The whole megillah: Ten reasons to love Purim

So what is Purim about? This short guide explains the various holiday traditions and celebrations, as well as a few suggestions of unique and fun ways to partake in the festivities.

1. Megillah Reading

One of four mitzvot, or commandments, on Purim is listening to the reading of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, at night and in the morning. In the tale, Esther, the new Persian queen, saves the Jews from destruction by the evil Haman. When reading the name of Haman and his family — symbols of all the Jews’ enemies — it’s customary to drown it out by making noise, often using groggers, or noisemakers. It is also customary to repeat the happy ending of the story: La’Yehudim hayta ora v’simcha (And the Jews had joy and light).

In conjunction with the community-building initiative Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim hosts its annual multilingual megillah reading, featuring Afrikaans, Klingon and Luganda, among others on March 3. In addition, Ugandan Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and his family will attend as special guests. A noisemaker and mask-making workshop, a pizza dinner (reservations needed) and Havdalah precede the 7:45 p.m. Megillah reading, followed by skits and Israeli dancing.

Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6000 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023,

Making the joy of Purim accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing, Temple Beth Am is introducing a special PowerPoint presentation of Megillat Esther at their 8:15 p.m. sanctuary service on March 3. At the service, geared for children in the lower elementary grades to adults, sixth- and seventh-graders from Pressman Academy will read the megillah, which will be projected in Hebrew and English, along with graphics, onto a large screen. The program was developed by the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities and is also suitable for the elderly and individuals with learning disabilities.

Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd. (310) 652-7353,

For more information about the Orthodox Union program, call Batya Jacob at (212) 613-8127 or visit

2. Costumes

After the Jews were saved in the eleventh hour from Haman’s evil decree (implemented by King Ahasuerus), the megillah says their world was turned from sorrow to joy: “As the days wherein the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day.” And so Purim is topsy-turvy day, where people — kids especially — dress up in costume. Many wear costumes of characters in the Book of Esther, but others have made it into a generic “Jewish Halloween.”

Adele’s of Hollywood offers a 10 percent discount on all Purim costumes. Choose from hundreds of children’s outfits from newborn to size 14, from $25 to $65. Adult costumes are also available, for sale or rent, from $65 to $150. Open Purim day by appointment.

Adele’s of Hollywood, 5034 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 663-2231.

Ursula’s Costumes has 2,000 costumes for purchase or rent. Adult costumes, mostly one of a kind, rent for $50 to $300 (the latter for an elaborate Venetian ball gown). They retail for $30 to $300. Children’s costumes sell for $20 to $60.

Ursula’s Costumes, 2516 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 582-8230.

Etoile offers a plethora of Purim guises, along with hats, shoes, makeup and other accessories. Rent an adult costume from $21 to $400 or more, or purchase one for about $45. Children’s costumes sell for $20 to $60.

Etoile, 18849 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. (818) 343-3701.

3. Shpiels

One of the ways to celebrate the joys of Purim is the shpiel, a comedic performance planned for months in advance that ranges from satires of the original Purim story to skits parodying Jewish or communal life. Some synagogue shpiels use broad humor while others are roasts of the rabbi, president and congregational politics.

At Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, Cantor Marcelo Gindlin adds an Argentine twist to “The Megillah According to Broadway” by New York shpiel-meister and accountant Norman Roth. Featuring synagogue members and fifth- and sixth-grade religious school students, the musical will be presented March 2, following 7 p.m. Shabbat services and a megillah reading.

Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, 24855 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 456-2178.

Boogie with Congregation Kol Ami at “Uptown Shushan, Esther in the Big City,” a full-scale, original Motown Purim production on March 3. The evening begins at 7 p.m. with Havdalah and a megillah reading in Hebrew, English and Spanish, followed by the musical with its cast of 25. Afterward, dance to the cool spinning of DJ Groovy David.

Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 606-0996.

Come to “Avenue P” at Temple Isaiah on March 3, where Mr. Rogers narrates the Purim story. Esther, Mordecai and the usual cast of Purim characters appear as puppets, along with three sunglasses-wearing, Haman-conspiring camels. Religious school students, with handmade sock puppets, serve as a Greek chorus. “Avenue P,” free and fun for the whole family, follows the 7 p.m. megillah reading.

