Unmasking Purim’s vital meaning
It’s a classic Jewish tale: Just when we feel comfortable and safe, nahafokh hu — the whole world can turn upside down.
Megillat Esther, read on Purim, reminds us that history is capricious and life is fragile; that willing or not, we must confront our powerlessness and vulnerability, our inability to control everything. Or anything. We’re given some tools to assist in that brutal awakening — masks and flasks — which help us laugh at ourselves as we venture into the dangerous territory of rabbi-sanctioned drunken revelry, of the outrageous, irresponsible behavior most of us work hard to guard against the rest of the year.
On Purim we are instructed (Megillah 7a) to drink ad d’lo yada, until we can no longer distinguish between Haman and Mordecai, evil and good, blessing and curse — an excuse to be utterly confused, an annual corrective to our desperate attempts to exert control over our lives.
But is this really a laudable religious goal? The practice of Purim seems counterintuitive, counterproductive and even dangerous. Why put ourselves through it?
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbah, who, in a drunken frenzy on Purim, accidentally murders R. Zeira, then miraculously resuscitates him after sobering up. A year later, Rabbah again invites R. Zeira to celebrate Purim with him, but R. Zeira blithely refuses this time, saying that miracles are not to be taken for granted (Megillah 7b).
This story is an expression of rabbinic ambivalence to ad d’lo yada — underscoring the deeply problematic nature of Purim for people of conscience and sensibility. Most of us spend our year working assiduously to make order out of a chaotic world — trying to repair broken relationships, to make space for holiness in our work and in our homes; trying to respond to grief with comfort, to cruelty with goodness. Most of us work hard to try to remember — amidst the chaos — that every deed, every moment has the potential to pierce the darkness with some light.
Then Purim arrives each year, mandating that we contemplate a world without God (there is no mention of God throughout the entire megillah), that we entertain our darkest fears about the direction of history (there is no such thing as real security — our individual and collective destinies could change in an instant).
On Purim we are forced to confront the possibility that nothing we do really matters, because history is ultimately arbitrary, and life is therefore unalterably unpredictable. No wonder they tell us to have a couple of drinks …
But the power of Purim is not that it leaves us in a drunken stupor, vulnerable, uncertain and hungover.
The real power of Purim is that we move beyond the costumed debauchery — the ultimate response to nothingness — and respond to chaos with an affirmation of somethingness: namely the human capacity for goodness. One of the central obligations of Purim is not only to give mishloah manot — gifts to our loved ones, but also to give matanot l’evyonim — gifts to the poor. Remarkably, though the obligation is to give two gifts to two people in need, we are taught that even more is expected of us. “One is not exceedingly precautious with money on Purim. Rather, everyone who puts out a hand [in need], we are to give to that person” (Shulkhan Arukh, OH 694:3).
Purim demands that, for one day of the year, we are released from the shackles of cautious discernment and, instead, we give to anyone and everyone who lacks. We give, regardless of what we think or fear the person might do with the money, and regardless of our political perspectives on how best to fight poverty, homelessness and hunger. We give indiscriminately and generously, just because somebody needs.
Why the obligatory openheartedness? Because ultimately the message of Purim is that we can’t control history, but we must control how we treat humanity. Out of the depths of darkness, out of utter nonsense, we have the capacity to dream of a different kind of reality, one in which no person suffers the indignity of poverty, no parent puts her kids to bed hungry, and human beings work devotedly, even indiscriminately, to realize a world of dignity, justice and love.
At IKAR we try to communicate the complexity of this holiday through our Purim Justice Carnival. We embrace the confusion and moral ambiguity of Purim simultaneously with drunken revelry and a renewed commitment to social change.
We play blackjack with cards bearing hunger stats; we spin prize wheels for sweat-free souvenirs; we eat, drink and dance until it hurts. And at the end of the night, each of us ends up with a chunk of money that we give to organizations that are working to address critical local and global social justice issues.
But hunger, AIDS, economic justice on Purim? How do we reconcile those struggles with the obligation to have real simcha, joy of the holiday? The rabbis tell us exactly what it means to really experience the joy of the holiday.
“There is no greater or more wonderful joy,” says the Mishnah Berurah, “than to make happy the heart of a poor person, an orphan or a widow. And in this way, we are imitating God.”
Our commitment to help those most vulnerable fuels our celebration. Our Purim Justice Carnival is an attempt to integrate the religious and the political, the spiritual and the social — and for that reason it’s our best party of the year.
The rabbis teach that even when all the other festivals are abolished in the World to Come, Purim will remain (Midrash Mishle 9:2). Why is that? Because Purim is one holiday that teaches that no matter what life deals to us, we have the power to respond with love, hope, joy and purpose. We embrace chaos and meaninglessness for one day each year, precisely to affirm that that is not the world we want to live in. Then we spend the rest of the year making sure that it does not become our reality.
May we all be blessed this year with the capacity to internalize the message of Purim — to refuse to accept the inevitability of the flow of history, to give with all our hearts, to love with all our beings, and to work with all our strength to bring light, hope and healing into our world.
Sharon Brous is rabbi of Death in the Hood
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, www.bcc-la.org.
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, www.tbala.org.
For more information about the Orthodox Union program, call Batya Jacob at (212) 613-8127 or visit www.ou.org.
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. www.adelescostumes.com.
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. www.ursulascostumes.com.
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. www.etoilela.com.
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. www.mjcs.org.
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. www.kol-ami.org.
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. www.templeisaiah.com.
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.
Purim books: A time to laugh, a time to grog
The central theme of Purim sometimes gets lost in the mix of loud singing, intense dancing and heavy drinking.
You might even forget that the point of the holiday is not necessarily to get hammered, but to rejoice in the celebration of life.
Keeping in mind that singing, dancing and drinking may be the typical methods of rejoicing, its important to remember there are other ways to truly celebrate the value of existence — like picking up and reading a great comedy.
So once you’ve finished reading the Book of Esther, pick up a copy of the Book of Prelutsky, the Book of Davis or the Book of Abrams — three humorous Hollywood reads that could spark a higher appreciation for life.
“The Diary of Jinky: Dog of a Hollywood Wife,” by Carole Raphaelle Davis (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $12.95).
All dogs go to heaven, but quick-witted terrier Jinky wasn’t ready to wag his tail one last time. The former San Pedro dog pound “death row” inmate was fortunate enough to be rescued by a beautiful woman during an adoption event in Burbank. The hardened canine was able to trade his former life on the streets for the lap of luxury in the form of a Hollywood Hills mansion. Amazed by his sudden reversal of fortune, Jinky documents his story in “The Diary of Jinky.”
Jinky’s brutal honesty makes for a nice contrast to the friendly, polite shell of his Hollywood pet parents. “Dad had a birthday and he is seven and a half in dog years. In people years, that’s nearly dead. In Hollywood, that’s a rotting corpse,” he writes.
When Jinky shares his unique perspective and gratitude for things that people typically take for granted, his off-the-collar insights help us gain a better appreciation for our world and enable us to truly respect our lives.
As told to actress and animal rights activist Carole Raphaelle Davis, this doggy diary illustrates the two-way relationship that can be created through saving an animal.
“Now that my dog has surpassed my wildest dreams by writing a book, I hope that people will read it and then go out and do a mitzvah. I hope they do something nice for someone, even if that someone has four legs,” said Davis, who added that it’s important to adopt animals from a shelter, rather than buy them from a pet store.
Carole Raphaelle Davis will sign “Jinky” at the March 18 Super Pet Adoption Festival, Johnny Carson Park, Burbank.‘>network.bestfriends.org/losangeles/ or ‘>www.myspace.com/jillabrams.
Live from the ‘hood: we’re gonna party like it’s 5667
I love Judaism. It’s got answers for everything. If something bothers me, I just ask a million questions; I dig a little and, voila, I’m enlightened.
