The Hammies

After the noise-makers are passed around at the Purim celebration, it’s time for the business of the evening: the “Hammy Awards,” a spoof of the Academy Awards where winners are given a “Hammy” in place of an Oscar. It’s a poke at Haman who hoped to kill the Jews in his kingdom, transforming a solemn topic with fun.

The Master of Ceremonies is a rabbinical student with wheat stalks glued to his t-shirt. He announces the category for “Best Queen.” He reads, very seriously, “…and the nominees are: Queen Elizabeth…Queen Latifah…the rock band Queen…Queen Esther for saving the Jews. And the winner is…” he pauses for dramatic effect, “Queen Esther!”  The crowd goes wild. Noise makers in the air, feet stomping the floor, rabbi chugging beer. A beautiful young woman dressed in robes and a gold chain across her forehead makes her way to the front of the room. She graciously accepts her award, which is a shellacked hamantash pastry spray-painted gold. Mordecai wins for “Best supporting Jew.”

As I left the synagogue that night, I felt giddy and a little baffled. Since Rosh Hashanah, I had been cataloging my sins and adopting the appropriate attitude of remorseful sorrow. I had prepared myself mentally for this very serious mission, one that would culminate in several weeks with Passover, when Jews remember being freed from slavery and the promises they made to God. I had not anticipated my very first stop would be a raucous party-like celebration. I did not realize Jews had a holiday where the point is to be loud and dress up and get drunk if you want to. It reminded me of the Catholic tradition of Carnival or Mardi Gras, the wild public partying before the somber season of Lent. Some historians suggest that Purim and pre-Lenten celebrations developed in tandem as a result of Christian and Jews living for hundreds of years in proximity. They seem to capture parallel moods: a burst of joy before the dutiful weeks leading to Easter or Passover. Regardless of religion, it seems to be human nature to crave levity—a joyful respite in the midst of a serious journey.

I have my eye on the door of the restaurant because I’m nervous about Nina showing up. But as soon as I see her, I know it won’t be like that. She’s all of five feet, but she might as well be the biggest person in the room from the size of the smile on her face. We hug, and I am flooded with relief. After tonight I’ll email her and hopefully set up a get-together with just the two of us to catch up on the more serious aspects of the time we’ve lost. But when I see her I know this evening isn’t for that. We laugh and swap lighthearted stories. I relax and focus on how good this is—how wonderful to be reunited with Lisa and Nina. I’ve struggled with moving past my feelings of fear and guilt to carve out enough space where a sense of thankfulness and joy might flourish. Life is its own serious journey, and these moments of fun can help grow gratitude—if you let them. Tonight I’m just plain appreciative for my old friends—people who know firsthand the terrible mistakes I’m capable of and smile when they see me anyway.

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.