Temple Isaiah, 10345 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310)277-2772.

4. Carnivals

Purim is made for children. And so are Purim carnivals, which feature raffles, games, costume contests, food and fun. But carnivals are not just for kids. Adults can enjoy a little bit of cotton candy, too. While carnivals in the city often are held before the holiday, Purim falls on a weekend this year, and so do many carnivals.

Learn about organizations that tackle poverty, AIDS, illiteracy and other social ills at IKAR’s second-annual Justice Carnival at the Westside JCC and have fun at the same time. The Justice Carnival for Adults on March 3, 8:30 p.m., also features blackjack, Scotch tasting and dancing. For families, the Justice Carnival offers a moon bounce, face painting and spin art, as well as games and food on March 4, 1:15 p.m. $5-$25 (members), $10-$35 (non-members).

IKAR, Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870.

Essays Reflect on Pearl’s Last Words

Three words, among the last uttered by journalist Daniel Pearl before his murder two years ago this month (on Feb. 21, the public learned of the murder), have become a nucleus for thoughtfulness and creativity. "I Am Jewish," edited by his parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl (Jewish Lights), is a collection of brief essays by almost 150 noted contributors who tease out meaning from these words and compose personal statements of Jewish identity.

As Judea Pearl explains in a telephone interview from his office at UCLA where he teaches computer science, the book, with its diverse insights into Judaism, is intended to empower young Jewish people and foster pride in their heritage. It is also meant to send a strong message to the murderers that while they tried to sow humiliation, the words of Danny — as he refers to his late son — would "eventually lead to a stronger, more united Jewish people." And, the book is for Adam Pearl, Daniel’s son, to show him how his father inspired many Jews to come together and reflect on their Jewishness.

The publication of the book marks a turn in the Pearl family’s outlook about the Jewish nature of the tragedy. The work of the foundation they established in his memory is universal in its program. When asked why the family urged the press to downplay Daniel’s Judaism in the aftermath of his capture and murder, Judea Pearl rewords, "There was not an attempt to emphasize that element. The family didn’t want to give ammunition to the defense team, who wished to gain public sympathy in Pakistan."

Now, the family is no longer concerned about anti-Semitic outbursts in the courtroom so they feel like there’s no reason to shield the information.

In fact, Judea Pearl sees that in emphasizing the Jewish element of the tragedy, there are "tremendous opportunities for the Jewish community. For the first in modern times, we have an association between Jewishness and the concept of bridge-building and peace seeking."

"Jews are being portrayed as warmongers and baby killers. It’s about time that our real face will be portrayed with pride," he added

Contributors to the book include people of various political, religious and cultural stripes: Many would rarely be in a room together, let alone a book. They span generations, countries, professions and perspectives, among them Edgar Bronfman, Avraham Burg, Debbie Friedman, Thomas Friedman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Grossman, Larry King, Francine Klagsbrun, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Jackie Mason, Thane Rosenbaum, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Kerri Strug, Mike Wallace and Elie Wiesel.

The Pearls, along with the publisher, approached a wish list of journalists, entertainers, authors, government figures, business leaders, scientists, rabbis, scholars, Jewish communal figures and others. Most said yes.

"Danny’s legacy has the magnetic capacity to energize," Judea Pearl explained.

There were a few ‘no’s,’ some of which Judea Pearl managed to turn around. Some people felt that they could write thick books but nothing concise, others expressed reservations about being associated with a project they saw as divisive in its ethnicity. To one reluctant celebrity, he said, "In the same way that you are proud of being part of a community that gave the world Einstein and Chagall, there are Jewish youngsters who would like to be proud of you and what you have achieved. You have a responsibility to them."

The contributors were asked to reflect on what they mean when they say the words, "I am Jewish." "The question is not trivial," Judea Pearl writes in the preface. Contributors were also asked to minimize references to the tragedy.