One thing that bothers me is how so many Jews go bonkers on Simchat Torah. If you’re not sure what I mean, come visit my Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the eighth night of Sukkot. It’s not quite Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnival, but you get the picture. This is the night when Grey Goose and Johnny Walker own the Pico strip.
As Torah scrolls are paraded inside the many shuls, a wild and crazy euphoria sweeps the strip. You’ll see Talmudic types rediscovering their rowdy inner selves, and Orthodox teenagers carousing in posse formation. There are even tourists from the Valley coming to check out the action. This is not a party, it’s the mother of all parties.
And please don’t think that I’m trying to coolly exclude myself from this holy balagan. My vocal chords will probably never forgive me for what I have done to them during a few Simchat Torahs past, some of which I can only faintly recollect.
Still, I do remember a little voice inside of me asking some uncomfortable questions, such as: How Jewish is all this rowdiness? Where is the depth and dignity so prevalent in other holidays? Can hard partying really be an expression of Torah joy?
I can see going a little nuts on Purim, when we celebrate a seminal victory that saved the Jewish people, but going bananas on a day of Torah?
So I decided to do some digging.
The first thing I uncovered is the special significance of the number eight. In our mystical tradition, just as the number seven alludes to time and to the cycle of nature, the number eight transcends time. It represents the day beyond days, when normal rhythms and boundaries do not apply. Simchat Torah, which falls on the eighth night of Sukkot, and celebrates something that itself transcends time (Torah), is ideally suited to break ordinary boundaries. Now stay with me; the plot thickens.
The explosion of joy on Simchat Torah is also the climax of a remarkable cycle of Jewish holidays that links the Torah with the liberation of our bodies and souls, by way of our emotions (I warned you). At Passover, our bodies are liberated from slavery and bondage, but this liberation is not complete until the holiday of Shavuot, when we receive the gift that gives purpose to our liberation: the Torah. This revelation is so mind-blowing that we learn the fear of God.
Six months later, a similar holiday pas de deux completes the cycle. The holiday of Sukkot liberates not our bodies but our souls, by freeing us from the bondage of materialism. This liberation, again, is not complete until we embrace the Torah, this time courtesy of Simchat Torah. By now, the Torah has earned our trust, so it inspires not fear but love for God’s eternal gift. There’s no fear without love, and no love without fear. Thanks to Simchat Torah, this holy cycle of liberation is now complete, and we can go party.
Is it any wonder, then, that we go a little over the top on Simchat Torah? On a day that transcends time, when we’ve liberated our souls, our love of Torah and our single malts, how could we not have a celebration to end all celebrations?How could we not get even a little rowdy?
It’s as if God is throwing us a party and picking up the tab, telling us that if we’re so madly in love, it’s OK to get a little carried away. Come to think of it, God must be pretty happy with us. Really, could you think of another people that reserves its most joyous day of the year to celebrate … a book! And raises it really high like a professional athlete raises a championship trophy?
You can bet that in my new neighborhood, this book will be raised really high.
Nothing Jewish is done halfway here. If Simchat Torah takes the joy of Judaism to another level, then I must live in the Simchat Torah of neighborhoods.
On the big night, I’ll probably start by watching grown men dance on tables at the Pinto shul, and then meander my way to the B’nai David parking lot, where Chabad usually throws its annual bash. With one of my kids on my shoulders, and the others ready for their annual Torah song and dance, I’ll then face an embarrassment of riches: killer celebrations at Aish, Beth Jacob, YICC (Young Israel of Century City), Mogen David and many more.
Wherever we end up, though, I don’t think I’ll be too bothered if people get rowdy, as long as their souls are liberated.
A Flashlight Through History
Lately, my eldest son has become intrigued by God’s omnipresence. Lying in bed before going to sleep, he asks: “You mean God is under the bed? In the closet?”
Who am I to tell him no?
God, it seems, has replaced monsters, an idea I hope is a comforting one since God’s omnipresence is such an integral part of our tradition.
On no holiday are we instructed to feel God’s participation in our lives more palpably than on Pesach. The hagaddah teaches: “In every generation, each person must see himself as if he personally left Egypt.”
Seder night requires every Jew to believe God has personally redeemed him — a belief, I must confess, that is hard.
Why? For one, I live in the United States. I live at a time and place in history when running water is easily accessible. I live in a land of freedom. Compared to the rest of human history, I live in the lap of luxury. But luck is not the stumbling block to my belief. What is harder is that the story of Pesach is the story of God who heard His people’s cries, of God who cared enough to alter nature’s course and perform miracles and save His chosen people.
But we live in a unique time in the history of our people. We face a challenge to our faith unique in the history of the Jewish people because we live after the Shoah. If we affirm the uniqueness of the Shoah as a tragedy, an evil unlike any other in Jewish (much less human) history, we face an equally unique challenge: how can we authentically relive the redeeming story of Pesach just 60 years after the Shoah? On Pesach, God should feel present. But how do we believe in God’s presence after a period when God was seemingly so absent?
“And you shall know that I, Adonai, am your God” (Exodus 6:7). But how are we to know God if, in the midst of our greatest despair, we cried out but He could not be found?
According to the Jewish lunar calendar, Purim must be celebrated in the month of Adar but in leap years with an extra month, Purim could be celebrated in either Adar I or Adar II. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) argued that Purim is celebrated in Adar II to juxtapose two stories about how the Jewish people were saved, each of which helps us to know God: the story of Purim and the story of Pesach. Pesach, he says, is like a flashlight one can use to find his friend in a dark room. Pesach is a holiday when God’s presence was undeniable.
“A common woman at the sea saw God more clearly than any of the prophets did,” the rabbis say. Plagues. Seas. Pillars of fire. God has arrived. A flashlight in a dark room clearly lighting the way toward redemption.
But on Purim, Hutner says, there is no flashlight. We find our friend “through any sense other than that which can be seen or proven.” The room is dark and it remains dark — you cannot prove to me that God is there. Darkness surrounds us and destruction is all around. We grope around and feel nothing. We cry out and no one answers. We lash out at air and darkness. Finally in despair, we sit down and cry and grow quiet and still. And in that darkness and pain, and through our brokenness and tears, a voice echoes from within us — “I am here. You are not alone.”
That is Purim — and that, too, is a way to know God.
To be honest, of the two holidays, I prefer Purim. Because I do not live in a world of plagues and seas and miracles so plainly seen. Because, so often, when I call out, I cannot prove that God answers; I cannot see that God is here. But as I despair in the terror of Purim and God’s absence and the challenge of it all, I am reminded anew that Pesach is a gift that, if those who lived through the Shoah could find the strength to celebrate, then who am I not to?
Sixty years ago, the Jews of the Kovno ghetto asked their teacher, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, questions about unspeakable ethical and moral dilemmas. What blessing does one recite before going to one’s death as a martyr? Were there circumstances in which suicide would not be regarded as a sin? And 60 years ago in this season, they also asked him about Pesach. Could tea be used instead of wine for the four cups drunk at the Passover seder? Could the black beans that were part of the ghetto food ration be eaten on Passover? Filthy potato peels were to be mixed with a bit of flour to make matzah. Could the filthy peels be scrubbed with water — a leavening agent? The very asking and answering of those questions was an act of faith in the depths of hell. And their faith is a gift to me, to all of us, for they teach that God can be found, that God is here, that every seder table full of food and children and wine, that every argument over the kashrut of beans and chemicals and labels — it is all a miracle.
Their questions are our holy inheritance — a light through history. I may not feel I was taken out of Egypt, but I was. I need only open my eyes, switch on the flashlight and behold God’s majesty right in front of me or under the bed or in the closet.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.
Holiday Frivolity for Young at Heart
Offering the chance to parade in costume as Queen Esther or King Ahasuerus, shake groggers at the mention of Haman’s name and feast on hamantaschen, Purim is the perfect holiday — for our kids’ grandparents and great-grandparents.
