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Purim: When You Can Throw a Sponge at the Rabbi's Face

February, 2007

As a Christian dad helping to raise a Jewish family, I've always been fascinated by the holiday of Purim. With everyone dressing up in costumes, the holiday has seemed to me to be a kind of springtime Halloween. However, instead of honoring ghosts, goblins, and other such things, Purim celebrates the Jewish people's ability to live on during a time when they could have been wiped out. My wife and I feel that this is an accessible, kid-friendly holiday that our whole family can enjoy. Plus, with all of the costumes, goodies to eat, and the carnival atmosphere, what's not to like?

Molly Keen throwing a sponge at Rabbi Levy's face...

Purim is considered a relatively minor Jewish holiday, but you'd never know it from the celebration at our synagogue. All of the kids, many adults, and even Rabbi Levy dress up in costume. It is traditional to look like a character from the Scroll (megillah) of Esther, which contains the Purim story. But many people stray from this custom, and it is not uncommon to see congregants dressed as bees, Martians, or Disney princesses. In the past, Rabbi Levy has read the megillah dressed as a cowboy, leprechaun, and other wild characters. Once, when he and I both showed up as pirates, he immediately challenged me to a swordfight.

With everyone in crazy costumes, you can imagine how long it takes for the crowd to settle down to hear the reading of the Purim story. My daughters Gabby and Molly, who are both in elementary school, are giddy with excitement. Even though they've heard the megillah many times before, we feel that they can learn something new each year. Not only does the megillah tell a tale of good triumphing over evil, but it's also a story of an interfaith couple: the Persian king, Ahashuerus, and his Jewish wife, Esther. In this case, the king and queen avoid the whole "how will we raise the kids?" issue for a while as Esther doesn't reveal that she is Jewish until she needs to risk doing so to save her people. When she finally does tell the king that she is Jewish, it's in the nick of time. The prime minister, Haman, had a plan to kill all of the Jews. But when he learns that his own wife is Jewish, Ahashuerus squelches the plan and instead does away with Haman.

 

...and just missing!

While Purim sends positive messages to our children, we also like it because it is a perfect holiday for my Christian side of the family to see that there is more to Judaism than Hanukkah. Since it is a temple-based holiday, it's a great opportunity for our daughters to show their Christian grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins where they go to religious school and Hebrew school. Every Christmas, my daughters see their cousins perform their pageant at church, so I know that they are excited to showcase one of their own holidays on their own turf.

With the carnival that follows the megillah reading, Purim is a nice time for our whole family to mingle with other congregants and the rabbi in a festive atmosphere. My mom loves this holiday because she enjoys seeing Gabby and Molly so involved in the reading of the Purim story. She also likes the novelty of it all. "At church, we have get-togethers for some things, but Purim is unique," she tells me. "Bible stories rarely get told with such enthusiasm. Telling the story in this manner helps me remember it," she says laughing. In addition, my mom gets a kick out of wondering what Rabbi Levy will dress up as every year. "He's such a fun person to be around."

At the carnival in the social hall Gabby, Molly, and their Christian cousins play games. One of the kids' favorites is throwing wet sponges at the rabbi, who peers his face through a cutout drawing of evil Haman. After soaking Rabbi Levy, it's off to fish for Tootsie Rolls and lollipops.

As if this celebration didn't have enough sugar, we blissfully nosh (snack) on the traditional pastries called hamantashen. These triangular-shaped treats have a filling of sweet poppy seeds, apricots, or prunes. I'm sure that they are not an integral part of any diet plan. However, someone always twists my arm, and I end up eating about fifteen of them. My nieces have their fair share, too.

By the end of the evening, the kids and I are enjoying a grand sugar buzz, soon to be followed by a carb coma. The sacrifice is worth it, though--even if I did lose the swordfight. Just wait until next year; I'll be first in line with my wet sponge. Yes, Purim is a favorite with our entire family.

 

Yiddish for "Haman's pockets," and shaped after the three-corner hat of Haman (the villain of the Purim story), these are triangular cookies with poppy seed, jam or fruit filling in the middle. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "scroll," usually refers to the Scroll of Esther ("Megillat Esther"), the biblical book read on the holiday of Purim. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Jim Keen

Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.

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