Too many of us think of Purim as a pediatric holiday. Let’s face it – Purim is fun. We give and get gifts of food, including lots of sweets. We wear costumes, don’t have to sit still in synagogue, and make noise during the Megillah reading. It’s a perfect holiday to engage children, so much so, that we sometimes forget to refocus our celebration when we grow up.
And that’s a mistake. Reducing Purim to a children’s day of dressing up, eating sweets, and running around is a disservice to the complicated story and its potential lessons.
What’s the story? The Purim story is a classical farce with exaggerated characters, mistaken identity, miscommunication, and happenstance. It includes elements of drunkenness, sex, political intrigue, human trafficking, rape, Jew hatred, and violence. It tells about dangerous times, when a royal decree can incite common people to rise up in widespread violence against their neighbors. It really isn’t a children’s story at all. If it were made into a movie today, it would have to come with a trigger warning.
The characters are complicated. Is King Ahasuerus a drunken buffoon or a shrewd ruler? Is the banished Queen Vashti a disobedient wife or a strong, powerful woman who stands up for herself and sets an example for other women? Is Mordecai a simple man who adopted his unfortunate, orphaned cousin or a well-connected man, experienced in court politics and intrigue? And our hero, Esther. Is she a simple, beautiful girl playing to win a game of The Bachelor? Or a clever, powerful woman in her own right who maneuvers a dangerous situation to her own benefit? Only the villain, Haman, appears to be one-dimensional. He is ambitious, arrogant, jealous, conniving, and hateful.
But the Purim story is filled with messages and symbolism, including the meaning of diaspora and assimilation, the hidden nature of God in post-Biblical times, free will, feminism, antisemitism, and humanity’s role in creating our own destiny. Again, not really a children’s story.
Purim Evolves: The events of the Purim story are purported to have happened about 500 BCE or about twenty five hundred years ago. The story is first mentioned in the Book of Maccabees about four hundred years later and clearly celebrated in some form by the early years of the common era.
Purim is a great example of how Jewish practice grows and changes over time. New customs for celebrating Purim were added over many hundreds of years, leading to our modern celebrations which mimic various aspects of the story with copious consumption of booze, costumes that hide our identity, a celebratory meal, gifts of food, ridiculous plays, noisy audience participation in the retelling of the tale, and more recently, parades including floats in Israel. (What Is Purim? The History Behind the Halloween of Jewish Holidays, by Elon Gilad, published in Haaretz, March 20, 2019)
It appears that the earliest celebrations were simply public readings of the story. Later, the Rabbis of the Talmud added drinking wine, merry making, and giving gifts to the poor, which is mentioned in the Megillah. For a time, during the fifth century, Jews burned Haman in effigy, but the practice was dropped when Christian neighbors mistook the act as symbolic burning of Jesus. Ta’anit Esther, the practice of fasting the day before Purim is first mentioned in the late sixth century. Seven hundred years later, German and French rabbis mention the act of making noise during the reading of the story, first with foot stomping and later with special noisemakers, called groggers. In the following centuries, communities began masquerading in costume, baking stuffed cookies (which became hamantaschen), and performing Purim spiels - skits or short plays that poke light-hearted fun.
What does Purim mean? The megillah tells a story that includes specific details which place it in Persia about 500 BCE. Yet, there is no mention of these events in records of other peoples from that time-period. Even some Rabbis of the Talmudic period thought the story might be more of a parable or historical fiction, written to offer lessons and hope to Jews living in diaspora.
So, what are those lessons? There are so many. I encourage you to do your own research; read the megillah text and look for commentary online.
I want to talk about Esther. When we meet her, she is described as a beautiful young virgin. Although, modern commentary often describes her as assimilated, the text doesn’t say that or even imply it. In fact, she hides her identity as a Jew only because her adoptive father, Mordechai, tells her to. And Midrash says that she kept a vegetarian diet to avoid non-kosher food.
She does not voluntarily go to the palace; she is rounded up with other girls for the king to choose a new wife. After some months of involuntary confinement, she is presented to the lecherous king, who presumably has his way with her. She is his favorite of all the girls whom he captured, and he crowns her as his queen.
She seems powerless to control her own destiny, but as soon as her people, the Jews of the empire, are threatened, she realizes her power in her position close to the king. After a lifetime of doing as Mordechai bid, she finally tells him what to do. “Go, assemble all the Jews to be found in Shushan, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.” She also fasts, along with her maids, over whom she also has power.
She succeeds in telling the king about a plot to assassinate him and she eventually pleads her case for the king to protect the Jews from annihilation. Esther teaches us about stepping up. She is not the weak, pretty plaything the king and everyone else thinks she is. She is a brave, clever woman who wielded her power delicately and effectively. She teaches us that one individual CAN make a difference. She teaches us that hiding our identity can lead to disaster. She teaches us to stand up for ourselves as individuals and to stand up for ourselves as proud Jews.
For your Purim festive meal, try serving food that isn’t what it seems. These two recipes turn savory and sweet upside down.
Makes 8 servings
Adapted from Family Fun magazine, April 2008
1 frozen or refrigerated pie crust
For the Filling
⅓ C barbecue sauce
¼ C parve plant-based milk, unsweetened
1 TBSP dark molasses
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa
½ tsp chili powder
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 TBSP neutral oil
½ tsp each salt, pepper, celery powder
⅔ C breadcrumbs
1¼ LBS ground beef
1 egg, slightly beaten
For the Topping
2 LBS Russet potatoes, peeled & cubed
½ C canned sliced beets (not pickled)
¼ C parve plant-based milk, warmed
4 TBSP mayonnaise
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine barbecue sauce, parve milk, molasses, cocoa & chili powder. Whisk together until warm and cocoa is completely dissolved. Set aside.
3. Sauté onion in oil until translucent, about 7 minutes.
4. In a large bowl, combine salt, celery powder, pepper & breadcrumbs.
5. Add ground beef, egg, sauce mixture & onion. Combine thoroughly.
6. Place frozen pie shell in oven-safe pie dish. Fill with meat mixture; spread evenly.
7. Bake until meat is cooked through, about 1 hour.
8. While pie is baking, make mashed potato topping. Boil potatoes until tender, about 12 minutes.
9. Meanwhile, in a blender or food processor, puree beets and ¼ C warm parve milk.
10. Drain potatoes well. In a large bowl, mash potatoes; mix with beet mixture and mayonnaise. Use a hand mixer to whip until potatoes are smooth & fluffy.
11. When meat is cooked, spread hot potatoes over the top; use a spatula to swirl like whipped cream, mounding slightly in the center. (You may have to microwave the potatoes to warm them up.)
Pie Dough Fries
Adapted from Food Network Magazine, June 2011
If you’re already working with a pie crust to make the Fauxberry Pie, grab another one to cut into “fries” for dessert. To make these look authentic ask a fast food restaurant for a few French fry bags for serving. If you don’t have a fluted pastry wheel, try pinking shears but work with the dough while it’s still partly frozen. Or cut your fries super thin and reduce baking time, for fast food style fries.
1 frozen or refrigerated pie crust
2-4 TBSP butter or margarine, melted
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp sugar
Strawberry preserves for dipping
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Use a fluted pastry wheel or pair of pinking shears to cut pie crust into strips. (The wheel gives you crinkle cut fries.) Cut each end at an angle.
3. Brush strips with melted butter or margarine; sprinkle with cinnamon & sugar.
4. Bake on a sheet for about 15 minutes until golden brown.
5. Serve in French fry bags with strawberry preserve “ketchup” for dipping.
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