Tag Archives: Purim

Purim: The Upside-Down Way to Find Happiness

shutterstock_113294914Do you want to be happy?

Then here’s my advice: don’t try to be happy.

That idea comes from Oliver Burkeman’s excellent book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. He tells us that significant research suggests that many of the ways we try to get happy (“Set a goal! Think positive thoughts! Imagine the life you want!”) are actually counter-productive.

Instead, he argues, we should realize that we may not achieve our goals, that negative thoughts and feelings are part of life, and that scary things happen.

Why? Because

…[]t]he notion that in all sorts of contexts, from our personal lives to politics, all this trying to make everything right is a big part of what’s wrong. Or, to quote [philosopher Alan] Watts, “when you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float,” and that “insecurity is the result of trying to be secure…” (8)

He calls this method “the backwards law,” and it’s a perfect message for Purim. which is the day when “everything gets turned upside down.”

On one hand, Purim is clearly a fun holiday. We wear masks and costumes. We hold parties. We have carnivals and celebrations. We let our hair out.

One the other hand, the Purim story itself is filled with tremendous anxiety and uncertainty. Will Esther be brave enough to speak to King Ahashuerus, even though it might mean she’d be killed? What would have happened if Mordechai hadn’t overheard the plot to kill the king, or if his courtiers hadn’t realized that Mordechai needed to be rewarded? Most of all, will the Jews survive Haman’s murderous plot?

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the word “Purim” comes from the word “pur,” meaning “lot” — as in “lottery.” Purim, at its core, reminds us that life is uncertain, scary and often gets turned upside-down.

Yet it’s that very lack of security that can lead us to a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. As Burkeman explains,

…[t]o seek security is to try to remove yourself from change, and thus from the thing that defines life. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life,” [Alan] Watts writes, “I am wanting to be separate from life.” Which brings us to the crux of the matter: it is because we want to feel secure that we build up the fortifications of ego, in order to defend ourselves, but it is those very fortifications that create the feeling of insecurity…

“The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing,” concludes Watts. “To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest, in which everyone is taut as a drum as as purple as a beet.” Even if we temporarily and partially achieve the feeling of security, he adds, it doesn’t feel good…”We discover [not only] that there is no safery, [and] that seeking it is painful, [but] that when we imagine we have found it, we don’t like it.” (146-147)

Ultimately, Purim reminds us that we don’t have complete control over our lives, and in fact, trying to desperately hold onto safety makes us deeply unhappy, since we are not truly living life to its fullest. Instead, if we can embrace the fact that life can be scary and unpredictable, we can then be totally present in moments of joy.

In other words, to truly be happy, we need to turn our ideas of happiness upside-down.

Posted on March 5, 2015

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Purim: Not So G-Rated

PurimWhen 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.

Posted on March 2, 2015

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What “The Interview” Teaches Us

shutterstock_91969361After watching The Interview I recalled a particular Purim shpiel (a comic dramatization) from nearly 30 years ago. It was a parody of one of our rabbinical school classes, silly as a Purim shpiel should be. I played the role of our beloved teacher, and my acting was so bad and the script so funny that I collapsed into giggles long before it was over.

Purim captures the opposites of joyous humor and gripping fear in response to painful realities. The villain Haman nearly succeeded in fulfilling his mission to wipe out the Jews of Persia. The buffoon of a king, Ahashuerus, is the paradigm of a dangerous ruler, too self-absorbed to pay much caring attention to his people.

In Jewish tradition we are bidden to behave respectfully to rulers we may not like. You never know what they can do to you if you don’t show them respect. We came by this fear honestly. Power in the hands of the misguided or the cruel can cause so much suffering.

The flip side of the instruction to show respect to those in power is that we sometimes need to expose their ineptitude or evil designs. The tool of parody, as on Purim, can express these concerns with nuance. Perhaps that’s why I giggled my way through that Purim shpiel years ago – there was nothing but love for our teacher, so the parody lacked a negative zing. But a parody that critiques a despot issues a call to action: Don’t let this happen!

