Purim 5781

Purim 5781

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20 Feb 2021

by Rabbi Leah Jordan

When I was a small child growing up right in the middle of the United States, Purim was about two things for me – first, a Purim carnival after cheder where I always tried desperately to win enough tokens at the various games to purchase my own stuffed dinosaur by the end of the festivities – and second, the Purim spiel, the re-enactment of the Book of Esther that my shul put on…

The Purim spiel is memorable in my mind to this day largely due to one thing: our assistant rabbi, let’s call him Rabbi Fried. Rabbi Freid was a bit of what we would have called a nebbish… He was quiet, soft-spoken, intelligent, and, it seemed for a rabbi, a bit shy. He spent most of the year in what appeared to me to be the background rather than the foreground of shul life – but oh man, would he come out on Purim!

During the Purim spiel, Rabbi Fried would play the part of Queen Vashti – King Ahashverosh’s rebellious wife, who refuses to humiliate herself at her husband’s command in front of his party guests… a scene that has been spun, quite wonderfully and quite possibly out of all context, into a modern day feminist moment. In any case, Rabbi Fried, the unassuming man of the rest of the year, always shocked us all by playing Queen Vashti with such raw panache at the spiel: he would enter the scene, clomping in on these huge, 4-inch heels, wearing a fabulously gauche blue sequined dress and a mad white-blond wig, white tights up to here… He would always steal the scene, not to mention the show.

I mention this memory because I think it captures something that Purim is supposed to be about and something we don’t always quite get out of it…

Purim, in many ways, is the Jewish Carnaval – that festival of decadence and silliness and topsy-turviness… In a British context, it fits right in with the tradition of the panto – a participatory form of theatre with song and slapstick, where women are men and men are women, people are dragons, and London city girls are princesses, where anything goes – all based around, in our case, a revenge fable from almost 2,500 years ago…

Various Jewish communities have celebrated this essential aspect of Purim, and I think in the modern West we’ve forgotten a bit what that looks like. They think, for instance, that the tradition of masks and fancy dress probably comes from the Italian Jews – whose Renaissance traditions were steeped in masquerade balls and, yes, Carnaval, the festival that preceded Lent each year. Even the tradition of the “spiel,” you can hear in its name, harks from a Central European tradition…

The Talmud backs this up. First, according to classical halakha (or Jewish spiritual law), the Megillah of Esther — the Book of Esther upon which the whole spiel is based – the Megillah can be read in any language you want. It’s one of the few times when we’re not required to struggle through the Bible in ancient Hebrew – we can listen to the words in any language we understand or want.

Second, according to the Talmud, one should get so drunk at Purim that one can no longer distinguish, when hearing the Megillah read aloud, between the phrases ‘arur Haman’ (cursed be Haman) and ‘baruch Mordechai’ (Blessed is Mordechai)… Arur Haman … Baruch Mordechai… I don’t know about you, but I’d have to be pretty blaggered…

Now whether this is hyperbole or not on the Talmud’s part is perhaps besides the point. It’s a send-up to the spirit of Purim – a time for reading our most famous revenge fable and laughing and rejoicing…

Which does bring up, for me, what must be thought of as ‘the dark side to Purim.’ The fable itself does include a lot of bloodshed – and worse than that, has been used in the past in Jewish communities to incite anti-Gentile violence or vandalism on Purim… This is also a history we have to look squarely in the face.

But I don’t believe that that is the essential spirit of Purim itself — and this is where the importance as always of interpretation in Jewish Tradition comes in. Some have interpreted the story of Purim too literally – and so when it says that the Jews in Persia killed 75,000 people in defence or in retaliation at Haman’s plot to commit genocide on them, some in our communities in the past have taken a message of hate from it.

I think, though, that the Book of Esther is a revenge fable much much more in the style of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds than it is in the style of an anti-Gentile propaganda piece… In that film, which came about a decade ago now, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, and a few other formidable Jewish characters run around Europe during World War II shooting up Nazis in the bloodiest ways possible… This didn’t happen in real life. This is not historical fact. The only way this film can be understood is as a revenge fantasy where Jewish and non-Jewish anger at the Nazi Holocaust can be acted out in the safety of a narrative fable – that is, here’s what we would’ve liked to do if we could. In that sense, the Book of Esther is Inglorious Basterds – what the Jewish people wish we could have done during times of great persecution.

Perhaps this is still difficult to sit with nowadays, but it’s a subtler tradition than it’s made out to be. We sometimes lose the nature of Purim in our modern life — as a madcap festival where up is down and down is up, Haman is Mordechai and Mordechai Haman, Esther and Vashti are men, we can’t recognize anyone because of the masks they’re wearing, and where the threat of genocidal violence is over-turned and so everyone gets drunk!

This identity confusion is everywhere in the Book of Esther itself. At one point, King Ahashverosh decides he wants to honour Mordechai for saving his life in a traitorous plot against the king, so the king asks his most esteemed advisor, Haman: “How should I truly honour someone who has served me well?” Haman, thinking the king means him, lets his imagination run wild and says, “Well your majesty, you should give him all kinds of fine clothes and jewels and riches and set him up upon a beautiful horse and parade him throughout your kingdom!” “Done!” says the king, and he goes off to do such things for Mordechai.

The Rabbis make a wonderful joke in the Talmud – it’s a very nerdy Hebrew pun about Purim. Bear with me. Purim, they say, is the twin and opposite to another holiday in the Jewish calendar – Yom Kippur. Why? Because in Hebrew Yom Kippur is Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonement, and this Hebrew phrase can also be understood to say, “Yom, a day, Kipurim, like Purim – a day like Purim.” So as Yom Kippur is a solemn day of reflection and chestbeating, with no food and no drink, Purim is the opposite: a day of rejoicing and gladness, full of food and drink!

Rabbi Fried understood this. Those white tights you’ve been wanting to wear all year? Those high femme stick-on eyelashes? That twirly villain moustache? Put them on, whether in your heart or on your body, and come to Kehillah’s drag Purim party a week Sunday.

And may we have a freilichen Purim, a truly festive Purim.

Chag Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.