A Purim directive: Laugh it up!

Little kids will laugh at anything. The simplest knock-knock joke or a tickle fest — even the threat of one — can so easily end in hysterics. They laugh because they are surprised by something unexpected in a world they are constantly discovering.

If only that kind of laughter came as easily as we got older.

While the laughter of childhood is characterized by the element of surprise, the laughter in adulthood becomes a way of managing stress (filmmakers know this well and skillfully employ any element of comic relief during an action thriller to release some of the tension). Laughter becomes a coping mechanism to get us through difficult times. Paradoxically, many of us are so loaded down with responsibility and worry that we don’t indulge often enough in this emotional and physical release.

It’s a good thing Purim is nearly here.

Purim is a holiday that isn't ripe with laws and ritual obligations save for reading the Megillah, giving mishloach manot (gift packages) to friends, matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) and having a festive meal. However, there is one directive for observance that is very clear: “they (The Jews) should make [Adar 14 and 15] days of feasting and joy …” (Scroll of Esther 9:22).

We each might experience this commandment on a different level. For 5-year-olds, putting on funny costumes, enjoying bobbing for candied apples at the synagogue carnival and seeing the rabbi dressed as a superhero evokes one kind of joy. For most grown-ups, joy and laughter may be an expression of a different kind. While we appreciate the dark comedy of the Megillah, our laughter also is a collective sigh of relief in having averted near annihilation unscathed.

The storyline of Purim, which this year falls on the evening of Feb. 23, is a dramatic comedy of errors and grand gestures with over-the-top reactions. It is so different in content and style than nearly every other book of the Bible that scholars speculate about the veracity of the story altogether. Drunken parties, political posturing and sexual innuendos weave their way throughout the narrative.

The Megillah begins with a raucous party hosted by King Achashveros, who demands that his wife, Vashti, appears (only! as commentators point out) in her crown. After refusing to appear naked, she is told to never appear before the king again. After his “wise” counselors offer advice, an edict is sent out across the provinces demanding that all wives respect their husbands’ every demand. Not sure what all the wives had to say about that!

It is a story about reversals. The Megillah has Mordechai, the Jewish hero who refuses to bow down to Haman. The act of disobedience ignites the ire of Haman, the recently promoted chief adviser to the king. Haman, in turn, calls for the destruction of all Jewish people.

Esther, who until this point has hidden her identity, then reveals that she also is a member of the doomed people and calls on Achashveros to punish Haman. Achashveros does by bestowing all the raiments and honors that were reserved for Haman to Mordechai. Further, the very gallows that Haman had ordered to be built for the hanging of Mordechai are the ones on which Haman meets his end.

Purim is a story of incongruencies. A people once despised and on the verge of destruction are told that they can defend themselves thanks to Esther’s petitions to the king and suddenly become a force with which to be reckoned. For pragmatic reasons, the text indicates that “many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.”  Averted disaster becomes an unusual catalyst for conversion.

While grand gestures, plot reversals and a storyline that doesn’t mesh quite right are elements that are employed by comedy writers and will evoke laughter, our general state of reverie on Purim is born from what the philosopher John Morreall observes about the evolution of laughter. Morreall believes that human laughter became a gesture of shared relief that a dangerous situation had passed. Laughter puts us into a state of relaxation and can build bonds between us.

As the cultural anthropologist Mahadev Apte observes further, “Laughter occurs when people are comfortable with one another, when they feel open and free. And the more laughter [there is], the more bonding [occurs] within the group.”

Jews have always used humor as a coping mechanism for Jewish survival and as a common reference point to connect to other Jews. Jewish comedians knew this well. As a people who have been oppressed for so long, we have always appreciated laughing at our situation before others could.

So this Purim, hold the childlike laughter of discovering new things (maybe someone you didn’t expect will give you mishloach manot; maybe you will surprise yourself at your generosity when you give a gift to the poor) and appreciate the narrative of the Purim story itself. But most important, experience the joy that comes from release, knowing that the Jewish people not only survives but continues to thrive.

As you raise your glass at Purim, toast “l’chaim” — to life — and to a life filled with deep laughter.

