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Making the case for Purim

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ENCINO, Calif., Feb. 20 (JTA) — On the morning of March 18, my son Jeremy, 13, will slather a handful of extra-hold gel on his unnaturally red-streaked hair and sculpt it into porcupine spines. He’ll wear shorts two sizes too large, securing them low on his hips with a black leather belt embedded with 116 pyramid studs. His plaid boxers will be exposed. He’ll layer a short-sleeved T-shirt over a long-sleeved one, with silver, black and red flames racing up his arms. This is Purim 5763 and Jeremy is costumed as . . . himself. Jeremy won’t be joining a parade of kids masquerading as Queen Esther, Mordechai, Vashti, King Ahasuerus or SpongeBob SquarePants. And he’ll have to wait until afternoon to hang out at the Purim Carnival’s bean bag toss, hoping to accumulate enough winning tickets to bag his own goldfish. No, this is Purim 5763 and Jeremy will be spending the morning at the Los Angeles County Courthouse working on art projects with kids who have been identified as abused or “at risk” and who face long hours anxiously awaiting court appearances. In fact, the entire middle school at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif., will spend the morning engaged in one of 17 community service projects, ranging from delivering meals to people with AIDS to sorting and packing food for people living in poverty to assisting at a local elementary school. “Unfair,” Jeremy and his friends protest, especially when they see their friends and siblings preparing for a full day of festivities. “Right on,” I counter, exposing my age as well as my antipathy toward Purim. “Purim, what’s that to celebrate?” my grandfather, William Snyder, used to say. “A nice Jewish girl marries a gentile king, and afterward everyone gets drunk.” Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel in St. Louis from 1929 to 1963, took his opposition to Purim a step further; he made the holiday practically nonexistent. While his sermon on “The Right to Abolish Purim” is, unfortunately, lost, the temple’s historian, Joseph Losos, recalls that Rabbi Isserman disapproved of Purim “because he felt it was a nationalistic, chauvinistic and xenophobic holiday and because God’s name is never mentioned in the Megillah.” Yes, Purim is problematic. Not only is God’s name absent, but also the holiday lacks sacred rituals as well as an authenticated historical basis. Perhaps that’s why the Book of Esther barely made it into the Bible, the last book to be accepted. An entire tractate of the Talmud, in fact, devotes itself to arguments for and against its canonization. So I’m pleased that Jeremy and Danny, 11, are working to improve the world. They and their schoolmates are even carrying out one of the holiday’s mitzvot — the directive (Megillah 9:22) to send gifts to the poor. Usually these consist of money or food, but the students are contributing something equally valuable, their time and enthusiasm. As the Megillah (9:1) says, “V’nahapoch nu.” “The world has turned topsy-turvy.” We have teen-agers – never mind that their normal street apparel renders them indistinguishable from court jesters, palace guards and even royal concubines — foregoing a morning of frivolity for community service. But this year Purim is more than a melodramatic tale of premarital sex and intermarriage, misogyny, murder, intemperance and vindictiveness. It is more than an opportunity for committees to fill the coffers of synagogues, day schools and other Jewish organizations by hosting lavish carnivals and masquerade balls. And it is more than an excuse, as the Code of Jewish Law tells us, for men and women to wear each other’s clothes. This year, in this topsy-turvy world, Purim is a serious holiday. For just as Esther, Mordechai and the rest of the Jews of Persia lived in imminent danger, so do we. On the Shabbat of Remembrance, preceding Purim, we read about Amalek, the quintessential enemy of the Jews. Deuteronomy 25:17-18 states: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and wary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” Amalek, the embodiment of evil and inhumanity and the supposed ancestor of Haman, gratuitously and brutally attacked the Israelites from the rear, where the women, children and infirm walked. But this year, we don’t have to remember Amalek; we are living in constant fear of him. Or them. We have Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and millions of fundamentalist Muslims who would like to see Jews, women and children obliterated from the earth. Purim, despite its silliness and political incorrectness, gives us a welcome respite from this nightmare. And, by celebrating as a community, it also gives us strength and solidarity. Together we hear the Megillah read, trying, paradoxically and impossibly, as the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:19) commands us, to remember Amalek and blot out his memory. Together we observe, as the Megillah (9:22) commands us, a day “of feasting and gladness” and send baskets of food (mishloach manot) to one another. Perhaps we always needed this one-day reprieve. My grandfather, despite his protestations, always took my mother and aunt, as young girls, to Purim carnivals. He even donned fancy costumes, one year dressing as Moses. And Temple Israel in St. Louis eventually reinstated the celebration of Purim, holding the carnival, ironically, in the Isserman Auditorium. It is important, as my sons and their schoolmates are doing, to make the world a better place. It is equally important to build a strong, caring and proud Jewish community. Because this Purim we know that it’s going to take some difficult and dangerous work to triumph over our oppressors. And in today’s topsy-turvy world, we have no assurance that we can succeed. (Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino, Calif. She is the mother of four sons.)

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