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Purim in my neighborhood is an extravaganza. Limousines crowd the streets and rabbles of teenagers run in and out of houses dressed up as the main characters in the Purim story.
A quick summary for those who are not familiar: There is Vashti, who is dethroned by the King Ahasuerus. Then Esther becomes the new Queen after she wins a beauty contest, which she doesnâ€™t even dress up for (sheâ€™s THAT beautiful). Mordechai is her cousin (probably equally beautiful) and he figures out that some people are trying to kill the king. Then Haman (the evil one in the story) gets promoted to be the head official by the king, but he hates the Jewish people. Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman and then in turn Haman makes it his life goal to destroy the Jewish people. Mordechai asks Esther for help. She invites the King and Haman to a banquet and when they attend she invites them to a second banquet. At the second banquet she asks the King to have mercy on her people and accuses Haman of his wrongdoings. Haman is then sentenced to death on the very same gallows he had himself made to kill the Jewish people.
The more daring ones in my neighborhood dress as Haman. The more beautiful dress as Esther. Occasionally, a Vashti costume will be thrown into the mix. But most popular are Mordechai and the King.
My partner Adrian and I live three blocks away from my mother with our newborn girl, Helen Rose. Last year, we remembered to call my mother on Purim to heedÂ the warning: â€śListen Ma, remember if the doorbell rings donâ€™t answer it. Itâ€™s just the kids who like to dance around everyoneâ€™s living room to celebrate Purim.â€ť
My mother ignored us as usual.
â€śHoly cow!â€ť The phone call came from her at 9 p.m. She yelled over the tooting of horns and the rattling of groggers. â€śThe doorbell rang and I thought it was you guys,â€ť she screamed. â€śNext thing I know thereâ€™s about twenty Orthodox Jewish boys dressed as biblical characters dancing around my living room! I gotta go before someone breaks something.â€ť She hung up.
Thatâ€™s how Purim goes in Midwood, Brooklyn.
Adrian, who is Mexican-Catholic, asks me, â€śIs it like Halloween?â€ť
I laugh, â€śWell sort of but we really put Halloween to shame.â€ť And we do. Forget about goblins and ghouls. We make hamantaschen, triangle-shaped cookies thatÂ symbolize Hamanâ€™s death. (Haman wore a hat shaped like a triangle.)
â€śWell, what did you wear for your first Purim?â€ť Adrian enquires. I laugh again and think back.
The first official Purim I celebrated was at the Orthodox Yeshiva I attended as a girl. It was first grade and every girl wanted to go as Esther. Itâ€™s like the newest Disney character but sheâ€™s thousands of years old. I wanted to be different and I hated wearing dresses even though I had to wear one to school every day. Here was my chance to break out! Instead of going to school dressed as Esther like every other girl I went dressed as the castle.
My mother walked me to The Variety Store on Avenue M and Mr. Miller showed me where the colorful oak tag was. I bought two pieces of hot pink oak tagÂ and punched holes in the top of each piece. Then I used string to tie the pieces together and put them over my head. I drew windows and a door and that was it. I was the castle. It was funny but not as funny as Stephen, a boy in my class, who dressed up as Vashti the banished Queen. I think I saw him on Ru Paulâ€™s Drag Race a few years ago.
â€śWeâ€™re not dressing Helen as a castle,â€ť Adrian says.
Â â€śNo kidding,â€ť I answer.
Traditionally speaking, the kids in my neighborhood usually only dress up as characters from the Purim story. I suppose we could put Helen in something different and I suggest this to Adrian.
â€śHow about a piece of challah bread?â€ť he asks.
Â â€śWhat?â€ť I say pretending not to hear him.
Â â€śChallah bread,â€ť he continues, â€śItâ€™s kosher, itâ€™s traditional and itâ€™s my favorite!â€ť
â€śYeah, because thatâ€™s not embarrassing at all,â€ť I add.
Adrian smiles, lifts up the baby and says, â€śChallah por favor!â€ť
Trying to explain Purim is not easy. For starters G-dâ€™s name is not mentioned once in the entire book.Â Does this mean G-d is not present? It actually means the opposite, that G-d is ALWAYS present and for this reason Esther and Mordechai are able to save the Jewish people. Also, thereâ€™s the part about the Megillah. The Megillah is the scroll of Esther and tells the Purim story. This scroll is read on the evening Purim begins as well as the next morning. In Midwood, young Orthodox Jewish boys of about 10 and 12 years old stop people on the street to ask:
â€śAre you Jewish?â€ť
Â On my walk to my motherâ€™s house every year I answer, â€śYes.â€ť
Â Then the boys say, â€śHave you heard the Megillah this year?â€ť
Because I do not attend synagogue on Purim I say no and they ask to read the entire scroll of Esther to me standing on the corner of East 23rd Street and Avenue M.