At every age, we must be connected to life’s fun side, and Purim, the boisterous and tumultuous holiday that begins this year at sundown on March 24 and celebrates the triumph of the Jews in ancient Persia over enemies determined to destroy them, gives us that opportunity.
But far more than the kids, today’s elders — many of whom are contending with the death of a spouse, poor health, loneliness and dwindling finances — need the frivolity that Purim brings. Of the 35 million Americans who are 65 and older, up to 7 million suffer from some form of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That age group also claims the nation’s highest suicide rate, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
“Laughter is the best medicine,” said Faye Sharabi, activity director for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ Valley Storefront, an adult day health-care center in North Hollywood. For the entire month leading up to Purim, Sharabi provides a variety of fun-filled activities, all part of the five-day-a-week program of physical and occupational therapy and socialization for the Storefront’s elderly, physically disabled and/or memory-impaired clients, who range in age from 40 to 99.
“The megillah is a fascinating story that is not just for kids,” said Sharabi, who stresses Queen Esther’s positive outlook and ability to inspire the Jewish people. She arranges a Queen Esther “makeover” for the female participants as well as a beauty pageant, with everyone designated a queen.
“When you’re elderly, you’re still beautiful,” she said.
The highlight, however, is Purim morning, when the king and queen, selected by lottery beforehand, are crowned and feted with flowers, a fiddler playing Jewish songs and a parade.
In addition, costumed second-graders from nearby Adat Ari El Day School come to sing, dance and share hamantaschen that they baked the previous day. They also bring sequins, feathers and other art materials to help the revelers make Mardi Gras-style masks.
“The older people love the kids,” said second-grade teacher Soli Friedman. “They see that the kids care about them and that they are not left alone.”
Other older adults are less interested in intergenerational activities.
“We have too much fun ourselves,” says Paula Fern, director of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson Storefront and Holocaust Survivors Program.
Her group is Café Europa, a social and support group for Holocaust survivors that was founded in 1987 by social worker Dr. Flo Kinsler, which has spread to other U.S. cities.
In Los Angeles, Café Europa’s Purim celebration, funded by the Claims Conference, is expected to draw approximately 150 survivors. Fern explains that the March 22 event is a party, a catered luncheon with singing in a variety of languages, dancing and feasting. Many of the members, who observe a range of religious practices, attend Megillah readings and carnivals with their families.
For some survivors, the festivities provide an opportunity to recall memories of a happy Jewish childhood in prewar Europe.
Eva David, who grew up in Transylvania, remembers her mother covering every available surface of their house with freshly baked cakes.
“Mother would put each cake in a cloth napkin, and we would take them to the neighbors,” she said. “What a memory. The whole street was filled with Jewish children carrying cakes.”
But other survivors remember that they were being rounded up into ghettoes or concentration camps or were hiding, fleeing or living under false identities when they should have been celebrating Jewish holidays.
John Gordon, born in Budapest, Hungary, and president of Los Angeles’ branch of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, was only 2 when restrictions against the Jews were enacted. His family’s Purim celebration, fresh cookies and a Megillah reading, was confined to their home.
So Café Europa’s parties — “as many as we have funding for,” Fern says — help compensate for survivors’ lost childhoods.
But for all older adults, Purim, the holiday that celebrates the survival of the Jewish people, provides an opportunity to reflect, to recapture childhood memories and to create new ones.
“It’s fascinating that Purim, which is so easily dismissed as a holiday for young children, becomes actually a serious adult-oriented holiday,” said Elon Sunshine, rabbi-in-residence at Heschel Day School.
And a serious time for fun.
A Minor Holiday’s Major Following
It’s not a religious holiday per se, it appears nowhere in the Torah, God’s name isn’t even mentioned and it’s considered one of Judaism’s minor festivals. Yet over the years, celebrating the holiday of Purim has become a major event on the Jewish calendar. Why?
It’s easy to understand why getting dressed up, eating lots of candy and hamentaschen, drinking the night away and partaking in a festive meal appeals to many. But it’s only really in the post-war era that Purim has become a major player in the Jewish calendar.
Purim was a far more significant holiday in the 19th century, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and the author of “American Judaism: A History” (Yale, 2004). However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the popularity of Purim gave way to Chanukah and its concept of gift-giving because of the abundant gift-giving at Christmas.
“Purim had the misfortune of not falling at the same time as an equivalent Christian holiday,” Sarna said. “And with Halloween being stripped of any religious significance, Jews preferred to participate in Halloween, leaving Purim without a lot of energy.”
The only real equivalent to Purim is Mardi Gras, but with that holiday focused in New Orleans, it wasn’t enough to put Purim on the map.
So when did the tide turn back toward Purim?
Purim began to enjoy renewed vigor in the post-war era, Sarna said, for a variety of reasons.
“Part of it is because it’s a naturally appealing holiday,” he said.
Particularly with the emphasis on rebelliousness.
“Jews are rebels and the idea of turning a structure on its head is very appealing to us,” Sarna added.
And part of that appeal came from Jews ceasing to worry less about what their neighbors thought and having the freedom to dress up and violate various taboos without fear of repercussions.
Purim has also become more and more centered on children, with a strong focus on carnivals and dressing up.
“As a rule, child-centered holidays in the U.S. are much more likely to gain popular support,” he said, adding that in the post-war period, there was a rise in suburban synagogues in response to the baby boom. As such, synagogues were able to mount large carnivals, which was part of the whole movement back to child-centered Judaism.
It has certainly taken hold. This Purim, Los Angeles synagogues and schools, as in previous years, will be holding large carnivals aimed primarily at children but with incentives thrown in for the adults, too.
Temple Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica has been holding a carnival in one form or another since 1942.
“It’s a huge communal event,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels. “We usually have around 500-600 people show up.”
Temple Beth Am has been holding its annual carnival for 10 years, with the carnival attracting around 1,000 people each year.
“We’re creating memories for kids,” said carnival organizer Susan Leider. “And being connected Jewishly is about being able to call upon this bank of Jewish memories, and a fun Purim experience for kids is an important part of that.”
But it’s not just children who are reaping the rewards of the holiday — in recent years it’s also been widely embraced by women. In an ever-evolving religion where women are looking to play more significant roles, seizing on Purim was a natural choice, and it’s no longer strange to see women’s megillah readings.
“Some women have also turned Vashti into a type of pro-feminist,” Sarna said, referring to the one-time queen of Persia who is often simplistically considered a villain in the Book of Esther for refusing to show up naked to a party given by her husband, King Ahasveraus, forcing him to find a new queen (Esther).
Women and children are not the only ones who have benefited from the Purim renaissance. Part of the holiday’s success is its appeal to Jews of all religious affiliations.
“With the renaissance of Jewish life in this country, there has become a stronger desire to celebrate our own holidays, particularly when they have resonance on the larger culture,” said David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “And ethnicity now has a respectability that it did not previously possess.”
Jews today are much happier to embrace Purim than Halloween, Ellenson said, because both offer similar elements (the parties, eating candy, dressing up), but Purim is an authentic Jewish holiday that is specifically connected to Jewish pride, survival and continuity.
Once, the whole issue of vengeance against Haman and his sons was deemed problematic by earlier generations of Reform Jews, Ellenson said.
“But with the rise of ethnic pride, concerns with Jewish continuity and the universal themes of escape from prejudice and destruction, Purim has found a ready audience among Jews of all types,” he added.
It’s something that Rabbi Sharon Brous, of the newly founded IKAR synagogue in West Los Angeles, has incorporated into the shul’s first Purim celebrations.
Founded 10 months ago with the vision to “create a community of intellectual and spiritual life and the pursuit of Justice,” IKAR’s Purim carnival for adults and children is a “Justice Carnival.” Every fun carnival booth will be accompanied by a social justice or human rights booth so people can still enjoy the Moon Bounce or the bean bag throw but read about the fight against AIDS in Africa or efforts to help tsunami relief.
