Purim and pastries and a call to action
Purim and Pastries and A Call to Action
In a few days, on March 21, Jews around the world will celebrate Purim—a multidimensional holiday, commemorating the triumph of the Jewish people over another threat of annihilation.
The Purim story unfolds in the Biblical Book of Esther with enough twists and turns to satisfy any Shakespeare enthusiast: Young Jewish orphan, Esther, becomes queen to the king of Persia, winning the coveted spot in a beauty contest without disclosing her Jewishness.
This happens after the king’s first wife, Vashti, is banished from the kingdom for refusing to parade herself in front of the king’s companions. But when Esther’s Uncle Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman, the king’s top advisor, Haman persuades the king to murder all the Jews in the kingdom, setting the stage for Esther’s dilemma.
What’s a girl to do? Approaching the king without being summoned is an offense punishable by death. Remaining silent means certain destruction for her people.
After considerable hand-wringing, prayer, and a three-day fast, Esther marshals the courage to confront the king and turn Haman’s evil plan on its head, resulting in Haman’s death.
There’s more, but this is enough to inspire a holiday that evokes Jewish responses ranging from silly to somber, vulnerable to invincible, and tolerant to xenophobic.
Purim is only a minor Jewish holiday—think Flag Day vs. Fourth of July—so it carries fewer religious obligations than holidays such as Passover or Yom Kippur. But unlike those holidays, Purim is not as ritualized, well-ordered, or constrained.
Purim is loud, rowdy, and flamboyant with carnivals, costumes, masks, and shenanigans. Children dress-up as kings and queens or Wonder Woman, The Black Panther, or Sponge Bob Square Pants. Adults attend grown-up parties with costumes and adult beverages.
Everyone gets into the act on Purim.
In fact, you may have already come across a Purim tradition yourself without even realizing it - like Hamantaschen. These small, triangular, jam-filled pastries are said to symbolize Haman’s hat or ears and are, for some inexplicable reason, carried by many bakeshops year-round. Look for them the next time you’re in a bakery. Better yet, try one!
In synagogues, the Book of Esther is read from a scroll called the Megillah—a Hebrew/Yiddish word you may have heard in pop culture that’s designed to end long-winded conversations, as in, “Don’t give me the whole Megillah!”
During the Megillah reading, whenever Haman’s name is mentioned, listeners shake noisemakers called groggers, drowning out Haman’s name with the din. Pasta boxes are often used as noisemakers and donated to food banks after the holiday in keeping with the Purim custom of giving to the poor.
To add to the festivities, some synagogues produce Broadway parodies called Purim spiels, which encourage congregants to view the story through an amusing, contemporary lens.
But Purim is not all fun and folly. It’s also a serious holiday about concealment, opposition, and power.
Vashti would not be intimidated and refused to reveal herself when the king issued his humiliating demand. Esther hid her Jewish identity from the royal court. Haman professed to be a wise counselor but was deceitful, constructing plans that eventually turned upside-down.
It seems to me that, in our little corner of Connecticut, you and I see each other largely through our differences—gay/straight, Republican/Democrat, Christian/Muslim/Jew. And yet our lives touch every day.
Rabbi Daniel Polish says holidays like Purim and Mardi Gras are marked “by a raucous atmosphere, the excessive consumption of intoxicants, masks and costumes” and both fall before “perhaps the major religious observance of their respective traditions… [Passover/Easter].”
These are just some of our connections, hidden in plain sight. Like little pastries in bakery cases. Like “the whole Megillah.”
In the Book of Esther, God’s name never appears in the text. God is hidden. The miracle of the Purim story is not a divinely orchestrated parting of the sea. It’s the uncommon bravery of a common person.
Esther is one of the greatest female protagonists in the Bible—her name appears more than any other woman’s name. Esther grapples with the consequences of inaction. Then she acts heroically.
Purim is about the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things. It’s about acting in the face of fear. And it’s about speaking truth to power.
This year I hope the Purim story inspires us with the confidence of Vashti and the courage of Esther. And I hope people today in positions of leadership will be moved by the examples of both women to stand up for truth and justice.
Joyce Schriebman is founder, My Brother from Another Mother