Previously, I gave little thought to Purim. I remember carnivals in the synagogue social hall as a child: groggers, hats, games, prizes. Purim served as a bright spot after the dark months of Tevet and Shevat. Sweet treats and fun foretold of more joy to come. After early childhood, I ignored Purim, except for the hamentaschen.
When I joined a congregation in the “oughts,” I was introduced to the Purim Spiel. First, I thought, “that’s dumb”, and the Yiddish word deterred, being the daughter of a former Berliner who shunned the colourful, useful language, that now I have come to appreciate.
People said, “come, come, it’s so fun.” I thought, “What, I have no talent?” I had joined the choir because of a lifelong wish to be immersed in song. I was “good enough,” could read music, and knew when to sing quietly. An extroverted member of the choir, who was the Spiel director, encouraged me as well. She remarked that “no talent” was exactly the ticket to join the play’s cast.
So, to rehearsal I went. And thus, began about ten seasons of great fun. The small, liberal congregation had been producing plays for about 5-10 years before I joined in the hilarity. Our director, the demonstrative, very talented choir member had the ability to take a ragtag bunch of “older” Jews and turn us into a somewhat polished group. I remember her saying, “I hate blocking night. I’m herding cats.” We were silly and made jokes about nearly everything we could find as fodder. My favourite spiel was “Schmaltz” (Grease) in which I had a solid role.
The productions were sealed into the annals of congregation history. Our rabbi was an actor in his own right. He could act in any comic role, and he sang in a strong, tenor voice. Naturally, our plays were the story of Esther, Mordechai, and Haman set to rock, popular, or Broadway tunes.
The era of the plays are over, as all good things must come to an end. There was a chemistry and bonding in the cast that cannot be reproduced. So I am back to a less exciting but still happy Purim, the beginning of more light, warmth, and hope.
Here are my reflections on Adar and Purim:
Adar is the twelfth month of the Jewish calendar which can be quite confusing since we find ourselves neither in December nor at the Jewish New Year. When there is a leap year, there are two Adars. Adar relates to the Hebrew word, Adir, which means strength. The month is associated with good fortune and joy. Adar corresponds to the zodiac sign of Pisces, two unidentified fish in the depths of the sea. Like Esther, who revealed herself as a Jew after being masked or hidden.
Purim falls on the 14th day of Adar, a holiday for joyful celebration and the only one which focuses on brave women. We are familiar with the Megillah and the story of Esther and Mordechai saving the Jews from certain death. The Megillah, or the Book of Esther, is one of two ancient books named for women.
Spiritually and physically, the month represents the shift from darkness to light. We see the transformation in the increase of daylight hours and in a new month filled with joy after several months of darkness. The Purim story deals with a shift from death to life.
After Haman and his henchmen were defeated, Esther went to the king and said, “Do tomorrow what you have done today.” The king was confused. Haman, his ten sons and various other evildoers had been hanged. Why does Esther ask for what has been done? Scholars have found the Hebrew letters, also representing the numbers 5707, within the Book of Esther. And what is significant about 5707? The Jewish year corresponds to 1946, when 10 Nazis hanged after trials at Nuremberg. So, was Queen Esther asking for retribution for crimes that had not been yet committed? Curious.
Tradition has us decking out in a guise or mask for Purim. The Ba’al Shem Tov said, “It is a mitzvah to dress up for Purim.” Now why would a pious rabbi suggest a frivolity like costumes? The ancient rabbis instituted the custom of giving Tzedakah to the poor on Purim. If everyone masquerades, one cannot discern who is giving and who receiving. Therefore, in complete anonymity, one offers and accepts, the truest form of mitzvah.
Back to joy, which is forever in short supply. Toast with your libation of choice to health and happiness, as my parents and grandmothers would say. And drown out the evil of the Hamans with your groggers.