Retelling Purim: Q & A with Mordechai, Esther, Vashtie and Hayman

With Purim just a grogger’s turn away on March 19, it’s time to reroll the scroll of Esther and take another look at the whole megillah. It’s a story with characters so lifelike, I should quote them. That would be news.

But lacking a time machine, I was still able to go to the source to hear what Mordecai, Esther, Haman and Vashti have to say: I interviewed prominent people—Jews and a non-Jew—whose names either come from the Megillah or sound like they are straight from the scroll:

* Rabbi Mordechai Liebling serves as director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. He is known, too, as being the father of Leor Liebling, a child with Down syndrome in the documentary film “Praying With Leor.”

* Vashtie Kola is an artistic contributor to New York City’s music and fashion worlds. She directs music videos, including one with Justin Bieber, and designs a line of streetwear called Violette. She is not Jewish.

* Pinchas Hayman, an Orthodox rabbi and formerly the dean of students at Bar-Ilan University, is the owner of Bonayich, an Israeli company that specializes in Jewish studies, especially the Oral Tradition.

* Esther Jungreis, an eminent author and inspirational teacher and speaker, is the founder of Hineni, a worldwide organization that educates Jews about their traditional roots.

JTA: How did you get your Purim name?

Mordechai: I was originally named Marvin, after my grandfather Mordechai Aider who was killed in the Shoah. He was a farmer in Galicia.

Vashtie: I am of Indian-African descent; my parents are from Trinidad. Vashtie is an Indian name, though I know it’s also the name of a person in the Bible.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling

Hayman: Hayman is a variation of Chaim originally from Lithuania.

Esther: I am named for my great-grandmother from Hungary who was also a rebbetzin.

JTA: What influence or effect has the name had on you?

Mordechai: In my mid-20s, on July 4, 1976, I changed my name to Mordechai after the Socialist Zionist Mordecai Anielewicz, who led the fight in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Vashtie: The Israeli kids I went to school with told me all about Vashti. She seems like a powerful woman who holds her own, someone I could connect to. I am very independent. I direct music videos, and once when I showed up for a shoot, the assistant director asked me, “Are you here to dance?” I told him I was there to direct.

Hayman: In my work I visit a lot of schools. When the teacher introduces me as Rabbi Hayman, the students do look up from what they are studying. At Purim, I don’t like getting hung.

Esther: The letters for the name come from the Torah. Names are very holy. The neshama (soul) is connected to the name. Our name is given to us by Hashem.

JTA: Have you ever dressed up like your namesake?

Mordechai: Yes. I wore a serious robe and a hat. I come with my own beard.

Vashtie: Never have dressed as Vashti. But now that I think of it, I might have to.

Hayman: In Israel, as is the custom for rabbis on Purim, I wear a long black coat and a black fedora, it’s as close to dressing as Haman as I get.

Esther: No, I am not a costume person.

JTA: Who is your favorite character from the Book of Esther?

Pinchas Hayman

Mordechai: Mordechai, of course, you have to allow me some chauvinism. Second favorite is Vashti.

Vashtie: I would pick my name. Subconsciously maybe I am similar to that character.

Hayman: My favorite character is Charbonah, the king’s eunuch. He has the key line in the Megillah when he says, “Why don’t we use the gallows to hang Haman?” During the reading of the Megillah, when they get to the name of Charbonah, I say, “Hurray.”

Esther: I don’t have a favorite. Everyone has a special role, a unique mission given to us by Hashem.

JTA: How do you think your character is perceived today?

Mordechai: Mordechai is perceived as an unusually wise man who knew how to support and mentor a young woman in her rise to power.

Vashtie: Some people get really excited when they hear my name is Vashtie. They tell me their take on the story. The women are very pro but the guys say, “She’s not a good kid.”

Hayman: When they talk about Haman, they’re talking about the Amalek, Palestinians, Iranians, the Nazis.

Esther: Esther is a role model; her name means “hidden,” as “the light of God is hidden.”

JTA: Any thoughts on how we can relate today to the Purim story?

Esther Jungreis

Mordechai: The message of Purim is one of rebalancing the energy in the world between gevurah and chesed—between judgment and compassion—the wisdom of Mordechai and the compassion of Esther. The story shows the importance of having women in leadership positions.

