NEW YORK (Feb. 25)
In Uganda, Jews celebrate Purim by exchanging gift baskets of fish instead of sweets. In Tunisia they light firecrackers and feast on freshly killed lamb.
The teen-agers of one Azerbaijan community used to take the opportunity of the noise made by groggers during Megillah readings to nail the clothing of unsuspecting synagogue members to the benches.
These tales are part of compilation of Purim reminiscences published by Hadassah this year as part of its 90th anniversary celebration.
The focus on Purim is appropriate — the women’s Zionist organization was founded on Purim in 1912 and named for the Hebrew name of Esther, the Purim heroine.
Hadassah decided to publish the compilation, entitled “Esther’s Legacy: Celebrating Purim around the World,” at the suggestion of Shulamit Reinharz, director of the Hadassah International Research Institute on Jewish Women, which did the research for the book.
The result is a 125-page soft-cover volume with 138 testimonies from contributors representing 95 countries. The testimonies are short — usually about a page — and often include photographs or recipes as well as descriptions of how the holiday is celebrated in a particular corner of the world.
Together, the testimonies offer a window into the variety of Jewish cultures.
“Those of us who live in large Jewish communities don’t always realize how difficult or dangerous it is to celebrate Jewish holidays” in some parts of the world, said Jane Zolot, Hadassah’s liaison to the Brandeis University-based research institute.
Reinharz said she became interested in the question of how Purim is celebrated around the world because at the very end of the Purim story, Mordechai sends a letter to Jews in 127 provinces with instructions on how to commemorate Purim.
“I thought to myself, ‘It’s only because those letters were received and the instructions were carried on and taught to the children and their children and their children that today we do this,” ‘ Reinharz said. “So I thought just for the fun of it let’s see if I can find 127 Jewish communities around the world and see if they’ve been carrying out what Esther told them to do.”
Reinharz hired sociologist Barbara Vinick to conduct the research.
“It became almost an obsession for me to get stories from as many countries as I could,” Vinick said. In the end she was able to surpass Reinharz’s original goal, gathering stories from 138 rather than 127 communities.
“It’s not the same 127 communities” as those that received the original edict, said Reinharz, but it makes a good “metaphor for Jewish ritual continuity.”
Indeed continuity is the predominant theme of the book. Just about every community has a Purim tradition that includes costume parties, Megillah readings and the exchange of shalach manot — or holiday gift baskets.
But the stories also show how these core traditions were adapted to local cultures.
Thus in Mexico one child dresses up as a skeleton in recognition of the tradition of Mexico’s “Day of the Dead.” In Morocco the holiday feast is celebrated with spicy fish and cous-cous instead of hamentaschen.
The mix of continuities and differences shown in the book is also what Bonnie Lipton, Hadassah’s president, found so interesting about the book.
“There might be “different customs and different traditions but we’re all celebrating the victory of good over evil.”