Lisa and I arrive at the restaurant where we hope to meet Nina. The dining room has huge windows facing Main Street and sits directly opposite one of the synagogues on my list. I take a seat at our table only to look up and realize I’ve inadvertently placed myself so that I am directly facing the synagogue. It’s as if the big windows have been positioned perfectly to frame the building. Lest I fail to take the subtle hint, the last vestiges of light in the sky are striking the building in such a way that its white façade glows.
The synagogue at which I’m staring is where I will be reprimanded a week later for holding a pen as the sun set on Friday evening. Two days earlier, on the Wednesday night just after I arrived in L.A., I attended a Purim party there. I didn’t know what Purim was, or how it would be celebrated, but the synagogue’s website said the festivities started at 8 o’clock so I rushed down at the last minute. As I approached the building looking for street parking, I became alarmed. A man in a turban and robes was gesticulating wildly near the front steps. I won’t sugar-coat it: with his long black beard, this man looked like he might belong in the Taliban. I thought he was shouting or causing some sort of commotion but, as I passed by, I realized he was laughing.
I was still apprehensive as I parked and walked back toward the entrance. The Taliban guy had vanished, and a side door leading to the synagogue’s basement was propped open. “Hello?” I called from the top of the stairs. No response. I descended one flight and tried again. Still no response. I went all the way down and there, standing at the base, was the guy. My first instinct was to scream, but I bit my tongue. He smiled and stuck out his hand for me to shake. “I’m Mordecai,” he said. That’s when I noticed the elastic straps on his beard and the cheap polyester of his turban. This was a costume. He was dressed as a character from the bible.
The rest of the evening was nothing I could have imagined taking place, much less in a synagogue that falls under the label “conservative,” which is not, as one might assume, an indication of political leanings, but a nod to how closely the congregation adheres to Judaism’s stable of biblical “rules”—they fall between the liberal “reformed” and more observant “orthodox.”
I knew only that Purim is a celebration of the biblical story of Queen Esther convincing the King to abandon his plan to kill the Jews in his kingdom. Esther, who is secretly Jewish, is aided in her efforts of persuasion by her cousin Mordecai.
Aside from several members of the congregation dressed as key characters from this drama, everything starts out on a somber note. The rabbi reads aloud from the Book of Lamentations as we nibble “hamantashen,” triangle-shaped pastries named for the King’s advisor, Haman, whose job it was to rid the kingdom of Jews. Then a bag of noisemakers is passed around. I select one that is like a rattle with little balls inside, in tiny letters on the side it says, “Happy Purim!” The room grows raucous as everyone tries out their noise makers, some of which are cardboard horns. The rabbi raises a bottle of beer to toast the cacophony.