Vashtie: The story has a classic theme of good overcoming evil. It’s a story everyone can connect to regardless of religion or culture.

Hayman: Purim is the single most important holiday today, when assimilation is rampant. We are all Esther. We hide our identity until reality forces us to realize that it’s the only important thing we really have.

Esther: The story of Esther tells us you can change destiny. A royal decree is given and even written in stone, and Esther turns everything around. Haman’s plot was foiled. Darkness becomes light, sadness becomes joy, a curse becomes a blessing. What Esther did, we have to do now.

JTA: And most important, what is your favorite flavor of hamantaschen?

Mordechai: Poppy seed. In the famous Purim latkes-hamantashen debate, I side with hamantashen.

Vashtie: I remember tasting one that was apple flavored. It reminded me of something from Trinidad.

Hayman: Not a doubt, poppy seed, with whole wheat flower and honey for sugar—and as many as possible.

Esther: I don’t focus on that. Through Hineni, we have a Purim feast; people come from all over. We celebrate, read the Megillah, eat delicious food.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)

Iran downgrades tomb of Esther and Mordechai

Iranian authorities have downgraded the status of the tomb of Esther and Mordechai, while an official state news agency has publicized the Purim story as a Jewish massacre of Iranians.

Officials recently removed the sign that identified the mausoleum of the biblical figures in the central Iranian city of Hamadan as an official pilgrimage site. The removal of the sign signifies that its status has been downgraded, according to reports.

The actions come about two weeks after a group of about 250 militant students surrounded the tomb and threatened to tear it down. Their threats were in response to alleged Israeli excavations under the Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The biblical Queen Esther was the second wife of Persian King Ahasuerus, identified as Xerxes I; Mordechai was her uncle, who also raised her.

The Iranian state news agency Fars has been reporting that Esther and Mordechai were responsible for the massacre of more than 75,000 Iranians, an event recorded in the Book of Esther, which is read on the Jewish festival of Purim.

The reports, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center citing Fars, also call the tomb an arm of Israeli imperialism that impugns Iranian sovereignty; report that its name must be wiped away in order to teach Iranian children to “beware of the crimes of the Jews”; call for the shrine’s return to the Iranian people; and say that the site must become “a Holocaust memorial” to the “Iranian victims of Esther and Mordechai” and be placed under the supervision of the state religious endowments authority.

In a letter to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Director-General Irina Bokova, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director for international relations, Dr. Shimon Samuels, urged UNESCO to “call upon the Iranian authorities to take appropriate measures to terminate this campaign of racism and desecration.”

“It is perhaps time for UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee to establish instruments for the universal protection of holy sites,” Samuels concluded.

Megillah of Mixed Messages

It’s time to take out the groggers, make some noise and
watch the parade of mini Esthers at the local synagogues and Jewish schools.

There’ll be an aura of frivolity as well-respected pillars
of our community expose their funny bone and sense of silliness when we all
gather for the carnivals and plays. But am I the only one who hears mixed
messages during the reading of the Megillah, an almost 2,500-year-old tangled

I hate to be a Purim party pooper, but I have some reservations
about the hoopla surrounding the celebration of this minor Jewish holiday. When
it comes to what is taught to our children, what is stressed, what is glossed
over and what is left out, I’m confused.

In order to get the coveted queen title, Esther had to
compete in a contest that didn’t measure mitzvot, but assessed something
superficial: beauty. Granted, her personality and kind, caring nature would
count in later rounds, but she would have been instantly eliminated at the
initial open audition if she didn’t have the right look.

Esther was trying out for the spot as a replacement for the
former queen, Vashti, a woman criticized because she had an attitude. But,
speaking only for myself, there’s only so much a wife can put up with, even if
she is married to a king. And though some would say Vashti didn’t appreciate
the good life she had, others might take a more sensitive approach and say she
was just trying to maintain her independence and self-respect; hard to do when
you’re called upon repeatedly to go on display as a trophy wife. The
frustration of being married to a megalomaniacal, alcoholic party animal might
have finally worn Vashti down.

