My earliest Jewish memory is going to synagogue on Purim with my mom, along with my dearest childhood friend Sue and her mother. I was probably around 4 at the time and still vividly recall being in the synagogue and eating strawberry ice cream. Although Jewish law mandates hearing every word of the Megillah, the biblical Book of Esther that provides the basis for Purim, the typical synagogue atmosphere on Purim resembles more of a carnival than a prayer service. I did not understand why people were making so much clatter with the little noisemakers that were handed to us, but I had a lot of fun joining in, and acting like a typical kid.
Purim’s laws and customs have a unique richness that can provide all Jews with ways to deepen their connection to Jewish tradition and transmit this tradition to the next generation. For Jews seeking a path for developing a transmissible Jewish tradition outside of strict observance of halacha, Jewish law, Purim provides some especially significant opportunities for tapping into authentic tradition that can be infused with personal meaning. When these traditions are observed consistently through the years, they will become a familiar and a memorable part of the fabric of Jewish family life. Children growing up with exposure to these traditions will likely want to recreate these experiences for their own families.
Sadly, despite being a perfect model for family fun, Purim is not celebrated by many American Jews; many do not even know when it occurs. In cultural terms, Purim is dwarfed by Chanukah, the other child-oriented holiday in the Jewish calendar. The element of joy — known in Hebrew as simcha —is the hallmark of Purim given the biblical narrative’s focus on the threatened destruction of the Jews in fifth-century Persia by a villain known as Haman, and ultimately Jewish victory. Four major mitzvot, commandments, are associated with Purim: hearing the Megillah; participating in the Purim seudah, a special meal with wine for the adults; preparing Purim gift baskets for friends and family known as mishloach manot; and giving tzedakah, money to the poor.
Listening to the Megillah typically requires attending a synagogue service, which can be a hard sell for many families, especially those who are unaffiliated. But as my childhood memory illustrates, Purim actually is one of the best times to try a synagogue experience. The evening service at the start of the holiday is super short, and the bulk of the time is spent reading the Megillah. This environment is ideal for squirmy, noisy children. Plus, children and even adults wear costumes to the Megillah reading, a custom that adds yet another fun dimension to Purim’s celebration. Many synagogues also serve a traditional seudah following the evening Megillah service, but even those congregations that do not have a full meal provide sweets such as the holiday’s signature treat, hamantaschen. From the standpoint of creating positive family memories based around a synagogue service, it really doesn’t get much better than this.
But even without attending synagogue, Purim provides special opportunities to bolster a family’s Jewish identity through observance of authentic tradition. A celebratory family meal at home in which parents recount a child-friendly version of the Purim story, sing songs and eat yummy foods will always be a hit. Families also can mark the holiday by dedicating special family time to shopping for, assembling and delivering the mishloah manot, not to mention baking hamantaschen. Grandparents and other special extended family members also can be included in these preparations, strengthening intergenerational ties. In fact, grandparents often have the time and energy to devote to organizing these activities and will relish the ability to help plan these events.
Additionally, the obligation to give tzedakah on Purim provides families with ready-made opportunities to develop unique, seasonally based family traditions focused on providing assistance to those who are less fortunate. These traditions can include hands-on activities such as volunteering in a local soup kitchen or packing and delivering groceries through locally sponsored organizational programs. All of these Purim traditions provide wonderful avenues for joy, memory making and family bonding in a context that emphasizes Jewish tradition.
Transmitting any religious tradition is no easy task these days given the increasingly secular character of American culture. Still, surveys show that the majority of American Jews are proud to be Jewish and have a strong Jewish identity. Although this identity is not necessarily based on observing Jewish law, many Jews still care about what they perceive as the more cultural aspects of Jewish tradition, and desire to see this tradition perpetuated. Purim can be a powerful ingredient in a successful recipe for keeping Jewish tradition thriving among the majority of American Jews.
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of “Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in Diverse World” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), “The Myth of the Cultural Jew” (Oxford University Press) and “The Soul of Creativity” (Stanford University Press).