“The idea is that the kids understand that by being Jewish and celebrating Purim, it’s also connected to other things,” Brous said. “That performing mitzvot for other needy people is a critical part of being Jewish.”
Whatever the rationale behind each individual organization’s celebration of this “minor” Jewish holiday, celebrating Purim looks like it’s here to stay.
“It doesn’t yet vie with Chanukah …,” Sarna said. “But the appeal is certainly growing.”
For Iranians, Purim Is the Real Thing
Historians may question whether events in the Book of Esther, which are celebrated at Purim, happened as described in the traditional tale. But to Persian Jews, the holiday resonates deeply.
Part of it is that the story unfolds in ancient Persia — now modern Iran — so the events commemorated have a local connection.
“Even though Purim is for all Jews around the world, we as Jews living in Iran feel particularly closer to Purim,” said Parviz Yeshaya, national chairman of the Jewish Council in Iran. “Especially since the tombs of Esther and Mordechai are here in Iran.”
Iran’s Islamic regime does not discourage the celebrating of Jewish holidays, including Purim, Yeshaya said. Still, the tone of the holiday is quite different than in other countries. The Jewish community in Iran has embraced the long-standing religious aspects of Purim rather than the light-hearted festivities that characterize American observance.
“The most important part of celebrating Purim in Iran starts with the fast, which is 24 hours, and the reading of the megillah in synagogues during the fast,” Yeshaya said. “We give gifts here, but not as many, and we don’t have carnivals like the Ashkenazim. But children in their Jewish school conduct their own plays of the Purim story.”
Within Iran, the traditional site of the tombs of Esther and Mordechai has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. They are located in the city of Hamadan, and they’ve recently been renovated and maintained by Iran’s Jewish community.
“Near the tomb there is a synagogue, but unfortunately due to the large migration of Jews out of Hamadan, there are problems with taking care of the synagogue,” Yeshaya said. “But we are working on resolving this.”
Although Persian Jews have long believed the tomb contains the burial sites of Esther and Mordechai, historians and archeologists note a lack of solid evidence.
“The great archeologist Ernst Hertzfeld, in his book, suspected that Esther and Mordechai were buried there, but later indicated that he believed Shushandokht, a Jewish woman who was the wife of Yazgerd I, an Iranian king, is buried there,” said Amnon Netzer, professor of Middle Eastern and Iranian studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
That’s not his only point of doubt.
“The tombs of Esther and Mordechai had not been mentioned in any Jewish sources,” Netzer added. “The first Jewish person who mentioned the existence of the tombs there was Rabbi Binyamin of Toodelah in 1167 [C.E.]. I wonder how come there are absolutely no mentions of these tombs in the Talmud or post-Talmud literature?”
Netzer did, however, have an explanation of the more subdued, religious nature of the holiday’s observance. Jews in Iran have always been cautious in their celebrations of Purim, he said, because the Book of Esther contains unflattering depictions of non-Jewish Persians and also includes the tale of a slaughter of non-Jews.
“If you read the book itself you will see that it says the Iranian Jews were permitted actually to massacre a lot of Iranians on a certain day and King Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes, is pictured as a stupid king,” Netzer said. “So these factors actually made Iranian Jews extremely careful not to have high-profile celebrations for Purim.”
Decades ago, he noted, Iran had close ties with Nazi Germany, and some of Iran’s more nationalistic papers labeled Purim as anti-Iranian.
But the celebration of Purim has endured. And, ironically, its importance has even been enhanced by a non-Jewish holiday. Purim typically coincides with the festivities of No Ruz, the secular Persian New Year.
“Purim gets more focus in Iran from Jews,” said Nahid Pirnazar, an instructor of Iranian studies and Judeo-Persian literature at UCLA. “It’s like Chanukah in the United States, which coincides with Christmas,” she said. “A lot of the traditions of No Ruz are reflected in Purim, like the idea of exchanging gifts.”
Purim fasts are broken at the conclusion of megillah readings, she added. Jews traditionally eat special Purim cookies as well as halva, a dry or wet dessert made of flour or rice, sugar, oil and saffron.
And although some historians have their doubts regarding the Book of Esther, the experience of Jews in Iran embodies a consonance with events described in the tale. Over the centuries, Pirnazar said, Jews have narrowly escaped forced mass conversions to Islam by participating in communitywide days of prayer and fasting — similar to the fast carried out by Queen Esther in the Purim story.
One such Purim-like episode is identified in Vera Basch Moreen’s book, “Iranian Jewry’s Hour of Peril and Heroism” (American Academy for Jewish Research, 1987). In 1629, the Jews in the city of Isfahan were forced to convert to Islam with the succession of King Safi I of the Safavid Dynasty. Later, these Jews were permitted to return to Judaism after two Jewish leaders successfully interceded with the Iranian monarch — a scenario that parallels the Purim story.
As an often-oppressed minority, Iranian Jews have their own modern-day hardships to confront. And the Book of Esther, with its tale of triumph over hardship and evil, still conveys a message of hope.
Make Menu Shine With Splash of Wine
Purim is always a special celebration for the children — they dress up in costumes, sing and dance. The grown-ups have their rewards, too, because it is the only holiday when everyone is encouraged to drink a generous amount of wine.
This year, the theme of our dinner is foods prepared and cooked with wine, and we ask our guests to bring a bottle of their favorite wine to share during the evening.
The menu includes a Celery Root Slaw with a Balsamic-Mayonnaise Sauce, served on a mixed green salad, and for dessert there is my Aunt Betty’s Orange Juice-Wine Syrup Bundt Cake.
Celery Root Slaw on a Mixed Salad
Balsamic-Mayonnaise Sauce (recipe follows)
2 cups salad greens
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, to taste
1 celery root (about 1 1/2 pounds)
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Prepare the Balsamic-Mayonnaise Sauce, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
In a medium bowl, toss the salad greens with olive oil and salt and set aside.
Peel the celery root, wash in cold water and, using food processor or sharp knife, cut into thin julienne strips. Transfer to a large bowl, add lemon juice and toss. Add enough sauce to moisten and toss gently.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate (until ready to serve) for at least two hours.
To serve, arrange the salad greens on serving plates, and spoon the slaw in the center. Sprinkle with sesame seeds or pomegranate seeds and serve.
Serves four to six.
1/2 cup mayonnaise
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons Homemade Balsamic Vinegar (recipe follows)
Freshly ground black pepper
Prepare the Homemade Balsamic Vinegar and set aside. In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, sugar and balsamic vinegar and blend. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add additional sugar or balsamic vinegar to taste.
Homemade Balsamic Vinegar
1 cup sweet Concord Grape Wine
Juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons sugar
1 Tablespoon honey
In a heavy saucepan, combine the wine, lemon juice, sugar, and honey. Bring to a boil. Boil until reduce by half. Transfer to a glass jar. Serve on salads.
Makes about 1/2 cup.
Aunt Betty’s Orange Juice-Wine Syrup Bundt Cake
1/4 cup ground walnuts or pecans
1/4 pound unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
1/3 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons sweet white or red wine (Concord Grape Wine)
2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1 cup toasted, chopped walnuts or pecans
Orange Juice-Wine Syrup (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 10-inch bundt or fluted tube pan. Sprinkle with the ground walnuts. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, until well blended. Add the zest, juice and wine and blend well.
Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add to the butter mixture alternately with the sour cream until completely blended. Fold in the chopped walnuts.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out dry and the cake begins to shrink away from the sides of the pan. Spoon the hot syrup over the cake as soon as you remove it from the oven and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (optional).
Orange Juice-Wine Syrup
3/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup Concord Grape Wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
In a saucepan, combine the orange juice, wine, lemon juice, and sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves, and simmer for five minutes. Set aside.
Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999) Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.