Some contributors sent tributes to Daniel Pearl, which the editors sent back. Shimon Peres, who sent in a long tribute, was very gracious about rewriting and sent back a poetic narration of his life, emphasizing faith. Others declined to rewrite.

The book makes for compelling reading. Wide ranging in perspective, the entries are mixed in their literary quality, but a rich, bold, meaningful, intense and joyful vision emerges. The effect of reading essay after essay is to begin composing one’s own.

Some essays reveal personal stories; some read like original liturgy; many are full of questions, others use jokes and humor. Their themes may be rooted in family, memory, Jewish texts, conversion experiences and the Holocaust. Certain writers mention God, covenant and Israel; for others, these concepts don’t seem part of their vocabulary. Sometimes it’s the kids who are the most impressive, speaking powerfully in few words.

The only voices that seem to be missing in the mix are more young American Jewish poets and novelists.

For actor Joshua Malina, "the statement, ‘I am Jewish,’ is no different from the statement, ‘I am.’ Judaism is the foundation of my identity."

Leon Wieseltier begins his essay by slightly amending the statement to, "I am a Jew." "There’s nothing adjectival about this dimension of my being. It is not a qualifier of anything else, not a modifier of another essence; it is itself."

He goes on to speak of the significance of words and ideas and offers a traditional Chasidic text "in sorrowful and respectful recollection of Daniel Pearl."

Like Wieseltier, many point out that being Jewish is one part of their identity.

Several contributors, like Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, speak of secular identity. Many, including Natan Sharansky mention anti-Semitism. Journalist Daniel Schorr and others tie their professional life with their Judaism; for him being Jewish relates to searching for truth. Novelist Anne Roiphe and others write about how their humanity is colored by their Judaism. Many speak of being Jewish as a matter of choice.

In several essays, the writers present colorful imagery. Editor David Suissa writes of "80 generations of grandmothers and grandfathers, all holding hands," encouraging him to continue their "eternal mission of lighting up the world."

Actor Shia LeBeouf describes Judaism as "the name of the telephone in my heart that allows me to speak to God."

Judea Pearl sees a connection between his son’s story and that of Anne Frank. "Both symbolized the horror of their era, both were writers who inspire people, Jews and non-Jews, to study anti-Semitism and the consequences of fanaticism. The difference is that Anne Frank’s diary was discovered after the Holocaust and Danny’s tragedy is a warning of another Holocaust."

A Friday night service dedicated to the memory of Daniel Pearl will be held Friday, Feb. 27, at 8:15 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd, Encino. Speakers will be Rabbi Harold Schulweis and professor Judea Pearl. For more information, call (818) 788-6000.

Fill in the Blank

When I began to study Torah seriously as a college student, I was introduced to its spiritual depths. I found that the meanings of the holidays went beyond the agricultural and historical sources, and often had complex spiritual teachings woven in. I remember that, back in those days, I could find little spiritual or poetic meanings of Shemini Atzeret. It was blank, or more accurately, a cipher.

I discovered the key when I learned that the holiday of Shavuot, where we celebrate the giving of the Torah, is known in the Talmud as “Atzeret.” The word means something like “stopping time.” Shavuot, which falls seven weeks after Passover, concludes a long period of spiritual work. For those clued into the spiritual study of the calendar, Passover is not only a time of remembering the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt; it is also a time to learn how we exit from the slavery of bad habits, destructive thought, emotion, behavior. Right after Passover starts, we have that seven-week period called the counting of omer, where, instructed by kabbalah, we thoroughly examine all parts of our lives that are resistant to the light of truth. On Shavuot, we hope to be so cleansed of impediments that the light of Torah can shine into us on that day when we recall the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. And then that holiday period comes to a “close” — Shavuot is called atzeret (the closing).

With this in mind, I looked at Shemini Atzeret, shemini meaning “eighth” or “eighth day” — it falls eight days after Sukkot begins, and concludes Sukkot. But did it also have a sense of the “Atzeret” of Shavuot, of a closing day where we celebrate freedom and the giving of Torah?