Esther, under the tutelage of her cousin Mordechai, entered
the preliminaries in the “Who wants to be the wife of a
royal-pain-in-the-you-know-what?” search. She made the first cut, then went on
to the yearlong purification process. With the prospect of playing the palace
as her prize, she passed every test and gracefully jumped through every hoop
and cleared every hurdle that the all the kings’ men, and women, could conjure

After marrying King Ahashuerus, Esther had it made. I’m sure
she wore the finest silk garments, the rarest perfumes and the most dazzling
jewels. Plus she had a legion of servants to wait on her 24/7. In return for
this cushy lifestyle, Esther had to look good, cook good and act charming. Fair
enough, when you know the job requirements before you submit your resume.

From what I can remember as a former Hebrew school student
and attendee at dozens of Purim events, Esther is revered because she saved the
Jews from annihilation. She kept her faith and believed in the power of prayer.

When she was faced with a tremendous challenge, she didn’t
falter. Esther approached King Ahashuerus, uninvited and at the risk of being
executed, revealed her true Jewish identity, and persuaded him to spare her
people. And, with the help of her cousin Mordechai, set things into motion for
the king to do unto Haman (boo!), the evil Jew-hater, what he wanted to do unto
all the Jews. And the new queen and her people lived happily ever after.

Sounds like prime property for an animated Disney feature
film. I must make a note to contact Michael Eisner about that.

While this holiday is joyously celebrated throughout the
Jewish community, how would Queen Esther be received if she appeared today? It
saddens me to think that she would be shunned by many who could not accept her
decision to marry outside the fold. Ironically, she and her husband would not
be welcome at Purim services by some congregations just because the king was
not a Jew.

Before the happily-ever-after part of Esther’s story, there
was a blemish on our peace-loving past. Our forebears who escaped the wrath of
Haman armed themselves for acts of bloody revenge against those who plotted the
murder of all Jews in the kingdom and against anyone associated with the wicked
conspirators. When the violence was over, several thousand people had been

And there are other aspects of this intricate story that
puzzle me, like exactly what did Esther have to do that fateful night she spent
with the king in order to convince him she would be the best wife in the land?
Bake cookies?

Besides the silly slapstick, Purim is also a time for giving
gifts and donating to charity. But amid the antics and revelry, Esther’s story
can be a valuable tool to promote tolerance and understanding today. Although
this orphan girl wore the crown and royal robes of a queen in a foreign land,
she never gave up her faith. And when the time came for her to risk her life and
proclaim herself as a Jew to save her people, she did the right thing.

I might be misinterpreting this complicated chronicle of
events. But whatever way you want to look at the story of Purim, this holiday
is an occasion to rejoice. After the fasting, it’s a time full of food and fun.
And in a Bible brimming with larger-than-life Jewish men, it’s good to be
reminded of the power of one Jewish woman.

Pearl Salkin is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.

Purim Around the World

I know you’re going to have a lot of fun dressing up, eating
hamantaschen and drowning out Haman’s name with your groggers! Here are some
other interesting customs that used to be practiced at Purim around the world:

France — Because of the verse in the Megillah, “I shall
surely wipe out the memory of Amalek,” children used to take smooth stones,
write or engrave Haman’s name on them and strike them together during the
Megillah reading whenever his name was mentioned.

Egypt — Young men would ride through the streets of the
Jewish quarter on horses and camels to simulate Mordechai in the verse “and
they brought him on horseback through the street of the city.”

Italy — The youngsters would divide into two camps and throw
nuts at each other and the adults would ride through the streets of the town on
horseback, with cypress branches in their hands.

Germany –On Purim eve, torches containing gunpowder would
be ignited. During the Megillah reading, the gunpowder exploded with a
deafening noise.

Running Low

Prime Minister Ehud Barak is down on that commodity so essential to a politician — luck.

On Tuesday, in a screaming headline, the country’s largest-circulation daily, Yediot Achronot, announced that an unnamed minister was under investigation for sexually molesting a staffer.

Within hours, the name was out — Yitzhak Mordechai, the transportation minister and former defense minister, who now heads the Center Party.

By the end of the day, Mordechai announced he is taking a leave of absence while police investigate the allegations, which he vehemently denies.

On the face of it, this incident is not connected with the Cabinet’s unanimous decision on Sunday to withdraw all Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by July.

