Purim, all fun and games?

One can't help but wonder if we're missing the real holiday message.

purim 88 224 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
purim 88 224
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Israeli society could benefit from deeper discussion of the violence that comes up in Megillat Esther, especially toward the end of the book, as well as issues of revenge, feminism and even alcohol abuse - Rabbi David Lazar Purim is upon us once again. Toy stores in central Israel tell the usual tale: Whereas 30 and 40 years ago, parents and children used to make most costumes at home, nowadays the overriding majority buy a packaged product. The most popular costumes are, as always, the year's favorite TV heroes: Dora is still riding high among girls, though some shops report that the costume is less popular than it was last year; ditto for Sponge Bob among boys. Other popular costumes for boys: Caribbean - and other - pirates are still in, as are warriors, Power Rangers, and even "oldies" like Batman and Spiderman. Some also dress as the TV character Yuval Hamevulbal ("Confused Yuval"), whose show has been a big hit with younger Israeli children for the past two years or so. Israeli girls have apparently not heard much about feminism, and are still flocking to fairy tale heroines, including old-fashioned princesses: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Tinkerbell and more modern princess incarnations like Bratz. Toddlers, whose costumes can still be influenced by their parents' taste, can be seen dressed as ladybugs, bees, Teletubby figures, and - of course - a variety of Disney figures such as Dumbo, Bambi and Winnie the Pooh. Schools, too, are offering the usual Purim activities. These range from "dress-up days" to Purim parties or festivals. "Dress-up days" take place in the days preceding Purim. Children are allowed to come to school dressed with a zest, with each day dedicated to a different theme - "hats and glasses," "pajama day," "boys dress as girls and girls as boys." The fairs usually include game stations run by parents, where children can play and possibly win prizes. Some schools hire additional entertainment, such as a play or circus. High schools often host costume contests. As Israel's culinary awareness continues to grow, newspapers are reporting an ever-expanding variety of hamantashen being sold in both simple and boutique bakeries. The traditional ear-shaped Purim pastry used to be filled with either poppy seed spread or jam. Eventually, chocolate was added as a special option. Over time, however, more daring recipes have evolved. This year offers up fillings such as dates, banana, halva (sesame paste), prunes with wine, nuts, and more. In keeping with tradition, municipalities put on a variety of street fairs and neighborhood-based activities. The largest ones are the well-known Ad Lo Yada carnival in Holon and the Tel Aviv street fair. The latter used to take place on Dizengoff St., but this year has been moved to Ben-Yehuda St. The Tel Aviv Municipality Spokesperson's office told Metro the fair was moved in order to provide a sense of variety and innovation. And, of course, Tel Aviv's clubs and bars offer a huge variety of Purim parties of many different sorts. Is this what it's all about? Has the Purim experience in secular Tel Aviv devolved to a point where it all boils down to school, street and neighborhood fairs, commercialized costumes and fancy hamantashen? To be fair, there are activities that offer a more religious perspective. The Tel Aviv Municipality does also offer a public reading of the Megillat Esther on the city's Rothschild Blvd., with Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau in attendance. Beit Daniel, home to the city's Reform movement, the Masorti movement and a variety of modern Jewish schools such as the Alma Home for Hebrew Culture do offer lectures, parties and activities of a more religious and thought-provoking nature. And some of the secular schools try to relate to the deeper meaning of this holiday, preparing mishloah manot (Purim parcels) for children in Sderot. However, when Metro asked nine-year-old Omri, a fairly typical north Tel Aviv boy, what were the first thoughts that sprang to his mind in reference to the word "Purim," he was quick to respond: "Mainly costumes. And fun." Omri can, of course, explain why we celebrate Purim ("because we won, defeating Haman's plan. Mordechai saved the Jewish people.") But the sense one gets from looking at most of the activities that the majority of secular Israelis might attend, is that they focus on the same two items Omri mentioned - costumes and fun. Not that there's anything wrong with that. For many years, Purim has been closely associated with these two elements. But could there be more to Purim? Should there be more? Rabbi David Lazar of the Masorti Kehilat Tiferet Shalom discusses such issues with adults and with pupils in several north Tel Aviv schools. Speaking with Metro, Lazar described these discussions as ways to make Purim relevant to the modern Israeli secular Jewish community. For example, Lazar seems uncomfortable with what he views as the oversimplified and possibly violent Purim message of "we won." He says that although he usually fosters an open attitude in his community, and allows all sorts of costumes during Purim, he does not permit toy guns in his congregation, even on this holiday. He believes Israeli society could benefit from deeper discussion of the violence that comes up in Megillat Esther, especially toward the end of the book, as well as issues of revenge, feminism and even alcohol abuse. Lazar says discussing these issues can offer us fresh perspectives on topics that are important to contemporary Israeli society, making Purim more relevant to modern-day life. Lazar says: "It's about examining our values." When asked about the focus on Purim as a holiday of fairs and costumes, Lazar says that the fun aspects are good, but recommends that we look into the holiday's deeper meanings. "What do kids want to dress up as, what's happening when a kid dresses up? We should try to understand that from an educational point of view… I think this is an opportunity as parents and as teachers, before Purim, to enrich ourselves in that way." Lazar said that in searching for deeper meaning, Purim (and other holidays) could serve "as a springboard to better yourself as a person, as a couple, as a family, as a community, as society… Not getting stuck on the irrelevant stuff… not getting stuck on hamantashen being the important part. Sure, hamantashen are important, kids are waiting for them, people love it… but that can't be what it's all about." Lazar discussed the four Purim mitzvot (they are called mitzvot, although they are not stipulated in the Torah) and how they can be practiced in ways relevant to secular Jews. The first of the four is reading the megilla, emphasizing the direct contact with the biblical sources. "Not hearing the story [of Esther, Mordechai, and Haman] from the [nursery school teacher]… not seeing a movie about it, not even listening to the audio book, but actually reading the megilla, studying some of the text." Lazar notes that Purim "in particular, more than the other holidays… revolves around a particular text. And dealing with this text in a direct manner I think is an important value of being a Jew." The second Purim mitzva is mishte, which Lazar describes as "making a feast, sitting down to a sacred meal full of joy, but it's not joy for the sake of getting drunk or eating well [in and of itself… rather] it's celebrating the survival of human beings being persecuted… or if you want to be narrow about it: survival of the Jews." Turning to the mitzva of mishloah manot, ("sending a meal" - usually carried out by delivering parcels of treats), Lazar points out an interesting aspect of Jewish law, which mandates that "if you're poor, and you don't have anything to give somebody else, you take whatever you have for that meal, and you exchange meals. I remember in yeshiva we used to do that," he recalls. Perhaps most relevant these days is the last mitzva, matanot l'evyonim. Lazar says this last obligation is about finding "a relevant and non-patronizing way of bringing poor people into the picture, and emphasizing that today, poor may not mean financially." He says that he seeks to extend the definition of "poor" to include those disadvantaged from a social standpoint. "I told the kids in first grade they should think about somebody in their [apartment] building. Maybe there's an older person in the building who doesn't have grandchildren around, doesn't have children around…" Lazar says he tells the children that these would be the people they might want to deliver mishloah manot to, or even to go in and talk to. "That's a form of matanot l'evyonim, [giving to] people who are on the periphery of [society]… those are the kind of things that dawn on me around Purim time," he adds. In this day and age, living in a society that focuses largely on computers and materialistic goals and seems to reward youth and beauty over wisdom and integrity, perhaps Purim is as good a time as any to review and even renegotiate our values.