How Purim is a call to leadership
By Abigail Pogrebin
(JTA) – Purim is a dark story marked by a crazy party. I’m still unsure why a close brush with extermination became, in the Middle Ages, an opportunity for costumes and farce, but there you have it.
It’s the fifth century BCE, about a hundred years after the First Temple’s destruction. The Jews who were exiled to Babylon are now ruled by the Persian king Ahaseurus, who thinks highly of himself. In the city of Shushan, the king’s adviser, Haman, is a cruel Jew-hater. He hatches a plan to kill all the Jews and draws lots (“purim”) to pick the day it will happen, persuading Ahaseurus to go along.
A proclamation is made throughout the kingdom: On that day, all Jews shall be killed. A Jew named Mordechai entreats his cousin, the gorgeous Queen Esther, to prevent it by pleading for mercy with her husband the king.
Esther was married to Ahaseurus essentially against her will. He chose her out of a bevy of prospective wives at a banquet after banishing his then-wife, Vashti, who refused to display her beauty for his guests. (Some say she refused to dance naked.) Esther’s Jewish roots were kept secret when she married the king, so for her to now entreat her husband would mean exposing her Judaism – not to mention that in those days it was life-threatening to approach the king without having been summoned.
Nevertheless, she plucks up the courage, successfully appeals to her husband and foils the massacre. The king kills Haman and his sons, and then, because the proclamation could not officially be canceled according to Persian law, the Jews can only defend themselves with a preemptive strike. Some say they took self-defense too far, slaughtering 75,000.
Purim’s modern observance, at least in Reform synagogues I’ve visited, does not focus on that brutal coda, highlighting instead the reenactment of cruel Haman and courageous Esther. The ritual is to read aloud the story from a scroll of parchment known as the megillah, which has the biblical book of Esther inscribed on it.
The narrative is then often theatricalized with wacky costumes in a play called a spiel – pronounced “shpeel.” Whenever Haman is mentioned during the satire, people “boo” vigorously or spin noisemakers, called groggers, to drown out his name. I decide to sample some of the elaborate spiel-prep under way in New York City, so I spend an evening watching rehearsals at the Stephen Wise Synagogue on the Upper West Side of New York City, where congregant Norman Roth, 76, a retired accountant, has been writing and directing the shul’s spiel for the past three decades.
Some of his past triumphs line the stairway in colorful, theatrical show posters with titles like “Michael Jackson’s The Thriller Megiller,” “Les Mis – Les Me-gillah,” and “Oh What a Spiel – The Jersey Boys Megillah.” This year’s theme is Elvis. One of Roth’s lyrics riffs on “Blue Suede Shoes,” when the king tells Haman, “Don’t you step on my Shushan Jews.”
Roth takes great pride in his spiel scripts. And he points out that in his librettos, Haman never dies.
“We have very few men in the show, so we need Haman for the closing number. We never kill him off,” he says.
My amusement is tempered when I remember I have to fast before this holiday.
Taanit Esther is not in the Bible, but was created by the rabbis in the eighth century. The fast springs from the book of Esther – in the Bible’s “Writings” section – when Esther decides to prepare herself to confront her husband by fasting for a day.
One Esther expert is Erica Brown, a Washington, D.C.-based author and educator.
“The thing that I most admire about the Esther story,” she tells me over the phone, “is its notion of the tests that are thrown at an individual and the way in which they transform themselves as a result.”
Brown continues: “Esther’s cousin, Mordechai, says to her, essentially, ‘How do you know you weren’t put in this position of royalty for exactly this moment?’ I would throw in the Sheryl Sandberg ‘Lean In’ way of looking at this, of initially having the insecurity to say, ‘I’m not the right person. I can’t do this for any number of reasons.’ You opt out of your own future. And then you have someone like Mordechai who says, ‘No, this is your time. Take advantage. Leap into that.’”
I think about the challenges I’ve avoided; the moments I’ve chickened out. A few come to mind, both large and quotidian: causes I didn’t fight for (gun control), people I haven’t aided (domestic-abuse victims and Rwandan refugees), articles I didn’t pitch (a long list), physical feats I avoided (parasailing).
But this holiday forces me to reflect on leadership – what it means to be thrust forward when that wasn’t your plan. Seven months earlier, I was asked by the current president of New York’s Central Synagogue if I would be interested in being considered to succeed him.
The very request left me choked up. The job is not only a tremendous honor, it’s also daunting and important. I love Central in a way I never expected to love an institution. I’ve seen how clergy can deepen daily life, how a synagogue community can anchor a family. But if you had asked me back in college, when I was focused on being an actor or writer, if I thought I’d end up as a shul president, I’d have said, “In what universe?”
Now this invitation feels like a blessing and a test: Can you do your part to guide a place that has challenged and changed you? Obviously, being a board president isn’t comparable to Esther’s assignment. But Judaism is always asking us to apply epic stories to everyday decisions.