In fact, though, that historic decision was intimately linked to Barak’s sinking domestic political fortunes and to the increasingly perilous state of his uneasy “peace coalition.”

Surfacing this week, the Mordechai affair deals Barak’s motley coalition another awkward blow.

The Cabinet decision expressed the government’s hope that the withdrawal would take place in the framework of an overall peace agreement involving Israel, Syria and Lebanon.

But the Cabinet ministers also made clear that they support the withdrawal even in the absence of such an agreement.

And there lies the crux of the problem for Barak, who has staked everything on reaching a peace deal with Syria. By separating the two issues — withdrawal from Lebanon and a deal with Syria — Barak may find it more difficult to win the necessary popular support for a deal with Syria.

Sources close to the prime minister maintain, despite official denials in Jerusalem and in Washington, that intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations are taking place between Israel and Syria.

They say formal talks could resume soon and that if they do, it will signal that the basic elements of an agreement have been concluded in the back-channel contacts.

They claim that if this scenario plays out, a treaty-signing ceremony bringing together Barak, Syrian President Hafez Assad and President Clinton would be held before the summer.

The Cabinet’s deadline for a Lebanon withdrawal — July 7 — would fit comfortably into this scenario.

The Cabinet decision culminates years of controversy over Israel’s military presence in the southern Lebanon security zone, which Israel carved out 15 years ago.

It reflects the increasing impact on public opinion of the pro-withdrawal lobby, which cuts across party lines, embracing people like the dovish justice minister, Yossi Beilin, and, more recently, Likud leader Ariel Sharon.

It reflects, too, the impact of the Four Mothers, a grassroots group of mothers — and fathers — of Israeli soldiers serving in the security zone who have been demonstrating and protesting for months in favor of a unilateral withdrawal.

The deaths of seven Israeli soldiers in Lebanon since the beginning of the year, coupled with the frustrating suspension of the public Israel-Syria talks, has greatly heightened public sensitivity to the pro-withdrawal campaign.

But the Cabinet decision also reflects — and to no small degree — the domestic political considerations weighing on the prime minister.

Barak has staked his all, in political terms, on a treaty with Syria. He pledged in last year’s election campaign that the final decision on any treaty would be taken by a national referendum.

He needs to win that referendum convincingly if he is to continue as prime minister. A defeat would almost certainly trigger new elections.

Yet Barak’s situation at the moment, with the Syrian deal not yet done and the public growing increasingly restive, is far from encouraging.

Opinion polls see the country split down the middle over surrendering all of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

Compounding his problems, the government last week suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Knesset, which gave preliminary approval to a bill requiring that the referendum be approved by more than 50 percent of all eligible voters rather than by the more easily attainable majority of those who actually vote.

In a dramatic blow to Barak’s prestige, the opposition-sponsored bill was supported by three of his coalition partners — the immigrant-rights Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party, the National Religious Party and the fervently Orthodox Shas Party.

Opponents of the bill charge that the bill is designed to “neutralize” the Israeli Arab vote and thereby ensure that if the Golan is ceded, the decision is made by a majority of Jewish Israelis.

During the Knesset debate preceding the vote, spokesmen for the government termed the bill racist, adding that it reflected a deliberate effort to thwart the prospects for reaching an agreement with Damascus.

The subsequent Knesset vote provided an ominous warning for Barak. It meant his coalition is wobbling — and also that his hopes of carrying the referendum with a sweeping majority may not be realized.

Barak knows that the referendum would have a far greater chance of approval if the withdrawal from Lebanon is part of a peace deal with Syria.

For the same reason, the Likud opposition demanded this week that the two elements be uncoupled.

“If you’ve decided to withdraw from Lebanon,” Sharon urged, “do so at once.”

But the opposition’s charge that the government is exploiting the army’s embroilment in Lebanon by linking it to the talks with Syria is now hard to sustain — given the Cabinet’s pledge to withdraw the troops by July even if there is no agreement with Syria.

This unequivocal pledge, the government’s first formal commitment to Barak’s central campaign plank last year, has become not only the touchstone of the premier’s political credibility. It has also become the bastion of his survival.

So strong is the public yearning to end the Lebanon quagmire that Barak is now safe until the commitment is implemented. From there, it is not clear what will happen.