Purim has been - at different times in my life - my favorite and my least favorite Jewish holiday. Maybe it ought to be. After all, it is the upside-down holiday - the day when what we think we know is turned on its head. It's a day when we trade in the identity we normally wear, and try on another one, with a free pass to turn around the next day and say, "just kidding". At its best, Purim should give us, as adults, a chance to notice that our everyday identities are, on some level, masks, and our Purim costumes have something in them that is normally hidden from our true identity. Our kids wouldn't articulate it that way, but putting on a Purim costume for them can do the same thing. It lets them express a piece of themselves, a secret identity they're allowed to experiment with for a day.
Purim has been called "the Jewish Halloween," and there are plenty of parallels and comparisons to be made. We dress up in costumes, give and receive extra treats, and confront that which scares us. But there's more to this holiday than an exclusive extra Halloween. Below I'll summarize the story, the customs, and some creative ways to get into it as a family - both at home and out on the town.
The StoryMany of our fun Purim traditions come right from the story. The story is one of the latest in the Tanach, the Bible, and in some ways, it's pretty unique. It's the only book of the Bible that doesn't mention God directly. The rabbis teach that God is hidden in the Purim story, acting only through the human heroes. It's a farcical story, with characters that are bigger than life, exaggerated personalities, and plot twists that turn expectations on their head (or necks). I've heard the story adapted in many ways for kids, editing out the most disturbing elements and adjusting it to modern sensibilities. In the original, it's pretty dark.
The story starts in the city of Shushan with silly, drunk King Achashverosh. He's King over all of Persia, 127 states, a humongous kingdom. He throws a party for all the ministers and princes in his land. It lasts 180 days and is followed by a week-long party for members of the royal court. It's an extravagant party with plenty of food and even more wine. When the king is good and drunk, he calls Queen Vashti who is having her own party to appear before Achashverosh's guests wearing (only) her crown. The queen refuses to display her beauty to the room full of drunken men, which enrages the king. He asks his advisers what to do, and they tell him that the queen's actions affect not only the king, but the princes too and all men everywhere. Soon all their wives will be disobeying them. The only option is to banish the queen and replace her with someone better. The king considers this a fabulous idea, banishes the queen, and sends a proclamation to all ends of his kingdom in every language that every man is the master in his own house.
In the second chapter, the party is over and the king remembers what happened with Vashti. His advisors send messengers throughout the kingdom to gather up beautiful young women so that the king can choose his new queen. Now we meet Mordechai, who lives in Shushan with his cousin Esther, whom he's raised since she was orphaned. Mordechai sends Esther off with the king's officers to vie for the position of queen, instructing her not to say anything about being Jewish. Like the other women, she's kept in the palace, guarded by the king's eunuch and given a year to soak in various oils and spices before she has her turn with the king. After their turns, the women are transferred to another eunuch who takes care of the concubines until the king thinks of them and calls them back. Esther makes an impression on King Achashverosh and he makes her queen. Mordechai sits at the palace gate, keeping an eye out and an ear open to hear what's going on with Esther. While he's there, he hears a couple of guards plotting to kill the king. He tells Esther, who tells the king and the guards are hanged.
In chapter three, Haman, the villain, gets promoted to the highest position in the land - besides king, of course. He goes on a power trip and decrees that everyone must bow down to him. When he notices that Mordechai isn't bowing down, he is enraged, and decides to get retribution by petitioning the king to have all the Jews in Persia killed. He picks a date by drawing lots (called purim in Hebrew, hence the holiday's name), gets the king on board, and drafts a proclamation which is sent to every corner of the land in every language that on the 13th of Adar the Jews may be killed and their belongings pillaged.
In chapter four, Mordechai hears the news, puts on sack cloth and ashes and goes through the town wailing. He's not allowed into the palace court in such disarray and when Esther sends him a messenger to convince him to change his clothes, he tells her she must go to the king and beg him to reverse the proclamation. Esther reminds Mordechai that anyone who goes to the king without being called is to be killed unless the king extends his scepter, and she hasn't been called in over a month. Mordechai tells her that the Jews will be saved somehow and if she doesn't help, she and her father's house will die. Besides, this is probably why she became queen to begin with. Finally Esther is convinced. She asks Mordechai to have all the Jews fast for three days and then she'll go to the king.
In chapter five, Esther gets dressed in her royal robes and goes to see the king, who is once again taken by her beauty and extends the scepter to her. He follows by offering to grant her any request, up to half his kingdom. She invites him to a banquet with Haman, to which he readily agrees. At the banquet, the king again offers Esther up to half his kingdom, and she invites him to another banquet the next day, with Haman. Haman leaves feeling pretty awesome, but he runs into Mordechai on the way home and is filled with rage. He kvetches about it to his friends and his wife who recommend he build a tremendous gallows for Mordechai, so that he can hang him before the next banquet and have him off his mind.