The scroll of Esther can take some time and there is even a Jewish saying, â€śItâ€™s like he read the whole Megillah,â€ť referring to how long something can take. But, every year I say, â€śYes, boys, please read.â€ť
And this is the most beautiful part of Purim. That two boys who are 10Â and 12Â years old know it is a good deed to read the story of Esther to a wandering Jew on the streets of Brooklyn. And because they are Yeshiva boys they speed read their Hebrew out loud as if to prove the â€śwhole Megillahâ€ť saying wrong.
This year I canâ€™t wait to take the baby on a walk through the streets of Midwood during Purim. I wonder what those boys will say. â€śIs she Jewish?â€ť
Â â€śYes,â€ť I will answer.
Â â€śHas she heard the Megillah this year?â€ť
Â And because she does not attend synagogue with her mother on Purim I will say no and they will ask to read the entire scroll of Esther to her. Then they will ask, â€śWhat will you dress her up as?â€ť and I will smile and say, â€śChallah bread, we were thinking challah breadâ€¦or a hamantaschen cookie.â€ť
Happy Purim, everyone! From the Mexican-American-Jewish-Newborn and her family.
Before I had daughters, I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted to raise them. Â I had been raised with what I considered exceptional feminist ideals, and I planned to do a knock-out job of solidifying my future daughtersâ€™ self-image as strong, powerful human beings who could do anything they wanted, for whom gender would be an afterthought.
Of course, as many women more prolific and eloquent than I have written, this is unfortunately still very difficult work and, as I have now found, a lot easier in premeditation than in implementation with actual living daughters. Still, I am trying my very best to both be a model for my girls and to intercept the stimuli coming at them to help them interpret it toward positive self-image development.
I share this as a context for my thinking about this yearâ€™s spring holidays. Our family had a very fun Purim. It can be a wonderful holiday, full of jubilant storytelling, costuming and fun. After all, it is a holiday in which we are instructed to party. It celebrates a great triumph – the salvation of our people – with a strong female hero.
But the Purim story is also complicated, and this year I felt these complications as I dwelled on how my girls will learn the story as they grow. Â There is so much for them to learn from Esther about her great courage, her strategic thinking and her triumph. Simultaneously, there are some real doozies in the story. Esther wins her place by the kingâ€™s side not through a respectful, loving courtship, but through a beauty contest. To varying degrees, King Ahasuerus, Haman and Vashti are all sizably complex and challenging for children and adults alike.
I couldnâ€™t take it all on this year, but I tried to start with Vashti. When I was growing up, Vashti was portrayed as a villain, but her primary villainous act was refusing to entertain her husbandâ€™s guests on demand. Regardless of what more dynamic layers were beneath the surface in their relationship, on its face this is a pretty bad precedent for my girlsâ€™ future empowerment. So how was Ruthie learning about Vashti, and how could I help her reinterpret the traditional storyline?
Ruthieâ€™s class spent three weeks studying Purim. I asked her what she thought about Vashti. She said she thought she was OK. She just didnâ€™t want to dance for the king, which wasnâ€™t a big deal to Ruthie. She told me that King Ahasuerus and Vashti didnâ€™t agree, so they decided to live in different places. Thatâ€™s pretty good for a start. Later in life, we can talk about how if Ruthie and a future partner have a disagreement, they should try to talk about it and work it out together. But as a baseline, we got a chance to explore together that a woman never needs to do something just because her partner tells her she has to, and that it is OK to leave if you donâ€™t feel safe.
Purim is not unique in its depth of complexities. The ability to interpret, reinterpret and struggle with these stories is part of what makes Judaism so rich. This yearâ€™s processing of the Purim story has emboldened me as I approach Passover, the ultimate story-telling holiday. The Passover story orbits around Moses and Aaron, but there are some very dynamic and important women in the story. I am looking forward to sharing Miriamâ€™s story with Ruthie, for having Chaya be the one to put the orange on our seder plate, and for trying to get to know Pharoahâ€™s daughter a little better this year.
I plan to have a lot of years to explore these stories with my daughters, both for the parts which we will carry with us and which we will leave in the Biblical past. Iâ€™m looking forward to our next stop, sitting around the seder table together.