The Interview is one such parody. My husband and I knew we had to see the movie after the threatening words and deeds of the North Korean regime.

I spent the first 20 minutes wishing I were watching bad Purim shpiels instead – anything would have been better than the sophomoric antics of Rogen and Franco. The constant gratuitous sexual references and “f…ing” everything wasn’t entertaining. But we stuck with it out of curiosity. We were glad we did.

Thankfully, the humor improved by mid-movie. But more importantly, the message became clear. The film is a full-voiced critique of a dangerous, cruel buffoon of a ruler, Kim Jong-un. The deprivation, starvation and repression of the North Korean people are no laughing matter, and nor are the regime’s nuclear bombs. This film draws our attention to problems that we are too overwhelmed to notice, especially with so many other world problems. How could we possibly have any impact on helping the suffering people of North Korea?

Maybe we can’t. But we can respond by living our values. Jewish tradition is ever hopeful, asserting that goodness will ultimately prevail. If The Interview reminds us to actively sustain American democracy, in a compassionate society that cares for all people, its painful humor will have been worthwhile.

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Posted on December 28, 2014

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Lost and Found: An Airplane and a Bar Mitzvah

SeaplanesMy husband and I are binge-watching Lost, a 2004-2010 TV series. An airplane crashes, leaving survivors stranded without rescue on a remote tropical island. The survivors bond as they face the island’s threats together. “Lost is the perfect blend of drama, action, and science fiction,” says my brother. By drama, he means character development. By action, he means shooting guns. By science fiction, he means writers weaving random impossible ideas into a plot.

Except, this week, Lost seems a bit less like fiction. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has disappeared.  We do not know if, where, and how the passengers are living. We can read in great detail about attempts to find them — and learn that no one really knows where to look.

This week’s terrible travel news is the flip side of Lost. Viewers of Lost know a great deal about the characters on the island. But we know nothing about the anxious family and friends waiting for news. Nothing about the airlines, governments or rescue crews as they search.

In real life, no one yet knows both sides of the missing jet’s story. But in my own mind, I cannot separate the facts from the fictional story. When I watch Lost, I imagine the untold stories of those who wait. As I read about the search for Malaysia flight 370, I worry about the passengers and crew; I pray for their well-being.

Imagine a story with only two sides, where no one can experience both sides, where anyone who sees one side cannot see the other. Imagine you see only one side. But when you look closely, everything flips around, and now you see only the other side.

V’nahafoch hu, as we say at Purim. It all turned over. Inside-out. Upside-down.

During Purim this year, I had a v’nahafoch hu experience.

You know the ongoing, polarizing debate about Jewish power. Do we, in North America and Israel, have enough power and security? Or are we always battling the beast of antisemitism with money and military strength? Two views, mutually exclusive. Normally, I see only the former.

From that perspective, I cannot stand the triumphalist tone of Megillat Esther. Deep down, I think, I am embarrassed to celebrate Jews winning political power. When history treats us well, we should be pleased with our efforts, providence and luck. But celebration of triumph over others, well, that’s in bad taste. That’s my gut feeling as a fourth-generation American Jew who grew up at ease with both her Ashkenazi ethnicity and American citizenship.

This past Shabbat morning, just a few hours before Purim, v’nahafoch hu—something turned over. A 65 year old man in our congregation, whom I have known for a decade as Mr. I-am-spiritual-but-not-religious, celebrated his bar mitzvah. Throughout the service, he held hands with his 94 year-old mother. Towards the end, he addressed the congregation. “I am the first person of my lineage not to have a bar mitzvah at age 13. I grew up in post-World War II Romania. Where we lived, it was not safe to express our Jewishness. But now, Hitler and his friends are mostly gone, and here I am, in Canada, celebrating my bar mitzvah at 65.” He smiled. All 150 witnesses cried. Except his mother: she laughed and cried at the same time. V’nahafoch hu. 