The Jewish calendar, with the aid of Chasidic texts, takes us on a deep journey. We are taught in the Torah that the first Shavuot, with all its promise, failed at some great level. Moshe went up the mountain after the Ten Commandments were spoken on Shavuot, but when he came down 40 days later, the people were cavorting with Molten Calf. The tablets were broken — symbolic of the broken heart of God and the broken spirit of Moshe. Only the penitence of the Jewish people could repair the break.

We repented all that summer; we wanted to be worthy of the name God gave us in Exodus chapter 19 just before that first Shavuot — a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Moshe went back up Mount Sinai to receive the second tablets, according to tradition, on the first day of Elul. He was to stay 40 days. Ten days before he was to return, we recommitted ourselves to becoming a kingdom of priests. On that day we accepted God as our sovereign — that is Rosh Hashanah, the day we celebrate the sovereignty of the divine in our lives. On the 40th day, when Moshe finally returns, he finds us in disciplined, contemplative, quiet fasting — that was Yom Kippur, the the culmination of our atoning for the calf.

In the Torah, the Jewish people immediately begin to build the mishkan — a habitat in which the tablets of the covenant would be housed. We symbolize that building with our construction of the sukkah, a habitat that represents the new habits we assume, so that our lives can house the new spiritual self born during these holidays.

At the closing of this period, on Shemini Atzeret, we step away from the sukkah, but not fully back into our lives. It is as if God were saying: exit from all these holidays, from all these observances, but spend a last day with me. There is no special observance on Shemini Atzeret — no matzah, no historical commemoration, no fasting, no shofar — a blank. The blank is to be filled in by each of us, as a community, in our unique individuality.

The ancient rabbis showed amazing reticence around Shemini Atzeret; they usually fill all the holidays with interpretations and historical allusions. I believe this rabbinic reticence is intentional; their quietude helps define the holidays. The tradition quiets down for a day and says: you, individual Jew who has been doing so much spiritual work, you fill in the meaning. God gave us a Torah and a tradition — let’s see what we make of it.

Of course, such reticence could not last, but the way the tradition finally filled in the day is another stroke of genius. Sometime in the post-talmudic period, the celebration called Simchat Torah was born and the second day of Shemini Atzeret took on its own meaning. Since that time, the second day of Shemini Atzeret is when we end the book of Deuteronomy and begin Genesis amid singing, dancing and celebration.

Take a deeper look. A holiday called Atzeret, in which Jews sing, dance, cavort, make merry? Is this not a second chance at that original atzeret, the first giving of the Torah when we were cavorting with the calf? We failed God and ourselves in the aftermath of Shavuot — when Moshe tried to give us the tablets, we had already rejected him.

But on Shemini Atzeret, after all the reflection, contemplation and joy we have gone through from the High Holidays through Sukkot — and then our own private day of reflecting on the whole process — we burst into joy. On Shemini Atzeret, through our quiet putting together of the whole process, we have finally learned what to dance for, what music to dance to and, on Simchat Torah — when we reenact Moshe coming down the mountain — we finally get the giving of Torah right.

Happy quiet, happy dancing!

Mordecai Finley is senior rabbi and co-founder of Ohr HaTorah.

A Portion of Parasha Breshit

Here we go again! We start the New Year by reading the Torah all over again from the beginning. Why do we do this, year after year? Why do we read the same things over and over again? Maybe we can find the answer in the word that means “year” in Hebrew: shana.

There are two words in Hebrew that are similar to shana — and they might look like they are linked to the word shana. One is shina — meaning “changed” and the other one is shinen — meaning “repeated it over and over again until it was learned.” (Yes, that little word means all that!) Changed and repeated, those two words sound like opposites. But they are not. It’s like going back to school every year — you’ll always have math, English and history. But every year, you build on what you learned the year before. You can’t do subtraction without knowing addition; you can’t do multiplication and then later division without knowing addition and subtraction.

The year moves in a circle, and so do the Torah readings. But it isn’t really a circle. It’s a spiral that comes around to the same spot every year, but one level higher (similar to a stretched-out Slinky). So, this year, we will learn something about “Breshit” that is based on what we learned last year. Each year our understanding deepens — of our school lessons, of our Torah readings and of our life.