A Buffet Fit for Your Kings and Queens
My family loves Purim. It is a time when our grandchildren dress up in biblical costumes to act out the story of Esther and attend Purim carnivals, just as our children did when they were young. As in most holidays, we all look forward to the traditional foods that are part of the celebration. During Purim, hamantaschen, the three-cornered pastries filled with poppy seeds or fruit preserves, are always served.
This year, the family is invited to an “after-the-Purim-carnival buffet” inspired by the elaborate banquets that were served in biblical days. One long table in the dining room will be set for all the guests, and our collection of Purim groggers (noisemakers) will be arranged at each place setting for everyone to use during the retelling of the Purim story.
This dairy menu will feature hot, crispy Cheese Kreplach, a savory version of hamantaschen using a quick pizza dough, filled with three cheeses and flavored with fresh herbs.
A big bowl of Hummus will take center stage, accompanied by pita bread and an assortment of fresh vegetables for dipping. This garlicky dip, which originated in the Middle East, is based on chickpeas, one of the earliest Purim foods. Using a food processor, this is a quick and easy dish to prepare, just combine all the ingredients in the recipe and blend. The results can be as smooth as you like.
Include platters of grilled mushrooms in your buffet. I still remember when mushrooms were not easy to find. But, with the wonderful array of fresh mushrooms now available at the local open-air markets, it’s fun to create your own unusual mushroom recipes The Grilled Stuffed Mushrooms have an intense flavor as well as a slight crunch. Prepare them in advance and broil just before serving.
Forget chopped liver, instead, serve healthy Fennel “Caviar,” a fresh fennel pâté with a delicate anise flavor, easy to prepare, and delicious when spread on toast. On the buffet table include Skewered Eggplant, a dish that I discovered on a trip to Bali. It will lend an exotic touch to your buffet table. Drizzle the Peanut Sauce over the eggplant or serve it on the side.
This buffet will appeal to everyone, especially the children because they can make their own selections. Also, this menu is especially appropriate for Purim because it reminds us that Queen Esther, in order to eat only kosher food in the king’s palace, followed a vegetarian diet, which consisted primarily of seeds, grains, nuts and beans.
Purim would not be complete without hamantaschen, filled with as many interesting mixtures as your imagination allows. Besides the classic poppy seed filling, my family likes an apricot-nut mixture and a pureed prune filling. Below you will find an easy-to-prepare recipe with a filling of pecans, figs and raisins.
(Quick Pizza Dough)
1 recipe Quick Pizza Dough (recipe follows)
1Â¼4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons cornmeal
2 cups mozzarella cheese, julienned
8 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon fresh oregano or 2 teaspoons dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Prepare the Quick Pizza Dough.
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Brush a 10×14-inch baking sheet with olive oil and sprinkle with cornmeal.
In a bowl, combine the three cheeses, oregano and pepper and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside. Divide the dough into four pieces. Roll out each piece and cut into 4-inch rounds with biscuit cutter or the rim of a glass. Place the cheeses on one half of each round, sprinkle with herbs, and season with pepper. Drizzle with a few drops of olive oil. Brush the edges of the rounds with the beaten egg. Fold the dough over the filling to form a half-moon and press the edges of the dough firmly together. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Makes about 12 (6 servings).
Quick Pizza Dough
2 packages dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
11Â¼4 cups warm water
1Â¼4 cup extra virgin olive oil
31Â¼2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
In a small bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, and 1Â¼2 cup of the warm water. Set aside until yeast becomes frothy, two to three minutes.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, or using a hand mixer, combine the remaining 3Â¼4 cup water, olive oil, and the yeast mixture. Add 1 cup of the flour and the salt, blending well. Add the remaining flour, 1 cup at a time, gradually blending until a rough ball forms. Transfer to a floured board and knead until the top of the dough is smooth and elastic, and springs back when pressed with a finger. If using immediately, cover with a towel and tear off desired pieces of dough. Or at this point, place in a plastic bag, seal and refrigerate; (it will keep for up to four days.)
Garbanzo Bean Hummus
Hummus is a simple, wonderfully flavorful dip or spread made from garbanzos (chick peas) and tahini (sesame seed paste). Its texture is velvety, rich and firm enough to scoop up with wedges of pita bread or crisp vegetables. The taste is robust, nutlike, garlicky and so satisfying that you won’t be able to stop eating it.
l can (15 ounce) garbanzos, with liquid
1 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
1Â¼2 cup lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1Â¼3 cup olive oil
6 fresh parsley sprigs, stemmed
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
Place the garbanzos in a processor or blender and process until coarsely pureed.
Add the tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and cumin, then process until smoothly pureed. Add olive oil in a thin stream. Blend in the parsley leaves and l teaspoon of salt. Add additional salt to taste. Serve with hot pita bread and sliced vegetables such as carrots, zucchini, mushrooms and jicama.
Note: Tahini (crushed sesame seeds) is available at natural food and Middle Eastern grocery stores and at most supermarkets.
2 medium fennel bulbs
1Â¼4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons minced yellow onion
Pinch of fresh thyme, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Toasted rounds of French bread
Cut off the feathery tops of the fennel bulbs, and remove any tough outer layers. Cut the fennel into 1Â¼4-inch dice, to yield about 3 cups.
In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil and sauté the garlic, shallot, and onion about four minutes, or until soft. Add the fennel and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme, salt and pepper, and let cook for five more minutes. Transfer to a wooden board and chop until well blended, or place in a food processor and pulse once or twice for a finer consistency. Spoon into a covered bowl or crock and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve with toast rounds.
Makes 2 cups (about 16 servings).
Skewered Japanese Eggplant with Peanut Sauce
Japanese eggplants are very small and tender and usually come in a beautiful lavender shade, although you may find white and purple skinned varieties. If you don’t have time to make the peanut sauce, pick up a kosher version available at some markets.
Peanut sauce (recipe follows)
1 cup flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 Japanese eggplants, unpeeled and sliced 3Â¼4-inch thick
Olive oil, for sauteing
Cilantro sprigs, for garnish
Prepare the Peanut Sauce; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
In a shallow medium bowl, mix the flour with salt and pepper. Dip the eggplant slices on both sides in the flour and shake to remove excess. In a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high, heat the olive oil and brown the eggplant rounds on both sides about two to three minutes, or until tender. Thread two or three eggplant slices through wooden skewers, lollipop fashion. Arrange on a large platter, garnish with cilantro, and serve with Peanut Sauce.
Makes about 4 servings.
2 tablespoons minced yellow onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 stalk fresh lemongrass, white
stem only, minced (optional)
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1Â¼2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1Â¼8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1Â¼2 cup vegetable stock
1Â¼2 cup chunky peanut butter
1 cup coconut milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a small saucepan, combine the onion, garlic, lemongrass (if using), brown sugar, coriander, pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, vegetable stock, peanut butter, coconut milk, and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until smooth; reduce heat and let the sauce simmer four minutes. Remove from the heat and pour into a medium serving bowl. Cool and cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate up to four hours. Bring to room temperature before serving. Add additional vegetable stock if needed to thin the sauce.
Makes about two cups.
1Â¼2 cup vegetable oil
11Â¼2 cups sugar
1Â¼2 cup orange juice
6 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
Fig-Pecan Filling (recipe follows)
1 egg white
In the bowl of an electric mixer, blend oil, sugar and eggs, until light and fluffy. Add orange juice a little at a time until completely blended. Add flour, baking powder, and salt to oil mixture and blend well. (Do not over-mix.) Divide into four parts and knead each part into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for several hours.
Flatten each portion with the palms of your hands and roll out to 1/4-inch thickness on a floured board. Cut into 3-inch rounds with a cookie cutter. Place 1 heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of each round. Fold the edges of the dough toward the center to form a triangle, leaving a bit of the filling visible in the center. Pinch the edges to seal.
Place the hamantaschen on a lightly greased foil-lined baking sheet and brush with egg white. Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Transfer to racks to cool.