That evening, I experienced the Megillah from the perspective of my Romanian friend. Yes, we are still here! With enough power to live without fear. With enough security to be Jewish, whatever that might mean. Like Mordehai and Esther in the Megillah, we triumphed. But not in their flashy fictional style. We moved forward in real ways, with trauma and heartbreak and a very slow recovery. This Shabbat, one man stepped forward into his sense of Jewish power. Not everyone is ready yet to follow him.

So much in life is hidden from us. Sometimes it takes 65 years, or 94 years, to find what we seek. Often we make the search extra-hard, letting binary thinking narrow our perception and insight. But if we look closely at the clues offered, everything can shift around, and maybe we can see multiple sides all at once.

May that happen to those who search for flight 370. I will pray for them, for the flight’s passengers, and for its crew.

Posted on March 17, 2014

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We Don’t Really Talk About Purim

Before we crash headlong into the various celebratory, lighthearted posts about Purim, I want to draw your attention to something: the holiday we’re celebrating this weekend, is not actually a particularly happy one.

It is a parody of course, but like many parodies, it is rather dark. Starting with what appears to be the murder of the Queen for the crime of refusing to be displayed like a piece of meat, followed by a forced surrender of all “pretty” girls in the kingdoms from their homes, to the end, where the Jews defended themselves to the tune of the death of over 80,000 people, I find it somewhat difficult to find much that I like about the actual thing that we are supposed to be celebrating (I’m fine with the theme of survival, and of giving money to the poor and gifts of food to friends, though).

It seems to me that even though the rabbis still advocated celebration, there was this hint of darkness for them as well. In the Talmud, Megillah 7b, the following story is related:

Raba said: It is the duty of a man to mellow himself [with wine] on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai’. Rabbah and R`Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabbah arose and cut R`Zera’s throat. On the next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him. Next year he said, Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together. He replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion.

This is the same sort of dark parody related by the megillah itself. Clearly, the punchline is that  Rav Zera won’t come back for another round of “mellowing.” The drunkenness of Rabbah results in violence and death, which itself then leads to a miracle – but Rav Zera would prefer not to engage with that kind of miracle, thanks. The megillah, too, offers a miracle – but the miracle seems to be that we defended ourselves with a bloodbath. Perhaps because it is a parody, it’s okay to have zombie heads shooting off in every direction during the joyous finale, but I can’t help but ask whether we were, even as a parody, supposed to enjoin celebration in an abattoir. Were we, then, incapable of imagining an ending where we survived without harming others?

 

Posted on March 12, 2014

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What “The Daily Show” Can Teach Us About 21st Century Judaism

800px-Dailyshow_logo.svgI am ready to nominate Jon Stewart as an honorary “Rabbi Without Borders.”

Last week, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, in a remarkable display of bad taste (to say the least), decided to put on an Afro wig and blackface in order to portray an African-American basketball player for Purim. In response, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, pointed out the hypocrisy of Hikind’s insensitivity given his career as an outspoken critic of both actual and alleged (at least to Hikind) anti-Semitism. Stewart followed his comments with this hysterical segment entitled “Crazy Stupid Dove–The War On Purim” (see video below).

This is not the first time The Daily Show has captured the humorous side of Jewish holidays.  As J.J. Goldberg notes in his recent Forward blog, Stewart also introduced a laughing-out-loud funny segment about Passover last year called “Faith Off” in which he called on Jews to make Passover more enjoyable than Easter.

If you have ever attended, taught, or sent your children to a synagogue religious school, you know that teaching elementary school children the essentials of Judaism in 4-6 hours a week is extremely challenging. Given how little time there is to teach and how many other facets of contemporary American life religious schools have to compete with, we often turn to games, skits, and other ways to depict Judaism as fun and attractive. But in doing so, we sometimes revert to a simplistic, easy to digest version of Judaism without complication or obligation.

