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.

27 thoughts on “Purim

  1. Love the Ester and Mordecai biblical story. Whether or not it is true doesn’t matter. When moments of celebration are in order the consciousness changes and we see the world through different eyes. It was unusual for a Jewish woman to reach such heights. Whoever remembered the tale and committed it to writing left a heartwarming legacy.

  2. Esther (Hadassah, in Hebrew) is the Queen of King Ahasuerus. Haman is the King’s “number one prince”. I believe he is an Agagite, by descent.. . He wants to bring to ruin the Jewish nation which is residing in Persia, near the castle at Shushan. Why?? Because Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, will not bow down to him at the gate. Haman needs to find a date for annihilation of Mordecai’s people. So, he casts “Pur”, or lots to pick Adar 14. Humentaschen represent the hat of Haman.

    • Cheri, thank you for the succinct, but clear background information. I was wondering where the name of the celebration was derived. Now I know. Merrill

    • Yes, the Jews have periodically been threatened by other nations throughout their history and yet they are still here. Amazing, when you think about it. And, there are quite a number of women in both the Old and New Testaments who have a substantial role in that history. That’s God’s way — we are all important to Him.

  3. By the lack of quick responses, it might seem that other folks are as confused as I am about where this fits in and where it is going. I was hoping to hear about your encounter as an adult with Nina…….instead we were popped across the street into the Purim celebration which has also left me in a quandary…..given Cheri’s explanation, I am wondering: What the heck is this about? Why the people in costume? Why the noise makers? What are they trying to accomplish with this celebratory tradition? I know you like to keep us in suspense, but for me, this time, you didn’t give me enough to hang on to until the next time!!

    The one thing I would say is an observation: It is very hard to forget you are Jewish given all of the traditions and celebrations they engage in. Keeps people turned in toward the religious community, doesn’t it? It is a smart strategy even though that might not be the motivating factor. MET

    • Don’t know if this will help, Merrill, but some religious groups like to role play biblical stories. I don’t know if that is what was going on here. Maybe Rabbi Aaron can enlighten us when he’s available. For many years the Jehovah’s Witnesses would put on rather lavish dramas at their big conventions or assemblies with costumes and all role playing a biblical story to make the principles of the story live for the modern day. It sure beat listening to a talk for a couple of hours.

      • Hi Frank,
        Short answer is that Purim is a festive time celebrating a miraculous event, as the Book of Esther notes, that it was a major “Turnabout”, and the holiday follows the same path. First is a public fast, (no food, no water) just as Esther asked from all of the Jews of her time, and then the remarkable change of events. The Costumes serve as a powerful element to draw young children (and older ones like me!) into the depth of the experience, but there is much to say about that as well. It is the only holiday that we really use costumes.

      • I got the flashback part, Corinna. I guess I just didn’t have enough information about Purim to make sense of the somewhat disparate activities!! Obviously, you didn’t either. Perhaps you were trying to accomplish too much here. Something didn’t seem right. Sorry, but sometimes my writing teacher background oozes up out of my past and just has to speak out. MET

          • Thanks, Ginger; that was a great suggestion. I actually went searching not only for information on the story of Esther, but also for the celebration of Purim, in general. Having that background information was helpful in understanding Corinna’s post. Those of you who know the Old Testament had a leg up on me there!

            I really have few comments about the story or the Celebration, Ginger, although I would have to say that this woman showed extraordinary courage in standing up for her people to the King. She did perhaps misrepresent herself originally as she did not reveal that she was Jewish….it would have been foolhardy to do so! The fact that the King heard her out and acted on the information—so the story goes–would make me believe that she was generally an exceptional woman…which was not a reflection on her Jewish traditions/ roots, but of her character, I think. Merrill

            • One other reaction. I am always startled by the punishments meted out in the Old Testaments. Dave is often pointing them out, but it really struck home in this situation. The King gives Haman the responsibility to do a job, and then when Esther comes along and enlightens him about what is going on, the King just doesn’t remove him from office….He kills him AND his 10 sons. Hard to see any fairness in that situation!! Yikes! That is one way to get a message across, but how would you really know what the message was…..lost of cross purposes here, it seems to me. MET

              • Ir occurred to me this morning that capricious and diabolical punishments are still being meted out in the Middle East……not only are the “sins of the fathers” being dealt with, but the “King” is also going after their wives and the children. Old Testament punishment with
                new and horrifying weapons. Is this a mind set established thousands of years ago? MET

              • I wonder if this record of God’s over-the-top actions were designed to make people, who had been very stubborn about doing “right,” take notice. When it comes to blood and guts–particularly our own–we humans tend to pay attention.