Makes about six-dozen hamantaschen.
Fig and Pecan Filling
4 cups dried figs
1 cup raisins
1 cup toasted chopped pecans
In a large bowl, place figs and raisins with enough apple juice to cover. Refrigerate for three hours or overnight. Place fig mixture in medium saucepan and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until soft, about 10 minutes. Cool and drain, reserving syrup. In food processor, blend figs and raisins with 1Â¼4 cup of reserved syrup. Transfer to a bowl and mix in pecans. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to fill hamantaschen.
Makes about 6 cups.
Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” and “The 30-Minute
Kosher Cook.” Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.
Run and Deliver
Unless you are actually running the Los Angeles Marathon, the marathon and the myriad street closures are likely to inconvenience you. This year, as the marathon falls on Purim (March 7), it may inconvenience Jews delivering mishloach manot, or food packages traditionally delivered to friends and family.
The city has found a way for Purim revellers to run around the marathon. Adeena Bleich, the Jewish community liaison for City Councilman Jack Weiss, organized access through “soft closures” — not the actual marathon route, but close by — which will allow people delivering shalach manot to go through. The main street closures are going to be staggered from 4:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., so deliveries could be times for after 2 p.m.
Copies of the marathon map and street closure times were sent out to area synagogues to ensure limited interruptions in shalach manot giving.
For more information about street closures in your area,call Adeena Bleich at (310) 289-0353 or send e-mail to
Megillah for the Deaf
It is a mitzvah on Purim to hear the reading of Megillat Esther, the scroll that tells the holiday’s story. In fact, some rabbis say that if you miss hearing one word of the megillah, then you have not fulfilled your obligation.
Certainly, deaf people would have a hard time fulfilling this mitzvah. The Orthodox Union has responded with a way that deaf people can “hear” the megillah.
The Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for the Disabled (NJCD) came up with the “PowerPoint Megillat Esther Program,” a CD-ROM that can be loaded into a computer and then projected to the front of the synagogue. A hearing person operates the equipment, following along with the cantor and pointing out the words being read using the mouse of the computer, which are the highlighted, karaoke-style, on the screen. Every time the name Haman comes up, the word is clicked and a graphic of stamping appears on the screen to simulate what should be going on in the synagogue at that moment.
Frank Duchoeny, the Montreal coordinator of Our Way for the Jewish Deaf, a division of the NJCD, developed the program two years ago. This year the CD-ROM, which is available to synagogues for $100, comes with a number of additional features.
“This year’s version has new graphics for Haman and the blessings recited before and after the megillah reading, and it also highlights the psukim [verses] that are recited by entire congregation,” said Batya Jacobs, Our Way’s program director. “The mitzvah of hearing Megillat Esther is a requirement for every Jew. Using our PowerPoint program will facilitate the inclusion of our fellow Jews who are deaf or hard of hearing within the community in this mitzvah.”
For more information or to place an order, call (212)613-8127 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org . — GW
The Comic Esther
Think your kids watch too many cartoons with no educational value? Have them check out “The Queen of Persia,” a feature-length animated video about the story of Purim, and a graphic novel of the same title based on the video’s screenplay. The novel reads something like a Purim version of the “Asterix” comics — a guilty pleasure with a lot of humor and color on every page.
Shazak Productions, a Chicago-based media company, produced the Purim media to teach children in a fun way, said Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz, the company’s founder. A teacher for two decades, Moscowitz wants the book to spice up classroom learning, and therefore kept the book and video faithful to the authentic biblical sources.
“I want to give teachers new tools that really excite students,” he said. “Whenever learning material is presented in an exciting way, people will learn better. Our goal is to capture the fancy of everyone. Everybody, regardless of background, could pick up [‘The Queen of Persia’] and have a blast.”
For more information or to order “The Queen of Persia”CD, book or video, go to
For weeks now, Merrill Alpert has been searching for the
perfect inflatable slide, the largest Ferris wheel and the flashiest ice cream
cart — all for her synagogue. Like event organizers at other temples in the
Southland, Alpert, Valley Beth Shalom’s (VBS) youth director and carnival
planner extraordinaire, feels that the joyous holiday of Purim is serious
Like many temple Purim carnivals, VBS’ annual event is both
a fundraiser and a community activity. On the fundraising side, $2,500 of the
proceeds will go directly to the youth group’s Tikkun Olam fund and any
remainder will go toward scholarships. While the VBS carnival is a grass-roots
effort, other local organizations, such as Temple Beth Am and Stephen S. Wise Temple,
expect their larger-scale carnivals to generate more revenue. Temple Beth Am
expects to rake in approximately $15,000, which will benefit its schools and
No matter what the profit, most synagogue administrators
agree that the yearly celebrations are helpful morale boosters.
“People love [the Purim carnival] and the kids look forward
to it all year long,” said Susan Leider, principal of Pressman Academy Religious
School at Temple Beth Am.
Rabbi Marc Dworkin of Leo Baeck Temple believes that his
shul’s event reinforces a certain closeness within the congregation.
“It’s a community builder and it brings different
generations together,” Dworkin said.
While many synagogues elect carnival committees, the
teenagers in VBS’ United Synagogue Youth (USY) chapter traditionally put
together this annual event. As the organization’s administrator, Alpert has
organized the annual carnival for the last 18 years.
“The struggle is getting the manpower,” admitted Alpert, who
expects 150 USY volunteers at the carnival on Sunday, March 16.
In order to accommodate the expected 1,000 carnivalgoers,
Alpert needs all the USYers she can get.
Oraneet Orevi, 17, the USY chapter’s co-president, is one of
this year’s committed volunteers.
“Despite the fact that we’re teens, we have things very
well-organized,” said the Calabasas High School senior. Orevi, who dressed as a
cowgirl at last year’s carnival, said she hopes to work at the dunk booth again
“The water is freezing,” the teen said with a laugh, “but
it’s a lot of fun.”
In the meantime, Orevi and her friends are currently
creating posters and flyers in hopes of attracting more potential attendees.
Come Sunday, Orevi and the other volunteers are prepared to
sacrifice their weekend sleep to begin decorating the booths and setting up at
7:30 a.m., a good three and a half hours before the carnival begins.
Alpert will coordinate with food vendors like Subway, which
has been contracted out to make kosher hero sandwiches in the synagogue’s
kitchen. Another vendor will mass-produce slices of pizza.
While volunteering is hard work, Orevi said that investing
time in the carnival is a bonding experience for the students and helps VBS
become a close-knit community.
As the Purim countdown begins, Alpert still has a few
concerns. The carnival will be held in the synagogue parking lot, rain or
“If it’s raining, not as many people show up,” she said.
Luckily, generous congregants offer donations to underwrite
costs. But even a large sum of money could not replace the crown jewel of Purim
carnivals: an inflatable moon bounce. Unfortunately, the rental company from
which Alpert rented the coveted attraction last year went out of business.
Lucky for moon bounce fans, Alpert is determined to find another one.
As she prepares for a new shipment of carnival prizes, like
whoopee cushions, key chains, stuffed animals or whatever the game company
deems “trendy” this year, Alpert anticipates a successful and profitable carnival.
“It’s pretty much down to a science,” she said.
And if there is any doubt that her teen volunteers will come
through for her, Alpert’s got a plan.
“At the end of the day, if we help clean up, Merrill treats
us to dinner,” Orevi confided.
In addition to the carnival, which runs from 11 a.m-3 p.m., there will be a Red Cross blood drive from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. 15739 Ventura
Blvd., Encino. For more information, call the VBS youth office at (818)
530-4025, or the temple office at (818) 788-6000.
Not Just for Kids
Purim may conjure up visions of kiddie games, sugar-addled
toddlers and homemade noisemakers, but it lends itself just as well to adult
forms of celebration. The Talmud instructs us to drink and make our hearts
merry with wine on Purim until we cannot tell the difference between “cursed be
Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.”
