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Purely Purim

[whitespace] Orah Rein and Shalom Bochner
Robert Scheer

Purposeful Fun: Orah Rein (left) blows a shofar as Shalom Bochner looks on; spirited noise-making is an integral part of the Purim festival.

The little-known Jewish festival of Purim is a time to expect the unexpected

By Mary Spicuzza

'HOW OFTEN IN JUDAISM or any faith," Shalom Bochner asks, "can one walk into a house of worship and see an entire congregation in masquerade, making loud noises to drown out words of a holy book--some drinking to extreme intoxication--all in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment?" The image Bochner, Judaica Director of Los Gatos' Yavneh School, evokes probably doesn't match the way most people envision a synagogue, but the festival of Purim is a time to expect the unexpected.

"Purim celebrates that the world is never as it seems," local Orthodox Rabbi Naftali Citron explains. "You can think you're on top of the world and watch everything fall apart. Then the moment you think death is near, you can find yourself on top of the world."

Purim brings such lessons to life each spring. The festival falls, according to the Hebrew lunar calendar, on the 14th of the month of Adar. This year, Purim begins at sundown on Wednesday (March 11) and continues through sundown on Thursday. Taking place one month between Tu'Bishvat (the holiday celebrating trees and nature) and Passover, Purim appropriately coincides with the full moon.

Purim's name stems from the word pur, meaning "lots," and is derived from the Biblical tale of Haman, a wicked politician who used a lottery (pur) to decide when to begin his genocide of all the Jewish peoples living in Persia. Most people wouldn't view this dire story as an occasion to throw a party, but then again, Purim is a holiday like no other.

Although celebrations vary depending on whether a congregation is Reformed, Conservative or Orthodox, observance of Purim centers around a reading of the megillah, or scroll of Esther. Rituals include an afternoon of vivacious feasting and gift-giving to friends and strangers, and noise-making prevails throughout evening synagogue services.

The holiday traditionally includes spirited masquerade, self-mocking theatrical performances and lively music. And for those who strictly follow the Talmud, a small community of fewer than one hundred Orthodox or Conservative Jews living in Santa Cruz, there's even heavy consumption of alcohol.

Yet unlike other wild costume parties, Purim weaves beautiful spiritual messages into the apparent madness. And to chalk up the holiday as a wannabe Mardi Gras for Jews would be to ignore Purim's religious and scriptural significance.

Queen of Smarts

THE PURIM TALE, as related in the biblical scroll of Esther, tells of a Persian queen living in approximately 500 B.C.E. Esther is married to King Achashverosh, or Ahasuerus, a biblical equivalent of Homer Simpson with a worse drinking problem.

Esther's tale begins with marital trouble between the king and his first wife, Vashti. The dull-witted king, after being convinced by his advisers to execute Queen Vashti for refusing to dance naked at one of his drunken parties, holds a mandatory beauty contest to pick a new lucky lady to head his harem. Beautiful and brilliant Esther reluctantly agrees to go to the king's palace in the town of Shushan after learning that refusal to participate means death. As soon as he sees her, the smitten king chooses Esther as his new queen.

What Achashverosh doesn't realize is that Esther is a Jew, and Esther's wise guardian, Mordechai (in some accounts her cousin, in others her uncle), instructs her to keep her heritage hidden. But the royal honeymoon ends quickly when King Achashverosh names Haman as his top adviser. Haman, infuriated when Mordechai the Jew refuses to bow in his presence, plots to slaughter any Jew found within the Persian Empire.

It is Mordechai who convinces terrified Esther that she alone can save the thousands of Jews living in the kingdom. While wining and dining her husband and Haman with revels, Esther reveals the fact that Haman's plans for genocide would bring death to her and her kin. The king, enraged anyone would dare murder his queen--without his permission, that is--hangs Haman. And the Jews of the enormous kingdom are saved, or rather are permitted to fight for their lives against Haman's 75,000 rabid followers in order to win survival.

One might wonder, since there are no historical records documenting this legend, how we hear Esther's tale today.

"Queen Esther then went to the rabbis of her time and instructed them, saying, 'Establish me for the generations,' " explains Rabbi Citron.

And the rest is scripture.

David Levy
Robert Scheer

Rock & Roll Purim: David Levy, 8, practices with his Congregation Kol Tefillah classmates.

Reality Bites

WHEN WE MEET, Rabbi Citron, director of Santa Cruz's Jewish Learning Center, has just finished inspecting the downtown Noah's New York Bagels. He regularly makes the rounds to make sure everything is, ah, kosher--that is, when he's not organizing workshops, Bible study groups and Hebrew lessons for the 3-year-old center.

"Looking for ham, ya know," the 26-year-old rabbi shrugs humbly.

"Ever bust them with Spam?" I ask.

"No. Spam is kosher," Citron jokes with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

While noshing our Noah's, Citron explains that there's some debate over whether the story chronicled in the scroll of Esther ever really took place.

"I definitely believe it happened," Citron says. "It was between the destruction of the first and second temples. In what is present-day Iran, people speak of a town that was once known as Shushan."

Shalom Bochner also tells of numerous people he encountered while in the Middle East who firmly believe that Esther really lived and who speak of a town in Iran now known to locals as Shusha, or Susa.

"There are no outside records of King Achashverosh ever ruling Persia during that time, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have happened," Bochner says.

Orli Loewenberg, Bochner's partner, who also teaches at Yavneh, has crystal-clear ideas about the issue: "I don't think it matters. It's the message that matters."

Most participants agree that the point of Purim isn't whether its scriptural foundation is fact or fiction but rather the lessons that can be learned from the festival, which has been celebrated since Babylonian times.

