Thursday, March 6, 2014

Purim - Upside Down Identity

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 Story

Many 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

Traditional Customs

In a lot of ways, Purim is different than most holidays.  There's a festive meal, but not the usual table ritual.  There are a lot more things "to do" than "not to do" on this holiday and most of it is focused on fun.    There are four official mitzvot of Purim and the trick for remembering them is that they all start with the Hebrew letter "mem".  There's Megilah - reading and hearing the Purim story, Mishloach Manot - sending treats to friends, Matanot L'evyonim - giving to the poor, and Mishteh - feasting.  Read on, and we'll discuss these four plus one more.  


The best-known Purim custom may be dressing up in costume.  As I already said it gives you a chance to try on a new identity, get out of your routine and into the spirit of topsy-turvy fun.  There are no hard and fast rules about what you can dress up as for Purim.  These days, you tend to see a lot of princesses and super-heroes among the kids.  It's traditional to dress as one of the characters from the Purim story, but really anything will do.  It can be fun to have a family theme.  Some years we've each dressed as different characters from the Purim story.  One year most of us were kangaroos.  Another year we did a curious George theme.  One of my most powerful childhood memories was seeing my Dad transformed each year into either a new variation on Queen Esther or a figure who was making headlines at the time.  Over the years, he was everyone from Yasser Arafat to Barbara Bush to Tonya Harding.  (That year I was Nancy Kerrigan and my brother played the boyfriend with the hammer.)  There's no better way to get your kids excited about the holiday fun than getting into it yourself.  This year, there's a good chance our family will be doing some clowning around.  But somewhere down the line, I'm sure I'll be dressing up as Queen Vashti to make sure the kids know she's a Purim hero too.  Why not take Purim as an opportunity to teach your kids, through your costume, who you think is a hero or a villain this year?

Megilah - The Purim Story

OK, so you've got costumes, at least for the kids and maybe for you too.  Great!  Now to find someplace to wear them.  The prime place to go and thing to do on Purim is a megilah reading.  At a megillah reading, there may be a (pretty short) prayer service and the megilah is read in Hebrew, English, or some combination of the two.  When the name "Haman" is mentioned everyone drowns it out with noisemakers, called graggers or ra'ashanim.  As you can probably tell from the "summary" above and the phrase "the whole megilah", the megilah is long.   Many synagogues have shortened, partially translated family-friendly megilah readings that might go over better with the kids.  It's a good idea to know which variety of megilah reading you're going to before you walk in.  At a more traditional kind of reading you're likely to find that, though the mood is light and friendly, people keep relatively quiet except when Haman's name is mentioned.  If your kids will have a hard time keeping quiet you might do better with a family reading.  On the other hand, sensitive kids sometimes do better with a quieter reading if they'll be overwhelmed by the noise that can develop at a family reading.  

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

Another nice Purim tradition is giving mishloach manot to friends.  It's mentioned right in the megilah.  To do the mitzvah to the letter of the law, you need to give at least two things each to at least two friends.  Some people create elaborate baskets; others choose just a few treats.  I've seen mishloach manot with clever themes.  It can start to feel like a last hurrah of eating carbs and sweets before we start getting ready for Passover and getting all the extra leavened and processed grain products out of the house.  

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

Another tradition that starts with thinking of others is matanot l'evyonim, gifts to poor people.  The story of Purim, and the customs of Purim bring up themes of extravagance, plenty, and excess.  King Achashverosh loves big parties, lots of food and wine, and lots of women at his disposal.  Haman sees the Jews as a dispensable people.  Our celebrations, costumes, and gift-giving to friends can feel very rich and full.  But we're reminded to remember those in need.  
What a great opportunity to sit down with the kids and think of a charity to support, to teach them to share our joy and good fortune!

Mishteh - Feast

The final Purim tradition is mishteh, feasting.  Many families have a festive meal on Purim day, gathering with friends to celebrate.  After the meal can be a time for kids to enjoy their costumes and just play with friends.  Guests might share jokes or even put together a Purim spiel.  

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.  

Creative Opportunities


You 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 Hamentashen

Last week, a friend told me she had asked her mother how she had managed to bake so many hamentashen with her and her siblings when they were kids.  She was frustrated trying to get it done with just one.  Her mother confided that most of the baking was done after bedtime, leaving the kids with a fun low-pressure project, the feeling of accomplishment and a memory of a very patient, fun mom.  

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?  

Mishloach Manot

Kids can help with sorting goodies into bags or baskets, writing notes to friends to go along with the treats, drawing a picture to include, and even helping deliver them.  

Making Graggers

There are many ways to make a gragger.  You can start with a paper plate, fold it in half and fill it with beans or buttons, then staple it shut.  Or cover a box of macaroni with paper.  Fill a bottle with beans, pebbles, etc, and cover the outside with tissue paper.  Kids can get creative and decorate the outside of any of these kinds of graggers with crayons, markers or paint.  And if you make it yourself, you can decide just how noisy you want it to be.  

Purim Music

There are lots of fun Purim songs out there.  You can hear some of them, sung by my lovely and talented husband, Cantor Ken Richmond, here.

How does your family celebrate Purim?  Have a great costume idea, a favorite hamentashen recipe or the perfect gragger?  Comment below!  
Happy Purim!