The end result was the messiest sanctuary I’ve ever seen – noisemakers, cookie crumbs, dirty napkins, squashed Eiffel Tower boxes, and crumpled wads of tissue paper left forgotten under chairs, around the podium, and in all the side rooms. It looked like a kid’s birthday party that had either been super-fun or gone terribly awry. The rabbis were delighted.
It was the aftermath of Purim at the Chabad House in Asheville, NC. I was fairly familiar with the holiday, in theory, but reading about a holiday and actually attending a celebration are two very distinct experiences – somewhat akin to the discrepancy between reading a book and seeing the movie. Printed words create impressions in our minds, and only some of them are created by the author – even a really gifted one. The remaining bits of our mental sketches get filled in with material from our own experiences – the people we’ve known, the places we’ve been, and the customs that are familiar to us.
Religious celebrations are no exception. I research most of them on line. I read factual articles, blog posts, and news stories. I find You Tube videos of the songs, chants, and instrumentals. I squint at the pictures so I know what to wear. In the end, however, there’s no replacing the real thing.
Purim celebrates Esther, the Jewish queen of Ahasuerus, a Persian king. Her story is told in the book of Esther, found in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Through various circumstances, Haman, a prince, was accorded a special honor: everyone in the realm was ordered to bow to him as he passed by. Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, who raised her as a daughter, refused. Furious, Haman convinced the king to issue a proclamation ordering the complete destruction of all the Jews in the land. Esther reveals that she is Jewish and asks the king to save her, which he does. The king, recognizing Haman’s treachery, orders him hung on the gallows that Haman had constructed for Mordecai. Since the original proclamation cannot be revoked, Esther persuades the king to write a second edict allowing the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies. The Jews succeed in decimating their adversaries, and Esther is credited with saving her people from almost-certain destruction. Purim is celebrated every year on the 13th of Adar, the date the Jews were originally scheduled to be terminated.
This year, Purim fell on March 5th (meaning it began at sundown on March 4th). My research indicated that the holiday involves several customs:
- Reading the entire book of Esther.
- Making noise, in a sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show kind of way, whenever the name Haman is read.
- Wearing masks or costumes to reflect the “masquerading” and “costume changes” that happen to all the major characters in the story.
- Eating hamantaschen, the three-cornered pastries named after the evil Haman.
Armed with my google-based knowledge, I was all set to attend the event. I retrieved a couple of noise-makers and a couple of masquerade masks from my basement and headed out for the Chabad House. Their web site indicated that the theme was Purim in Paris – whatever that meant.
When I arrived, the parking lot was full, and I could see various people meandering about inside. No one was wearing a mask! I decided to leave mine in the car. I could always come back out and retrieve one if I needed to.
When I entered, the place was literally buzzing with activity. The folding chairs were set up, but not in the usual configuration. The Chabad House is an orthodox Jewish community; during Shabbat services, men sit on one side, women on the other. Tonight, however, everyone was interspersed. On each chair, there was a plastic kazoo, a booklet containing the story of Esther in Hebrew and in English, and a little box folded up to create an Eiffel Tower. Inside each box was a single hamantasch that I promptly ate. There are all sorts of hamantaschen recipes on line, and on several occasions, we’ve made a simple version with the kids in our Nurture Program. They are always quite tasty, but not like this one! This one was the kosher, made-in-NYC, melt-in-your mouth kind. Amazing! I congratulated myself on pre-ordering a case of them to share with the kids in our program on Sunday.
The Chabad House kids were running around, and many wore costumes. They were Halloween-like costumes representing dinosaurs, princesses, tigers, and super-heroes. The usual fare. A few of the young adults were also in costume, but no one wore a mask. It was looking like I wouldn’t need to walk back out to my car after all. Many families were also toting gift bags topped with tissue paper and presumably filled with gifts.
Soon after my arrival, the senior rabbi asked everyone to take a seat. Their physical space is not that big, so I was feeling a bit like a kosher sardine. The new, younger rabbi was charged with reading the entire Esther scroll in Hebrew. I was very curious to see how long this would take, especially since I was under the impression that we would make noise every time Haman’s name was read. I’ve read the book of Esther several times, and his name is mentioned fairly frequently! On top of that, the story was going to be read in Hebrew – not your run-of-the-mill Hebrew, but the very fast Hebrew spoken in orthodox communities. Most orthodox folks speak some – often a lot – of Hebrew, but following along with the story and jumping in, on cue, with our noise-makers was going to require a fair bit of concentration and alacrity. As it turns out, that’s not quite the way it was done.
The senior rabbi, in an effort to get everyone on the same page, explained a few things beforehand. Actually, there were quite a few instructions. First, we practiced making noise with our noise-makers. When he raised his hand and made noise, we were to make noise. When he put his hand down, we were to stop. I was starting to feel like a girl scout at summer camp. They also had a paper-and-pencil game for the kids to play while the Esther story was being read. The rabbi also explained that we would not be making noise at every mention of Haman’s name. That would happen only a few times and only when he signaled us to do so. Finally, he indicated that at various points in the story we would read aloud together in English – sentences in bold, the first sentence of each chapter, etc. This seemed a good strategy for keeping everyone on track.
And then we began. It took only about 20 minutes for the rabbi to read the entire scroll. It was unbelievably fast. I’m not sure I could read it aloud in English that quickly. From where I sat, all seemed to go as planned. We listened and tried to follow along. The kids completed their activity. We made noise when were supposed to and stopped when we were supposed to (more or less). And by the end, pretty much everyone had eaten their hamantaschen in the Eiffel Tower boxes.
Then the party began. There was a buffet table full of kosher food, and there were a couple of craft activities for the kids based on the Purim in Paris theme – painting a picture on a small easel and building Eiffel Towers out of wafer cookies and peanut butter. There was also entertainment – a mime who also performed magic tricks. People ate and visited while the kids ran around and opened their gift bags. I did what I usually do…ask questions.
I asked the rabbi why no one was wearing masks. He pointed out the kids in costumes, but I persisted, “What about the masks. I keep reading that people wear masks, and there are no masks!” I wasn’t very good at hiding my disappointment, especially since I had a couple of really cool masks languishing in the back seat of my car. “The important thing is to wear something other than your everyday clothes.” At least the kids were following the custom.
I also asked the rabbi’s wife, who is in charge of the kids’ program, about the gift bags. “Oh, the kids bring gifts for other kids.” I would have called it a Secret Santa, but those aren’t the words she used. They had drawn names in advance, so they knew who they were buying for, but not who they would get a gift from.
After a couple of hours, everyone began trickling out. It was a friendly, joyful, and welcoming event. After all, this is a happy holiday in the Jewish tradition. And, as always, I learned a lot. Surely there are differences in how any given Jewish community honors Purim, just as there are differences in the way any given community celebrates Easter. For example, this synagogue went with the Paris theme this year. But I am equally certain that there are basic similarities, practiced in Jewish communities around the world, that remain central to nearly every celebration – reading Esther, making noise in response to Haman’s name, and eating hamantaschen. It’s what binds the Jewish people to one another and to their long history. As an outsider, I catch only a glimpse of that rich tradition, but it’s more than I would get from sitting alone in my office. Research is helpful, but it can’t replace the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of actually sharing in the occasion. And if I hadn’t actually attended, I never would have known about that post-party mess that someone most certainly cleaned up before the Sabbath.