For American Jews who were raised on G-rated carnivals held
in synagogues and schools, the idea that Purim could look more like a Jewish
variation on Mardi Gras can come as a minor revelation. Just think: Dance
parties instead of spin art; the pop of a wine cork instead of the slosh of a
doomed goldfish in a Zip-Locked baggie; and costumes that might even make
After all, the Shushan story is one of our spicier
narratives. Underneath the sanitized children’s version, there is a rich tale
of palace intrigue, sexual power struggles, violence and desire. The king
demands that Vashti parade in front of his wine-soaked friends, wearing nothing
but her crown. After Vashti’s rebellion and violent demise, Esther, a lovely
virgin, is taken to the palace, rubbed with oil and beautified for display, so
that she may be chosen as queen instead of just palace concubine. Haman plots,
Mordechai maneuvers and, ultimately, the Jews of Shushan escape death. Who
For the over-21 set, there are now more adult opportunities
to celebrate Purim than there used to be. While family-oriented events still
dominate, there has been a conscious effort in recent years to organize Purim
celebrations that will appeal to Jews who are young, single and unaffiliated.
A Green Martini Purim
ATID’s first ever Purim Bash is a case in point.
“We want to attract people who otherwise would never come to
shul on Purim,” said recording artist and Friday Night Live music director
Craig Taubman. Through his independent label, Craig ‘n Co., Taubman is
co-producing the Purim party at Bergamot Station. Taubman will be there in
tandem with Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe kicking-off the first party
sponsored by ATID (Hebrew for “future”), a new group under Sinai’s auspices
that has been set up to fund programming for young Jewish professionals.
Inspired by their success with Friday Night Live, Taubman and Wolpe, believe
the Jewish establishment must think creatively in order to spark any interest
among disaffected, unaffiliated Jewish singles.
“We’re looking to attract people who don’t even usually
consider attending anything remotely Jewish,” Taubman said.
A DJ, guitar player and percussionist billed collectively as
Tribe 1, will provide live music. Wolpe will conduct a decidedly nontraditional
Megillah reading jazzed up by the Purim Posse, a troupe of professional actors
who, Taubman said, will dramatize a rather “spicy” version of the holiday tale.
Strolling musicians and jugglers will entertain partygoers while interactive
performers will mingle with the crowd. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Purim
celebration without costumes. Grand prize in the ATID costume contest will be
two tickets to New York City on American Airlines, with other prizes for
In an irreverent press release that promises to “put the
‘fun’ back into fundamentalism,” a group of New York- and San Francisco-based
actors, musicians and educators will bring “Estherminator,” their edgy version
of a Purimspiel, to Los Angeles’ Echo Club on March 16.
Billed as a “psycho-pious Purim rock opera,” Estherminator
is an hour-plus piece of Megillah-inspired performance art put together by Amy
Tobin of The Hub in San Francisco, and the New York-based Storahtelling
Project, a nonprofit group founded by artistic director Amichai Lau-Lavie.
Lau-Lavie, like his organization, has an interesting pedigree. His work as
scholar-in-residence at New York City’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun transformed
the staid, Saturday morning Torah services into pieces of dynamic performance
art that taught — as well as inspired.
Original music is woven into show, and the evening promises
to provide a modern take on the timeless themes of power, vengeance, sex and
politics. While “Estherminator” is the centerpiece of the evening, it’s still a
party. Drinking and dancing will get equal billing, with a live DJ and a cash
bar both before and after the performance.
“We’re hoping to attract a funky and cutting-edge crowd
from the more radical, underground Jewish arts scene,” saidStorahtelling
marketing director,Stephanie Pacheco.
Brazilian Night Singles Party
What better way to honor Los Angeles’ dizzying polyglot
culture than to gather together in West Hollywood to celebrate an ancient
Persian story with booze, kosher food, music, Brazilian dancers and a
At Brazilian Night, the fourth annual Purim party hosted by
the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s (IAJF) Youth Division, you don’t have
to be Iranian to come and celebrate, or to meet that special someone. All
Jewish singles between the ages of 21 and 38 are welcome to dance to music spun
by DJ Shaad, dine on glatt kosher hors d’oeuvres, gamble at the casino tables
with $1,000 faux dollars in chips that will be handed out at the door, win
prizes and shimmy to the tropical beat of live Brazilian dancers.
IAJF planners say they expect a strong turnout of singles,
as they have in years past. Youth Division Chair Elliot Benjamin said this will
be the fourth year they’ve held the Purim party, and it’s always a hit.
Now in its third year, Purim Extravaganza 3 at the Century
Club is a veritable tradition in Los Angeles. This year, the festivities are
sponsored by the Happy Minyan, Olam and the Chai Center.The party is geared
toward “Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, non-affiliates and any Jew that moves,”
host Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz says in his press release.
With Megillah readings beginningat 7 p.m. and continuing
every hour from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., the evening will also include entertainment
by Yehuda Glantz, Peter Himmelman, Gregg Fisher, The Happy Minyan Band and
comedians seen on Leno and Letterman.
For more information, check our Arts and Calendar sections.
ATID’s Purim Bash at Bergamot: Monday, March 17, 8 p.m.,
Bergamot Station Art Center, Track 16 Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa
Monica. $25 cover includes all food, drinks and entertainment. Costumes
encouraged. Reservations are required. Call (310) 481-3244; or visit
Estherminator: Sunday, March 16. Doors open at 8 p.m. $8
(with costume); $10 without. Club Echo, 1822 West Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.
For information, call (323) 761-8350.
Brazilian Night Singles Party: Saturday, March 15, at the
Iranian American Jewish Center, 1317 N. Crescent Heights Blvd., Los Angeles.
Doors open at 8 p.m. Admission is a donation to IAJF; $40 (in advance) $50 (at
the door). Ladies entering before 9:30 p.m. are charged 2 for 1 (either in
advance or door ticket sales). For tickets or more information, call (323)
Purim Extravaganza 3 at The Century Club, 10131
Constellation Ave. Century City. $15. Costumes optional. For more
information, call (310) 285-7777 or (310) 391-7995.
The Miracle of Charity
As we exit Purim and enter into Passover, we find ourselves in the season of redemption. In the words of the Talmud, we are ben geulah ligeulah (between redemptions).
There are many similarities in the stories of Purim and Pesach. Both find our people struggling for their survival and both have a miraculous and heartening culmination. Even in their practice, both have charity central to their celebration. On Purim, we have the mitzvah of matanot la evyonim — a gift to (at least) two poor people; on Pesach, we have maot chitim — the donation of funds for the purchase of matzah and other Passover staples for those in need.
Why is this so? Why are these two holidays singled out as times of tzedakah (charitable giving)? Why did the rabbis find it necessary to institutionalize the charity as central to the holiday and not let the general biblical obligation of tzedakah carry the day?
Our tradition teaches us that charity saves one from death. The Talmud relates that an astrologist had taunted Rabbi Akiva that his daughter would not survive to see her wedding day. Akiva brushed his words aside, but remained agitated nonetheless. Many years later, as Akiva and his family celebrated his only daughter’s wedding, he heard a scream from the front door. The bride stood in the door with a dead rattlesnake on the tip of her long hair pin.
Remembering his encounter of many years ago, Akiva asked his daughter to relate the day’s events to him. She said that a beggar had come to the door. "Everyone was celebrating and did not notice the poor man," she said. "I opened the front door with my hairpin in my hand. I placed my hairpin in the crack in the stone wall and retreated to the kitchen to bring him some food. Later, when I removed the pin, this dead snake was on its tip." (Shabbos 156b)
That charity saves from death is not a nice idea, but a literal one. It is not reserved for talmudic stories but affects our lives, too. My sister, Marcy, just called from Israel telling me God had saved her community of Efrat from devastation. Louis Davis was an American- success story and retired at a young age to Israel with his family. Davis wanted to breath its air, study Torah and help the people. He was known as "The Chesed Man."