What is fascinating about The Daily Show’s Purim segment, though, is not how funny it is but how substantive it is. The segment thoroughly rebukes the transformation of Purim into a Jewish Halloween and the general trend towards fitting Jewish holidays into mainstream culture. Its message is actually the antithesis of his Passover piece, in which Stewart suggests coming up with cartoon characters and making video games to update our celebration of Passover. Through intelligent humor and sophistication, the Purim segment makes a compelling argument for rejecting the commercialization and assimilation of Jewish holidays. It is this translation, this targum, that we would do well to embrace. Most young Jews today are not interested in frontal, rote transmissions of tradition. Our religious school educators are correct that we need to approach today’s students through creative, interactive ways to reach the “multiple intelligences” of the Jewish public, to borrow from educational theory jargon.  But what The Daily Show segment teaches us is that we don’t need to be reductionist to make tradition contemporary and accessible. The challenge for us, as Jewish educators and teachers of the next generation, is to pick up where The Daily Show leaves off.

Posted on March 4, 2013

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Offensive or Good Fun?

This past weekend was Purim, a holiday full of laughter, parody and dress up. Fittingly, many Jewish groups release Purim videos and plays to tell the story of Purim in different fanciful ways.
One video stood out from the crowd this year, a video called “We Doin’ Purim” by a group called Bubala Please. The video, a parody, features Latino and African American Gangbangers from the LA ghetto rapping about Purim complete with four letter words, Yiddish sayings, and the objectification of women. On one level, the video is highly offensive. The F-bomb and the N-bomb are dropped several times, and there are very crude sexual references including a shot of “Esther” holding a large triangle shaped hummantashen over her (clothed) vagina.

But the discomfort the video elicits is not just because of these racial and sexual stereotypes which most liberal Americans will have a knee jerk negative reaction too. The video is discomforting because in some ways it gets at the dark underbelly of the Purim story. In most communities today, Purim is a “fun” holiday aimed mostly at children. They dress up, and for once get to misbehave in synagogue yelling out during services and dancing around. But if you look closely at the Purim story, it is not for children’s ears. This is a story about sex, violence, and the abuse of power. It opens with the King throwing a drunken orgy, moves on to his picking a girl out of his haram of virgins, and ends with the Jews rampaging and killing thousands of people. Telling the story through gangsta rap which embraces sex and violence is appropriate.

Then there are the power dynamics on display in both the Purim Story and this parody video. The story itself is the triumph of the lowly over the powerful. A commoner, Mordechi, and his niece, Esther, manage to over throw a powerful advisor to the King, and gain the king’s ear and political power. The underdog becomes powerful. Gangsta Rap, whether we like it or not, is a vehicle for the African American and Latino gang communities to show how the underdog has gained power though violence and domination of others. To have these rappers mixing in yidishisms and telling a Jewish story conveys this power to the Jewish community which historically is also seen as the underdog. Again the method of using Gangsta Rap to tell the Purim story of triumph of power makes sense.

I think the video is offensive, and smart, and funny all at the same time. For me the essence of Purim comes through. This video throws off our equilibrium – Gangbangers are rapping “Hommies Nashing Hummantashen – We Doin’ Purim!” What? Really?

Having been warned about its offensive content, watch the video if you choose, and make up your own mind, offensive or good fun?

Posted on February 25, 2013

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This year’s Purim costume: True Self

A number of years ago, I was at a Purim party and a male friend attended wearing a dress, make up, and jewelry.  Knowing how thoughtful he always was with regard to everything he did, I commented on how spectacular he looked, and what a great combination the look was on him… I knew that there was a story to hear.  Why a story?  Surely it was just Purim – the one day of the Jewish year that cross-dressing is permitted; perhaps even encouraged? All in good fun, right?

He looked me in the eye and said, ‘this holiday is a very important day in the year for me.  It is the one day of the year when it is officially ok to wear clothes that make me feel most like me.  Who I really am.  Without it being a big deal.  Without being ridiculed, or worrying about whether I’d be fired for wearing these clothes.’

purim-costumes_1352.3dd48

Sometimes the mask reveals the true self

I understood what he was saying.  For some people, part of the fun of Purim is dressing up, and sometimes in the clothes most commonly associated with the opposite gender.  And, in that context, we usually call that ‘cross dressing’, although ‘drag’ is probably the more accurate terminology for someone who is intentionally wearing the clothing associated with the opposite gender, but doing so in an over-the-top, performative kind of way.  But that’s not how my friend was dressed.  His clothing was not a covering over of identity for the entertainment of others, but a deeper and truer expression of inner identity – cross dressing as an expression of self.