Chapter six brings a bout of insomnia for the king who has his servants read to him from the royal chronicles and is reminded of the time Mordechai saved his life. He discovers that nothing was done to thank Meordechai, and decides to ask whoever is awake at this hour for advice on honoring someone the king holds in high regard. Just then Haman is on his way to ask the king about hanging Mordechai, and when he hears that the king wants to honor someone, Haman assumes the honoree must be himself. He advises the king to dress the person in the king's robes and have the king's minister parade him through town on the king's horse. Soon Haman is doing this for Mordechai. He goes home to kvetch where they barely have time to tell him he's got no chance of winning against Mordechai the Jew before Haman is rushed off to the next banquet.
In chapter 7 the king and Haman dine with Esther again. This time, when the king offers her anything she wants, she asks for her life and the lives of her people, because there is a plot against them. The king, shocked, asks who would do such a thing, and when Esther points the finger at Haman, the king leaves in a rage. When he returns he finds Haman in a compromising position begging Esther for forgiveness and is further enraged. One of the servants points out the gallows Haman had built for Mordechai and the king orders Haman hanged on it.
In chapters eight, nine, and ten, Mordechai and Esther ask the king to take back Haman's decree, which, it turns out, is impossible. But he does let them send out another proclamation permitting the Jews to defend themselves and more letters are sent all over the kingdom. The big day comes and the Jews fight back, and win. They kill lots of enemies, and hang Haman's ten sons. Mordechai becomes a big shot and lots of people decide to become Jewish. They celebrate and establish Purim as a holiday of feasting, joy, and sending treat to friends and gifts to the poor.
And that - more or less - is the whole megilah.
Megilah - The Purim Story
Either way, I discovered a few years into the parenting game that Purim, like a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, is an occasion to be prepared with child-sized earplugs. The baby will get them before the first "Haman" is read, and the four and six-year-olds will have the option whenever they want. Purim has gotten to be lots more fun, and we've heard a lot more of the megilah, since we started bringing earplugs.
Mishloach Manot - Treats for friends
Of course, the iconic mishloach manot treats are hamentashen or ozney haman in Hebrew. Delicious three-cornered cookies filled with all sorts of yummy things may be what kids look forward to most on Purim. I'll talk more about them later on in this post.
One small note here on the comparison people sometimes make between Purim and Halloween. There's a parallel to be drawn between trick-or-treating and mishloach manot. Both result in eating lots of yummy junk food. But the path to eating junk food is different. Instead of knocking on doors asking for candy, mishloach manot starts with thinking about others - thinking about your friends and doing something nice for them.
Matanot L'evyonim - gifts to poor people
Mishteh - Feast
It doesn't have to come up with small children, but Purim celebrations have traditionally involved drinking as a part of the holiday fun. As kids get older and might learn about the tradition or become otherwise aware of alcohol, this can be an opportunity to teach them about your take on alcohol, when and how to drink responsibly.
CostumesYou can definitely dress up for Purim without making it a big project. Buying or borrowing a costume works great. On the other hand, it can be lots of fun to make or gather and repurpose Purim costumes. And creative costumes always stand out. I'll admit I half dread hearing what the kids have in mind for costumes, but I always enjoy the process of pulling something together and seeing them transformed. As they get older they're getting to be able to help with details and ideas of their own, too! I'm not super crafty, but luckily, costumes only have to hold up to a few wearings and often can be held together with very minimal sewing or sometimes even Scotch tape and staples. As a kid I remember wearing a lot of costumes made of cardboard boxes, sandwich-board style. Just remember, if you go that route, to work in a way to sit down if necessary.
Baking with kids can be super fun, but it takes way longer and requires a sort of zen attitude. Think ahead about what the goal is, what the kids can help with, and when you'll call it quits. This year, I made the dough in advance and let the kids help. When I want to do something myself, I tell them, "this part's super hard. I'll probably mess it up. So I'm gonna do it so I don't get mad at you for doing it wrong." Then they can laugh when I spill a little instead of me pulling my hair out when they pour out so much that we have to start over. I'll probably make the filling one night while they're asleep - poppy seed is my favorite, but I'll make some fruit too. Then they can help with putting them together until they get bored or we run out of time and I can finish up after bed.
Here's a great shortcut I learned from my mom. Frozen pie crust makes great hamentash dough. Just let it defrost, roll out the edges a bit with a rolling pin, and you're ready to cut your circles. My mom would make some of the filling when I was a kid, but for some of them, we used jelly right out of the jar. And, voila! - Complicated baking project simplified down to fun kids' activity! She probably still fixed them and finished them when I wasn't looking.
For a little out of the ordinary fun check out these Rainbow Hamentashen.
And while you're baking, some people have a tradition of making different shaped challah for Purim. Scroll down to see some examples of challah shaped like flowers. Take a look at this recipe for Hamentashen Chalah. And did you know there's a tradition to bake bread with hard boiled eggs representing Haman's eyes just so that you can take them out?