When I think of the Purim holiday, I tend to think of noise-making, carnivals, costumes, and cookies. It was definitely one of the more fun Jewish holidays when I was a kid. But, as an adult who has actually read the Book of Esther, I realize that there are many parts of the story that are not so kid-friendly.
1. While I did dress up as Queen Esther for at least one Purim carnival as a child, it turns out that the story does not treat women well. Ahasheurus’ first wife, Vashti, was asked to parade naked in front of the king and his friends. She refused, and was replaced as Queen because of her unwillingness to appear nude before a group of drunken men. It was Esther, a woman who was willing to do this, who was rewarded by the King and became a hero of Jewish tradition. Throughout the text, there are several troubling details about how women are treated throughout the story, including in the king’s harem, where women were kept as concubines whose role it was to please the king.
2. There is a lot of murder in this story. The Jews felt threatened during the story until thanks to Esther, the king decided to save the Jews. The catch was that the decree to kill the Jews could not be reversed, so the king instead allowed the Jews to defend themselves. The oppressed (Jews) become the oppressor, killing not only their attackers and the sons of Haman, but also 75,000 Persians. Personally, I find it hard to claim that murdering more than 75,000 people was self-defense.
3. Revenge is a powerful theme associated with the Purim holiday. On the Shabbat prior to Purim, the traditional Torah reading is the story of the defeat of Amalek. The Bible speaks of the Amalekites as cruel people, and thus the Israelites were commanded to destroy the Amalekites. The connection to Purim is that its villain, Haman, is said to be a descendant of the Amalekites. Thus, when one reads about wiping out the Amalekites and then reads about the Jews committing murder at the end of the book of Esther, one might conclude that violence and revenge are celebrated in these texts.
4. Drunkenness is celebrated on Purim. In the Talmud, it says that one should drink to the point where he no longer can distinguish between the bad guy (Haman) and the good guy (Mordechai). This is clearly an adult angle of the holiday.
5. And remember those good cookies? Hamantaschen! I always learned the three-cornered cookies were representative of Haman’s hat or his ears. It turns out that they may more closely resemble female genitals. Lilith Magazine’s Rabbi Susan Schnur writes:
So … . can I prove that hamantaschen are contemporary sacred vulva cakes? No. But it certainly makes academic and gut sense to me: that parthenogenetic (self-fertilizing) hamantaschen—pubic triangles traditionally filled with black seeds—are pre-spring, full-moon fertility cookies, suggesting the potency of female generative power, and heralding women’s and the Earth’s seasonally awakening creativity.
What does all of this mean? Should we skip the Purim fun for kids just because the holiday has adult themes as well – and in some parts, disturbing messages? I don’t think so. I think it’s important to celebrate the holiday across the ages. And, then, my hope is that every child grows up and wants to learn the “rest of the story” because those details are fascinating and important as well. They shed light on the biblical authors and their worldview.
“Be kind to fans of “The Good Wife” today,” CNN extolled, “They’re seriously struggling.” The New York Times weighed in. So did National Public Radio. The unexpected death of Will Gardner was news. The fact that he was a fictional character and that the actor who played him, Josh Charles, was alive and well was irrelevant. For avid fans, the shock and dismay were real. As a close friend told me, a week later, “Don’t talk to me about it. I’m still in mourning.”
When it is well done, a good story can touch us as though we ourselves are part of the drama. We walk out the theater with tears in our eyes. We don’t put down the book for hours because the joys and challenges of the characters have become our own.
That is exactly what we are meant to do at the Passover Seder. We read in the Hagaddah that “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” But as we rush through the text and the rituals we don’t always feel the dramatic flow with the intensity of the fans of The Good Wife.
Here are three suggestions for helping you create a Seder that helps you put yourself into the story:
Act it out: Instead of retelling the story of the Exodus turn your Seder into a dramatic retelling. Middle Eastern Jews have been doing this for generations, dressing the part and packing sacks that they carry over their shoulders or playfully beating each other with scallions a reminder of the whippings the Israelites received at the hand of their Egyptian overlords. You can make it as elaborate as you like, giving out parts and creating a script with costume changes as the night goes on and liberation occurs. Or you can have people ad lib and be in the moment. Literally getting into the story does help you feel like it is your own.
The Modern Miracles: The miracle of the Exodus can feel abstract. But there are many modern versions of the Exodus that bring the story home in very real terms. Share Rabbi Gershom Sizomu’s recollection of the liberation of the Jews of Uganda or watch the retelling of Natan Sharansky’s liberation from Soviet Russia or liberation of Ethiopian Jews. These three modern powerful Jewish stories demonstrate that the Exodus narrative continues to resonate even today. Let these compelling broad narratives open a conversation about how each person at the Seder has experienced liberation. The examples might be dramatic, such as an emigration or kicking a drug habit, or they might be lesser in scale such as getting out of homework or moving to a new division with a new boss. Whatever the examples, we can all find ways to relate from our own lives.
The Contemporary Challenges: Sadly, slavery is not a thing of the past. There are many people for whom freedom and fair work conditions are not a reality. The Seder is a perfect opportunity to make these stories our own by sharing them and discussing the changes that we can be part of to liberate those who are not free. T’ruah, the rabbinic call for human rights, suggests putting a tomato on the Seder plate to call attention to the plight of field workers whose conditions are often inhumane. Not For Sale provides information and action items about the estimated 30 million people worldwide who are currently enslaved. For those who want to mix traditional text and contemporary discussions American Jewish World Service (AJWS) has thoughtful resources about the challenges faced by some of the most disadvantaged workers.
Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?
Recently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.
Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!
I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).