Through my own experience, I’ve come to believe that some of our deepest spiritual insights come from within – from getting in touch with our deepest sense of self.  Perhaps this is the only thing that we can legitimately label ‘true’ in this life.  So what do we do when we find something within Jewish tradition that appears to be a God-given statement that is counter to our inner truth?

In Deuteronomy 22:5 it states: ‘A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment’.  The rabbis of past generations made an exception for Purim as a festival when reality is intentionally turned on its head.  Rashi, (c. 1040-1105 C.E.), explains the verse to apply to a specific context: “Kli gever, a man’s item should not be on a woman: That she should not appear as a man so she can go out among men, for this is only for the purpose of adultery.” Perhaps it was simply a lack of imagination that led to the conclusion that the only possible reason for a woman to try and infiltrate a group of men was to be able to conduct an affair with another man!  We need only think of the story of Yentl to know that the desire to study as an equal with men is just one of so many more explanations we could consider.

But, more to the point, what both the Torah and later commentaries fail to recognize is the way that genuine gender expression, which can be independent of sexuality, may lead a person to truly desire to wear garments that are not traditionally associated with their gender in their particular cultural  context.  We may have socially constructed gender in binary terms, but we are learning from those who are living a different truth that it is more complex than that. And why would that be so wrong?

We cannot truly do justice to the question without pausing to reflect more deeply on cultural understandings of male and female.  From the moment a child is born, one of our first questions is ‘boy or girl?’  In cases where the answer is not immediately evident, anxiety often follows and physicians have often made decisions based on outer physical signs to designate a child in one category or another.  As we have come to slowly understand transgendered identities, we are learning that gender cannot be so easily defined in this way.

But the picture is more complex than that. We immediately color-code and dress-code children to conform to the gendered labels they have been given. A baby girl dressed in blue may cause confusion.  What is also clear from the evolution of gendered codes of dress over time, at least in our Western culture, is that there is much more social acceptability and comfort with women wearing garments also worn by men than the other way around.  So it is that women wearing pants are a common occurrence in this day and age, but a man choosing to wear a dress or a skirt is not regarded as normative in day-to-day activity.  For many this causes anxiety and uncertainty.  We don’t know how to ‘read’ them.

In this instance, I find the Biblical instruction wanting.  If my friend finds his religious tradition to inhibit the deepest expression of his true identity, then I find it failing to do the job that religion, in its highest moments, can do by giving expression to our deepest sense of self as we uncover the image of God in which we were uniquely made.

And so, a proposal for a radical re-reading of the Purim tradition.  Let us consider what it takes to truly have the courage of Esther and reveal our true selves.  Let us express that essence of self in how we dress and present on this festival day.  When we speak to our children, let them not feel pressure to conform and dress like all the other children – the girls in their princess outfits and the boys in their superhero costumes.  If those are true expressions of who they wish to be at this moment in time, of course! But if we see signs that there is another expression that they yearn for, how powerful it could be to nurture and support that.

What costume would you wear to reveal a deep truth of your innermost essence, sense of self, and identity?

Posted on February 20, 2013

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Increasing Purim’s Joy

Purim is coming and the inhabitants of my house are giddy with anticipation. It has long been a favorite holiday in our family. We talk about costumes for weeks ahead of time. We take annual Purim pictures of the kids in their costumes. Marathon baking sessions ensure adequate supplies of hamantaschen for eating and sharing. And the kids take special pleasure in sending packages of hamantaschen and other goodies to friends and family, near and far. That’s before the actual holiday even arrives, bringing with it feasting, megillah reading, and shpielling.