"Jews scattered within a given country--facing the threat of annihilation--is a theme to which Jews of any time period can relate," Rabbi Citron says, referring to important messages found within the scroll of Esther.

"There is an element of coercion to Judaism. If someone is born a Jew, they have no choice. They had to say yes," the rabbi adds, looking wise beyond his 26 years. "Purim is a time we accept the Torah from the inside."

Solely on Purim do members of the Jewish community encourage mockery of that which is most sacred to Judaism, including the Torah, the Talmud and rabbis themselves. The theory goes that by making fun of the Torah and that which is held sacred the rest of the year, Jews avoid becoming sanctimonious about faith and holy teachings.

Michael Strassfeld, author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide & Commentary, writes, "The Talmud says that we fully accept the Torah only on Purim, for only when we can mock the tradition can we fully accept it."

Irreverent Reverence

PURIM PARTIERS ARE encouraged to bring noisemakers, known as graggers, to services. Whenever Haman's name is read, yelling and noise erupt as attendees fulfill the curse Yimah shmo--"May his name be erased."

Parodies of the Talmud and other traditional texts, especially the scroll of Esther, poke fun at centuries-old Jewish traditions. Last year the children of Congregation Kol Tefillah's Religious School in Santa Cruz presented Purim on Broadway, complete with Haman's character singing his own twisted version of "My Favorite Things."

This year Congregation Kol Tefillah's Purim play, or shpiel, will be set to a rock & roll theme and include Esther busting out into a soulful rendition of "Stop! In the Name of God" after Mordechai serenades, "Help Me, Esther," a la the Beach Boys.

But what may surprise outsiders the most about Purim is the idea of even the most strait-laced members of the conservative Jewish communities cutting loose for a night of drunken revelry. Rather than bizarre, though, the Talmudic dictum to drink until the line blurs between "blessed is Mordechai" and "cursed is Haman" reveals the transcendent nature of the holiday. This state, known as ad de-lo-yada, is a time when rules and inhibitions are swept away.

"On Purim, we celebrate one time when Jews were saved from persecution," Bochner explains, his ready smile fading into a look of pensive sadness as he reflects on less fortunate times in Jewish history. "By becoming drunk, one attempts to transcend the concepts of good and evil to accept that things simply exist."

Bochner and Loewenberg are both members of Congregation Kol Tefillah, and together they will read the first chapter of Megillat Esther on Wednesday night.

"For me, ad de-lo-yada means eradicating binary thinking," Loewenberg says. "We try to break away from assumptions that there are divisions between me and you, good and evil, past and present."

This drunken bliss is not meant to be ignorant but fully accepting the sometimes harsh realities of the world. "[Orthodox and Conservative] Jews are historically not big consumers of alcohol," Bochner says. "But on Purim night, one can make up for the rest of the year of sobriety."

The Hidden's Meaning

JUST AS THE USUALLY chaotic state of drunkenness plays a very orderly role in Purim celebrations, and has for hundreds of years, every aspect of the celebration--even what seems purely for fun--is imbued with meaning.

"The Book of Esther is the only book of the Bible that never mentions God," Bochner says. "God obviously plays a role, yet one only alluded to and never mentioned."

"The name Esther is actually translated as hidden," Paula Marcus, cantor for Temple Beth-El, later explains. "Throughout the story, the hand of God remains a present but hidden presence." The costumes play with this element of secrecy by hiding identities. "Yet the masks can help reveal what's really inside of us but hidden in daily life," Marcus says.

No Purim celebration is complete without the giving of gifts. Hamantashen, filled cookies mocking Haman, are given as gifts to friends. Besides showing love, the giving of small, edible gifts, or mishloah manot, is meant to build community, so as not to be scattered like Jews living in Persia during Esther's time.

The Talmud also calls for at least two donations to those in need, and says believers should give charity to anyone asking for it, no questions asked or judgments cast regardless of situation.

As the Jewish holy book Midrash Mishle concludes, "When all other festivals will be abolished, Purim will remain."

Throughout the Middle East Purim is widely known as an unconventional yet meaningful holiday. For that reason, two years ago, Hamas terrorists exploded three suicide bombs in Jerusalem just before Purim, killing and wounding hundreds, including a busload of schoolchildren in costumes on their way to Purim celebrations. There was talk of canceling local celebrations, but Bochner and others decided it was necessary to continue with festivities as planned.

Bochner explains, "Celebrating this time when Jews were saved from persecution, and honoring our continued survival in the face of persecution, is what Purim is all about."

Purim Celebrations Around Town

March 11--Fast of Esther
Congregation Kol Tefillah: Purim Celebration, Megillah reading, live band, "Rock 'n Roll Purim" Shpiel, potluck dessert; 6:30pm; 457-0264.
Jewish Learning Center: Traditional Megillah reading and music by Asi Spiegal; Stevenson Fireside lounge, UCSC; 8pm; 459-6073.
Temple Beth El: Purim Madness, Megillah reading and Purim costume party; improv. by the Meggilah-Cutters, Klezmer music by Oyf Kaporeh and a costume contest; 7:30pm; 479-3444.

March 12--Purim
Jewish Learning Center: Purim Celebration with live music by the Moody Jews; Holiday Inn, 611 Ocean St.; 5pm.
Jewish Student Union: Purim Costume Ball; Whole Earth Restaurant, UCSC; 460-0778.
Temple Beth El: Senior seminar discussing issues of prophesy in the Book of Esther, with Rabbi Richard Litvak; 11am.

March 14
Hadeish Yameinu: Purim Party; call Zalmo at 475-3327 for details.

March 15
Temple Beth El: Children's Megillah reading, costume parade and Purim carnival with games and prizes; 10am.

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From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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