                  • Let’s not forget that these are stories written by people who wanted to impress their Jewish culture as a special people and sometimes the figures have been inflated and the actions suited to the times that would be easily understood. There’s a difference between believing that the Bible is the inerrant word of God or whether it is a collection of little books that has stories and histories that have lessons to share whether or not they actually occurred. I’m not belittling the Bible. I have read it through several times and often through the eyes of both conservative evangelical Christianity and liberal spiritual thought and find it filled with wisdom and profound thought but I try to steer clear of seeing it as literal. The analogy to Shakespeare is a good one. There’s a lot in Shakespeare that is scarey and profound but after all it’s just a good story.

                    • Frank, point well taken. However in this case the details are not so important as the story line….when I was teaching world geography I always included several folk tales in my instructional bag of tricks because they were always full of information about the place and the culture we were studying. They include the prevailing mores and traditions…… the rules by which to live. Children learned who to be and how to behave through these stories….what to do AND what not to do. I see this same thing in the stories from the bible.

                      It really doesn’t matter whether the King killed two sons or 52 sons. It is all about making a point….the Middle Eastern cultures seem to be big into punishment and retaliation… and although I bring some actually history into play here, the story would seem to reinforce that. Corinna, your use of the words ” over the top actions” might be viewed as being a bit euphemistic in nature, but at any rate, the wanton violence and warfare which has existed throughout history certainly would get the attention of people who should then make the “right” choices. It hasn’t seemed to have much long term effect, however. So God apparently has to continue to sanction these actions. Here’s the rub, however. How can you tell which of these things is God- sanctioned and which are just perpetrated by power grabbing, greedy people….one might even label them evil. Doesn’t work for me……no matter how you say it. MET

                    • The struggle to justify the seemingly violent God of the Old Testament is almost as old as Scripture itself. Some early Christian sects created the concept of two Gods—the vengeful, angry God of the OT, and the merciful, loving one of the New Testament, whose son came to save us from the old one. I try to remember the context in which the Old Testament was written. Like most ancient writings, the stories were derived from oral tales, and stories packed with violence and action kept an audience’s attention. Samson killing 10,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass is a lot more exciting than him giving them a stern lecture. A few posts ago, someone pointed out the old “eye for an eye” rule, as abhorrent to most modern cultures as it is, was an early attempt to bring proportionality to crime and punishment. I think the God of the OT was a stickler for detail. In many passages, He gives His people a list of the blessings they’ll receive if they follow His laws, followed by an equally terrifying list of curses if they failed to follow them, which they did with remarkable regularity. There are many theories behind this seeming dichotomy: God was trying to enforce the idea that the Hebrews were a people set apart; every time the people strayed and were punished, God eventually forgave and restored them. Unlike the gods of myth, God played by His own rules. Most of the other gods of antiquity displayed decidedly human behavior, full of jealously, lust, anger, subterfuge, greed, etc., along with a rather laissez-faire view of human behavior; as long as men did nothing to anger the gods, they could pretty much do as they pleased to each other. God made it clear what was and wasn’t acceptable behavior, both towards Him and to other people, and made it equally clear He wasn’t to be second-guessed; “I will bless whom I bless and condemn whom I condemn.”

                      I don’t intend to make light of some of the truly violent and awful things in the Bible. And we, with the benefit of thousands of years of ever-evolving “civilization”, can choose to accept or reject the message it sends if it’s not relevant to us. But I try to view the Bible as a whole, a story arch leading to Jesus and His teachings, to which everything else takes a backseat. My two cents’ worth, anyway.

              • HI Merrill,
                Actually the king did not give Haman a job to do, Haman manipulated the king to try to hang Mordechai and kill the Jews. Haman, a meglamaniac, was jealous and bore resentment to Mordechai, because he refused to bow down to Haman. Haman plotted and tricked the king. The poetic justice was that Haman built the gallows to kill Mordechai and he was ended becoming the victim of his own plot.

                The hangings in this story are not rooted in the biblical sense, in this narrative, the gallows were an integral part of a plan hatched by Haman, and unfortunately it is still a common practice (as you noted) in the country where this story took place, Persia or modern day Iran.

                There is lot of threads that run through this story. The courage and self sacrifice of Esther and Mordechai are central themes and the rightful reward for treachery is Haman’s legacy. In this story and in the simplest meaning, the king is more of a minor figure, not to smart and not an upstanding guy, but still a major monarch.

  4. Haman was the bad guy advisor, not the king. The cookies are also called Oznei Haman because they look like ears. Amoungst the Israeli’s I know, this is celebrated a lot like halloween, with kids dressing up in costumes and getting treats.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s