I say yes to Central’s president and yes to Esther’s fast, even though it’s another holiday that few around me observe.
“The joy of victory in her story is so much more colorful, rich and deep when you participate in the suffering,” Brown says. “The joy that I experience every Purim is heightened by the fact that I’ve fasted and I’ve tried to put myself in that moment of risk – leadership risk – that Esther took all those years ago because so much pivoted on that one individual.”
I love Brown’s term “leadership risk” because as I get older, I’ve come to see how those words are conjoined. Trying to lead is risky, but then so is not trying. Despite my mother’s feminist inculcation, I often worry that people will see audacity in my saying “I’m up to the task.” Esther reminds me to stop apologizing for myself and get on with it.
Then again, she was saving lives, which is a little more pressing.
Adapted and excerpted from Abigail Pogrebin’s My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew [Fig Tree Books] (see “Living a Jewish Life,” Jewish Ledger, Feb. 24, 2017).
8 things you didn’t know about Purim
By Julie Wiener
(My Jewish Learning via JTA) – With costumes, spiels and lots of drinking, Purim is one of Judaism’s most raucous holidays. You might know about beautiful Esther thwarting evil Haman’s plans, the custom of getting drunk and what hamantaschen are. But we’re guessing there’s a few things about Purim, which this year starts at sundown March 11, that might surprise you.
1. Esther was a vegetarian (or at least a flexitarian).
According to midrash, while Queen Esther lived in the court of King Ahasuerus, she followed a vegetarian diet consisting largely of legumes so that she would not break the laws of kashrut (dietary laws). For this reason, there is a tradition of eating beans and peas on Purim. (After all, you’ll need something healthy after all the booze and hamantaschen.)
2. You’re supposed to find a go-between to deliver your mishloach manot.
The verse in the Book of Esther about mishloach manot stipulates that we should send gifts to one another, not just give gifts to one another. As a result, it’s better to send your packets of goodies to a friend via a messenger than to just give them outright. Anyone can act as a go-between, so feel free to recruit the postal service.
3. The Book of Esther is the only biblical book that does not include God’s name.
The Book of Esther also makes no references to the Temple, to prayer or to Jewish practices such as kashrut.
4. Hamantaschen may symbolize Haman’s hat or ears…or something a little more womanly.
Some say these cookies represent Haman’s ears (the Hebrew name for them, “oznei Haman,” means just this), and refer to a custom of cutting off a criminal’s ears before his execution. Another theory is that the three corners represent the three patriarchs whose power weakened Haman and gave strength to Esther to save the Jews. In recent years, some feminists have suggested the cookies, which after all are not dissimilar in appearance to female reproductive parts, were meant to be fertility symbols.
5. In 1945, a group of American soldiers held Purim services inside Joseph Goebbels’ castle.
According to JTA coverage at the time, the Jewish chaplain “carefully arranged the candles over a swastika-bedecked bookcase in Goebbels’ main dining room,” and Jewish soldiers explained to their Christian comrades in attendance “about Haman and why it was so fitting that Purim services should be held in a castle belonging to Goebbels.”
6. The Jewish calendar has a regular leap year with two months of Adar (but only one Purim, which falls during the second Adar).
To ensure that the holidays remain in their mandated seasons, the Jewish calendar was ingeniously adjusted to accommodate the 11-day difference between the lunar and solar years. In the fourth century C.E., Hillel scheduled an extra month at the end of the biblical year, as necessary. The biblical year begins in spring with Nissan (Exodus 12:1-2) and ends with Adar. Hillel, in conjunction with the Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme court), chose to repeat Adar (Adar I and Adar II) every third, sixth, eighth, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th year over a 19-year period.
7. Purim is celebrated one day later inside walled cities than it is everywhere else.
The Book of Esther differentiates between Jews who lived and fought their enemies for two days within the walled capital city of Shushan and those who lived in unwalled towns, where only one day was needed to subdue the enemy. The rabbis determined we should make that same distinction when memorializing the event. Accordingly, if a person lives in a city that has been walled since the days of Joshua (circa 1250 BCE), as Shushan was, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of Adar, a day referred to as Shushan Purim.
8. Just after the 1991 Gulf War, Israel’s most popular Purim costume was of the Israeli army spokesman whose face appeared on TV every time a Scud missile alert sounded – and people snacked on “Saddamtaschen.”
Spokesman Nachman Shai’s “reassuring tones earned him the sobriquet ‘National Valium,’” while Israel was being pelted with Iraqi missiles. That year, while many costume-makers avoided the temptation to make Saddam Hussein costumes (it would be like a Hitler costume, one vendor told JTA), bakeries hawked “Saddamtashen,” which “look and taste exactly like hamantaschen.”
Julie Wiener is managing editor of My Jewish Learning.