t enough – it raises some important questions and issues that are still being discussed and debated today in the process. Read Rabbi Goldstein’s article on Purim’s relevance here.
If this is the story behind the holiday of Purim, how did it come to be associated with revelry, carnivals, masquerades and shpiels? See the following possible explanation from Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs:
According to many modern Bible scholars, the festival of Purim did not have its source in the story told in the Book of Esther. According to Hayyim Schauss, Purim originally appeared among the Persian Jews and was adopted by them from their non-Jewish neighbors. The Jews of Persia observed, along with their neighbors, an annual festival that was celebrated in the middle of the last of the winter months. From the beginning, it had the characteristics of a spring masquerade and was a festival of merriment, play, and pranks. A very popular festival with both Persian and the Babylonian Jewry, it eventually spread to Palestine.
[T]reason for associating it with the feast of Purim could have been that the details of the feast were conveniently explained. He [Theodore Gaster, Festivals of the Newish New Year] points out that the original form of that feast had these components: the selection of a new queen, corresponding to the selection of Esther; the parade of a commoner qua king, corresponding to the parade of Mordecai in the streets of Shushan (Esther 6:11); a fast, corresponding to Esther’s fast (4:15-16); the execution of a felon, corresponding to the hanging of Haman (Esther 7:10, 9:25); and the distribution of gifts (Esther 9:22).
Whatever the reason behind Purim’s celebratory style, one thing is certain. At its core, the megillah is a story about the survival of the Jewish people against all odds. And that’s definitely something worth celebrating.
This Purim, join us for a congregational Purim shpiel that tells the story of Esther using the music of Queen. You won’t want to miss Patrick Siler’s brilliant adaption of classic Queen lyrics (“We are the Hebrews, my friends…And we’ll keep on schlepping till the end”) in this performance on Wednesday, February 28, at 7 p.m. that is free and open to the public.