The Human Spirit: Gone to soldiers and princesses

‘Israeli Purim is a surprising, even startling experience for those who have never experienced it.’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘Israeli Purim is a surprising, even startling experience for those who have never experienced it.’
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
 These are the days in Israel when the last of the laundered Purim costumes are being packed into storage for next year, and Passover prep has begun.
A few thoughts on Purim before tucking this holiday away until 5775, or until the Messiah arrives – whichever comes first. (We all know that Purim is the holiday that is supposed to exist even in the Messianic Age.) The presence of an American cousin on a high-school study program in Israel during this year’s celebrations made me realize once again how Israeli Purim is a surprising, even startling experience for those who have never experienced it. That’s true even for someone who has been receiving an excellent Jewish education in the Diaspora.
It doesn’t appear that the popularity of the holiday has diminished with our growing sophistication and global exposure.
From the beginning of the month of Adar, children and adults feel comfortable wearing costumes and clown makeup in the street. My teenage cousin assumed that the young woman in a bridal gown was indeed getting married.
Where else but in our integrated culture would you see that the local toy store is running a sale on costumes of King David, the high priest and zombies? Tzohar rabbis organized public readings in community centers across the country; women’s readings and family readings flourished in synagogues.
In the capital of our tiny Jewish state, Purim is celebrated on a different date from the rest of the country. Those unsure about this being the Jewish state ought to come here on this holiday.
Where else would one of my grandsons, at 11 years old, choose to impersonate the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, and be pretty sure that his classmates would know who the baron was? His brother, aged five, who dressed as a mini paratrooper in red beret, brought critical comments from the relatives abroad about his parents’ (and grandparents’) permissiveness in allowing him to complete his costume with a plastic version of the semi-automatic the IDF issues to combat soldiers. A local friend fretted over the vast number of preschool princesses and boy soldiers on the street, starting a multi-comment facebook discussion on gender-typing and princess culture. Certain princesses, it was duly noted, qualify as acceptable, while others are deemed poor feminist role models.
Yes, this was a serious discussion – or at least half-serious – not a Purim shpiel.
Here’s what I want to say about Purim: Kids – even little kids – get that this is a special time, when we lighten up on our normal values-heavy upbringing.
My dearest role models in Israel – a couple whose children turned out to be important, responsible citizens – always gave their children cigarettes on Purim. I remember being surprised by this when I arrived as a know-it-all immigrant 40 years ago – but it was their way of ensuring that their children wouldn’t smoke. Their method worked 100 percent. Those former children, who are now grandparents themselves, have applied it with great success to their succeeding generations of non-smokers.
On Purim, some of what we frown upon the rest of the year is allowed.
Now for those who are worried about the ubiquitous princesses and plastic assault weapons: Purim is a holiday about a queen, like it or not. Even the scholarly, pious role model Mordecai gets second billing on this day. Every little girls wants to be Esther – Hadassah – the winner of the Miss Persian Empire contest. And while it’s true that she lives in the most luxurious palace in the world, hers is a highrisk job, requiring skills of diplomacy and strategy.
According to tradition, she can’t even enjoy the food, and goes vegan amidst the lavish feasts. In the ultimate house of cards full of intrigues, she knows how to use her brains, charm and beauty.
Queen Esther can’t wake up in the morning and decide she wants to go home. Brave, brilliant and beautiful, she puts her life on the line. Hence, she needs Uncle Mordecai’s reassurance that if she is condemned to death for approaching King Ahasuerus without permission, someone will take her place in rescuing her people.
Some read Mordecai’s words to her as an admonition, but we women know Esther’s courage never faltered.
Princesses grow up to be queens.
Yes, I know, the international buzz on princesses has to do with Disney culture and commercialism. But do we really have to worry that dressing as gorgeous princesses will injure the psyche of our little girls? Our personal family array of small Purim princesses all have working mothers and grandmothers, and attend religious schools where they get an education on the prim side, as well as a full schedule of after-school enrichment classes that provide everything from jazz dancing to physics. On all days other than Purim, they are preparing for lives with few princess perks. (Not that modern princesses have their feet up these days; they are as busy as most working moms.) And those toy Uzis and M-16s? While we pray that our tiny tots will be engulfed in peace and be able to forgo their parents’ and grandparents’ needs to take up arms, we’re proud that they identify with the IDF. Like the generations before them, they will surely prefer test tubes, surgical scissors and computers to weaponry when they grow up.
Out in the Diaspora, last year the usually somber Orthodox New York assemblyman, Dov Hikind, got into trouble for going to a Purim party dressing as a black basketball player. He wound up making a serious public apology for not being sensitive.
Jewish comedian Jon Stewart had some fun with this on his popular Daily Show, introducing fellow comedian Jessica Williams as the show’s “Senior Purim Correspondent.” Said Williams, “It’s an outrage! John, this is just one more example of the politically correct…‘ War on Purim,’” mocking those who claim there is a “war” being waged against Christmas.
“This holiday is to be celebrated with beautiful costumes of Esther and Mordecai, the heroes in that ancient battle,” the correspondent continued. “Then Dov Hikind goes and trivializes it by dressing up as a basketball player? Okay, correct me if I’m wrong, John, but at what point in the Book of Esther do the Harlem Globetrotters show up? “This is a low-down, dirty shonda. The way this man, Hikind, denigrates Purim.
Okay, John, Purim is the fourth or fifth... seventh... it is the 10th most-important Jewish holiday there is!” Not in Israel.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.