Earlier this month, as all were rushing to prepare for Shabbat, an elderly woman asked Davis for a ride home from the supermarket, and she knew he was always a man she could ask. Davis told her to finish her shopping and he would pull the car around to the front. Heading toward his car, he greeted an Arab contractor who had just completed Davis’ home. Strangely, his friend did not return the greeting. Brushing it off, Davis pulled in front of the store only to find the very same Arab pacing to and fro in a nervous fashion.
Davis then realized that the man was wearing a trench coat. His heart began racing as the man headed toward the supermarket’s doors. With Davis following close behind, the man entered the bread aisle and began loosening his coat. Davis heard a small pop as the man tried to detonate himself. Davis drew his revolver and killed the bomber before the chain reaction of explosives blew up.
Imagine the tragedy and the number of dead had Davis not responded. Imagine the pain had Davis not offered to wait out in front until the elderly woman had finished her shopping.
That charity saves from death is literal, not figurative. Akiva’s daughter and the community of Efrat learned this lesson in a very personal way. Her cards, if you will, and perhaps those of Efrat as well, were destined for tragedy, but charity shuffled the deck.
Please purchase some heavenly life insurance and give charity. Please help so everyone can celebrate Passover with more than matzah. The life you may be saving may be your own.
Noshin’ Beyond Hamantashen
Our family celebrates all of the Jewish holidays together, but Purim seems to be everyone’s favorite. How can you not love a holiday that tells you to dress up in costume, forget your troubles, enjoy delicious food and drink a lot of wine?
Several of our children spend days making Purim costumes for our grandkids. The girls want to be Queen Esther, and the boys identify with brave Mordecai or King Ahasuerus — no one wants to be the evil Haman!
They arrive at our house for dinner dressed in their costumes, ready to act the parts of the characters in the Purim story. As we retell the story at the table, everyone selects a gragger (noisemaker) from our collection, to twirl each time Haman’s name is mentioned.
By far, the best-known Purim dessert is hamantashen. It is said that the triangular shape of pastries represent Haman’s hat, or his pockets. Whatever the origin, they are delicious. Every family has their favorite recipe, usually it is a sugar cookie or yeast dough, rolled out, and filled with a poppy seed or fruit filling.
Over the years I have developed some wonderful poppy seed desserts inspired by these traditional pastries. One of them is the recipe for Purim Seed Crisps. They are the thinnest, most crisp cookies and were adapted from a recipe given to me by my friend Bernie Bubman. He enjoys attending cooking classes in Europe, and he brought this recipe back from France. These cookies are a novel and a delicious Purim dessert.
If your kids love Fig Newtons, they’ll love these poppy seed-filled pastries for Purim. It is a copy-cat version of the famous old-fashioned confection, only better. Roman, the chef at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica, makes these poppy seed goodies daily, and was kind enough to share his recipe.
Make extra Poppy Seed Newtons or Purim Seed Crisps for the family to give away as gifts to those less fortunate. This is known as shalach manot and is the custom during the Purim holiday.
Purim Seed Crisps
These cookies spread out as they cook, so a small amount of dough goes further than you might think. Bake as many as you like, cover the remaining dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to one week.
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Karo syrup
2 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 cup sesame seeds
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
2 tablespoons millet seeds
(available in most supermarkets
and health food stores)
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
In a medium skillet, over medium heat, cook the butter, sugar, Karo syrup and milk, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the butter is melted and all the ingredients are combined thoroughly. Mix in the seeds. Transfer to a glass bowl. Refrigerate or freeze until firm, about five minutes.
Line a baking sheet with foil and shape the batter into 1-inch rounds the size of a nickel (the cookies spread a lot while cooking). Place the rounds 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. (Watch closely, they brown quickly.) Let cool and then carefully peel off the foil.
Makes about five dozen cookies.
The batter can be refrigerated for up to three days and stored in the freezer for one month, so bake only as many as you like, and have them hot from the oven any time you like.
Purim Poppy Seed
3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup unsalted butter or nondairy
margarine, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 (8-ounce) cans poppy seed filling
1 egg, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil and brush with butter.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Blend in the egg and vanilla. Add the flour and salt and blend until dough comes together. Transfer to a floured board and knead until smooth, adding additional flour if needed. Sprinkle a large sheet of wax paper with flour and roll out pieces of dough 4-inches wide, 12-inches long and about 1/4 inch thick.
Fit a pastry bag with a 1/2-inch tube and fill it with the poppy seed filling. Pipe the filling lengthwise down the middle of the dough, 1/2 inch from the ends. (If you prefer, spoon on the filling.) Gently lift up one side of the dough and pull it over the filling. Then lift the other side and lap over the first. Lightly press the ends to seal. Cut into 1 1/2-inch bars, place on prepared baking sheet, seam-side down, and brush with lightly beaten egg.
Bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
Makes about five dozen.
Why do we wear costumes and masks on Purim? Well, it could be to remind us that Queen Esther hid her Jewish identity from King Ahasuerus. Because of that, she was able to save the Jewish people. It could be a way for us to turn the world upside down for a little while, in the same way that the world was turned upside down in Shushan: Haman was hanged on the gallows that had been built for Mordechai; the Jews were not killed, but were able to defend themselves; and a day of mourning was turned into day of joy.
While it is sometimes important, even life-preserving, to “put on a mask,” you might want to think about how you live your life day to day.
Do you wear a mask when you go to school? Maybe you put on the mask of the “cool skateboarder dude” or the “giggly popular girl.” After a while, it gets hard to keep that mask on. So throw it away and let your beautiful face, the real you, shine through!
Purim takes place on the 14th day of Adar. So we say: Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimcha. “In the month of Adar, we are filled with joy.”
A Purim SOS
Two weeks ago I got an actual SOS from a ship. Tova and Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, en route to the Philippines on the Holland America cruise ship M.S. Rotterdam, were requesting a Persian Purim menu and recipes for the ship’s executive chef.
Queen Esther was a vegetarian, so the foods associated with the holiday are mainly vegetables, rice, nuts and fruits. I responded to their call by rushing menu ideas and recipes via e-mail, hoping the ship stores and the marketplaces at the ports of call would be able to provide the necessary ingredients. From what I understand, they did. The rabbi and friends made hamentaschen in the ship’s galley.
1 package filo dough
1 pound unsalted butter, melted
2 cups fine bread crumbs
Cabbage Filling (recipe follows)
Sour Cream Dill Sauce (recipe follows)
Sprigs of dill for garnish
Fold the filo leaves in half and unfold one page. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle lightly with bread crumbs. Continue turning the pages of filo, brushing with the butter and crumbs until you come to the last page. Brush with butter and sprinkle with crumbs.
Spread two heaping spoonfuls of the cabbage filling crosswise on the last page, 2 inches from the edge closest to you and 1 inch from the sides. Cover the filling with the closest edge, and fold the sides over. Brush the sides with butter and continue rolling up the filo.
Cover a baking sheet with foil and brush with butter. Place the strudel on the foil, seam side down, and brush with butter. Refrigerate, uncovered, 15 to 20 minutes. Continue with the remaining filo and cabbage filling.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Slice immediately. Serve hot with Sour Cream Dill Sauce and garnish with sprigs of dill.
1/2 cup unsalted butter or margarine
1/4 cup flour
2 tbs. paprika
3 cups finely chopped onions
4 quarts shredded cabbage
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melt the butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir until dissolved. Add the paprika and mix well. Add the onions and continue cooking for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the cabbage, brown sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, partially covered, for one hour or until golden brown. Stir occasionally. Remove from the heat and cool.
Sour Cream and Dill Sauce
2 cups sour cream or non-dairy sour cream
1/8 cup snipped fresh dill
In a bowl, combine the sour cream and dill. Cover and chill.
Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook,” “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” and “Master Chefs Cook Kosher.” Her Web site is member.aol.com/jzkitchen/.