Amid all the frivolity and hoopla that accompanies Purim, however, is a serious obligation; feeding the hungry.

img-food-basket

The commandment to provide food for the poor finds its basis in the Purim story itself (Esther 9:22). The Gemara (Megillah 7a) offers the necessary guidelines; it states that one must distribute gifts to the poor. And not just to one person but to no fewer than two needy individuals. Such gifts can be in the form of money or actual foodstuffs. So important is this oft-overlooked obligation that the Rambam places a higher value on the act of caring for the poor than on any other aspect of the holiday.

It is better for a person to increase gifts to the poor than to increase his feast or the mishloach manot (gifts of food) to his neighbours. There is no joy greater or more rewarding than to gladden the heart of the poor, orphans, widows and strangers. For by gladdening the hearts of the downtrodden, we are following the example of the Divine.
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah 2:17)

Once upon a time, the organization formerly known as the Jewish Fund for Justice established a special fund to help women successfully overcome barriers to becoming economically self-sufficient. The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty distributed funds to agencies that worked with ow-income women, providing them with skills and assistance in order to help them improve their economic situations.

Why women?

Because women are disproportionately at risk for falling below the poverty line. Across all racial lines.

  • In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty.
  • 13 percent of women over 75 years old are poor compared to 6 percent of men.
  • The poverty gap between women and men widens significantly between ages 18 and 24—20.6 percent of women are poor at that age, compared to 14.0 percent of men.

The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty no longer exists. But there are many worthy organizations in every community that are working tirelessly to gladden the hearts of the most vulnerable in our society. Won’t you consider increasing the joy of Purim by assisting those in need as our Tradition demands of us?

Posted on February 19, 2013

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Raising Your Mask for Passover

Last week we celebrated the holiday of Purim in which we recall the survival of the Jewish people against the attempted genocide by Haman, the chief adviser to King Ahasuerus of Persia. Every year we rejoice on the holiday of Purim just a few short weeks prior to entering the season of Passover and I believe that this is not at all a coincidence.

The story of Purim is the story of a Jewish community that had forgotten who it was. It is the story of a highly acculturated and integrated community into the larger Persian society. A Jewish woman named Hadassah changes her name to the Persian Esther and marries the King and no one even comments on this intermarriage in the account offered in the Book of Esther. [However, there is much rabbinic conversation on this subject offered in the Talmud.]

It is within this backdrop that Esther’s uncle Mordechai resists the wholesale neglect of the particular in favor of the universal and takes a stand, which is decidedly not a bow, against the phenomenon. He is singled out by Haman in particular for punishment and the entire Jewish people broadly. In a society marked by expected cultural conformity, one cannot have any sub-group demonstrating their uniqueness, living a counter-cultural life, so the decree issued by the government under Haman is nothing less than total annihilation.

To save the Jewish people Mordechai guides Esther to see who she really is and to be true to herself and to her husband, the King. In so doing she raises her mask from upon her face and embraces her destiny. Esther becomes a symbol for all the Jews in the empire to also raise their respective masks, the societally and the self-imposed barriers to full Jewish expression, and through their collective action and their renewed pride, overcome the challenge set before them and survive.

The message of Purim is an essential one for the work of self-reflection that the time of Passover calls us to. Passover, as the foundational narrative of the Jewish people, is not only about our physical liberation from Egypt. It is not only about our miraculous rescue from the grip of oppression and the entering into the daylight of freedom from the nighttime of torment. Passover is about defining us as a people. It is about preparing us to be ready to stand at Mount Sinai only a short while later and receive the Book that would transform human civilization for all time.

To be able to experience a Passover in our lives and to be able to relive the account of the Exodus as our tradition commands of us (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5) we need to be able to lift the masks from our faces that work to hide us and to conceal us from ourselves and from others. The transition from Purim to Passover is about being ready to be capable of redemption. The first step in that redemptive process is reclaiming who we are – not who we act as or who we present ourselves as, but who we are at the deepest levels of our selves.

Posted on March 16, 2012

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