Purim

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.

Advertisements

Do-over

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I dove right in to the Jewish leg of my religious explorations by walking into synagogues at the appropriate times. Carrying out my goal of reconnecting with old pals was a bit trickier. Lisa, my friend who had acted as a lifeline to the old gang, tried to get everyone to meet up after the sun set on my first Sabbath. She sent out a group email and made reservations at a restaurant on Main Street. Becky and Deb replied that they couldn’t come, but Nina RSVP’d she’d try to make it.

Of all my high school buddies, I was surprised Nina’s the only one to accept as ours was always the relationship with the most friction. At times we acted like we were in a battle for who could be the biggest jerk. Last we had gotten together, 15 years earlier, she had stormed out. Her mother had died of cancer a year or so earlier and she seemed to be milking some residual neediness that irked me. Everything I said and did that afternoon communicated that I would not indulge her emotional fragility. When she scooped up her car keys and fled, I was officially the valor in our little war. We hadn’t spoken since—not even when her boyfriend was killed a few years ago.

Thinking about the afternoon I last saw Nina, I feel the hot burn of shame. What had she needed from me? To be hugged and fussed over a bit? Could I not offer my friend these small gestures of comfort? No, I couldn’t; as I see now, I was too terrified. I could not fathom that Nina’s mother had gone from vibrant to dead in a matter of weeks, the brain tumor that first made itself apparent on a trip to Israel, of all places—when her disorganized thinking alarmed her travel companions—metastasizing uncontrollably seemingly overnight. It was like Nina was a balloon and her mother had been her tether to the ground. After her mother’s death, Nina seemed to float aimlessly. I didn’t want this tragedy to be something that could happen and, if it had to be, I wanted proof that a speedy recovery was possible. I needed Nina to be regular Nina, not devastated Nina. I was so desperate for her to be okay that I refused to reach out and pull her to earth, even for a few moments.

I’ve beat myself up about it. I could not be there for my friend because I could not get past my own fear and anger. It’s no different from what motivated the behavior of the people Moses left at the base of Mount Sinai. They were terrified at having been left alone, so they reached for the quick-fix to soothe their anxiety. They did this forbidden thing because they were only human. After his initial fury, Moses calms down. He understood because he was human too. God is less sympathetic. He wants to smite them all and start over with a fresh group of people. Moses talks him out of this rage. New people would have the same faults. Moses comes back down from the mountain with another set of commandments; the people get a do-over. This list of guidelines from God represents the crux of the faith: behavior, not material things, should be your source of comfort. Your actions, doing the right thing, what you think and feel as you interact with others and the world around you, these are what God cares about; this is all anyone can know for sure. As I waited to see if Nina would actually show, I nervously hoped for my own little do-over.