Purim is More Than Costumes

by Sabrina Spector, Katz JCC Cultural Director

Purim is such a fun holiday filled with laughter, great food, music, costumes and lots of candy.  To the general public, it almost looks as if it is the Jewish version of Halloween.  Halloween is a great holiday according to every kid and dentist across the nation but Purim is a different story entirely, quite literally.   I recently had a conversation with someone who made me rethink how I would explain the differences between the two holidays.  With the assistance of Google, I came across this great article written by ESTHER D. KUSTANOWITZ on myjewishlearning.com:

The story is written in a scroll, the reading of which is one of the holiday’s most basic components. The story is about being in the right place at the right time, and interestingly enough, God barely even plays an onstage role. Righteousness is rewarded with royalty and evil punished with death. A perfect Hollywood tale, driven by named characters from opening titles to closing credits. Purim is good. Purim, for lack of a better word, works. We identify with the heroes of Purim and see them in our mind’s eye; we carry the story with us as we party into the night and feast during the day that follows.

But our partying is not without accountability. The traditions of Purim, not always observed by costumed revelers, are sending packages of food to one’s neighbors (mishloach manot) and gifts to the poor (matanot la’evyonim). These traditions add a social service element to the celebration: Although we acknowledge the importance of a good party, we also recognize our responsibility to others.  So many times at the JCC we add the need to bring food for the JFCS pantry.  We do it because there is an unfortunate need and because we do want to acknowledge that while we are very fortunate to be celebrating together, there are still many in need in our backyard.

The one thing that Halloween and Purim really have in common is the propensity of celebrants to dress up in costume. But on Purim, these costumes have a meaning: They reflect the theme of hiddenness in the Megillah, the scroll that is read aloud on Purim. Any former student of high school English can tell you that “appearance versus reality” is often a key literary theme; similarly in the Purim story, at the end of which nothing is what it initially seemed to be.

Queen Esther hides her Jewish identity from her husband the king, Haman recommends to the king a reward that he thinks he will receive and which is, instead, given to his arch-enemy Mordecai. A gallows that Haman prepares for Mordecai becomes the site of his own execution. (Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?) The name “Esther” has as its Hebrew root “seter,” meaning hiddenness or secrecy. Even the name of God is hidden, as it appears nowhere in the text of the Megillah. Some readers identify one verse where a reference to God can be inferred, but there is no direct reference to God or divine power.  Costumes on Purim possess an entirely different meaning than those commissioned by Halloween. 

Hopefully, you have an opportunity to check out the great costumes offered in the JCC lobby now through Sunday, March 24 (courtesy of Rasta Imposta) and will show them off at our Purim Bingo masquerade ball on Sunday, March 24.

And then there is the all-important and traditional overindulgence in alcohol. Allow me to offer you an argument in favor of alcoholic libations. Wine and feasting are thematic elements throughout the Purim story. Even in excess and revelry, there is an implied limit to our indulgence: We read the Megillah twice, once at night before the party, and again the following morning. The implicit message is, “drink ’em if you got ’em, but remember that you have to show up for services in the morning.”

The Purim wine is not just about getting a little high. Wine, and feasting in general, are signs of freedom, luxury, and affluence. This Purim, eat, drink, be merry, and if you want to, wear a costume–but also be a mensch. Know the story behind the holiday and keep an eye on the less fortunate.

Have a wonderful Purim filled with laughter, joy, and meaning.

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