Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Taking Purim Seriously

This was my bulletin column for March.

As a child I loved Purim. How could I not, in a congregation with a large Purim carnival that was lots of fun?

But it has taken me most of my adult life to learn to appreciate Purim again. In many congregations, Purim seems to be a holiday—like Tu Bishvat— that is mostly, perhaps exclusively, for children. If we attend a megillah reading, it’s a serious business: after all, it’s in the temple or synagogue. It must be serious!

This feeling is stronger if you grew up, as I did, in a congregation with both a German heritage and great formality in its ritual. The expectation of seriousness is apparent from our language, as in almost all congregations, we observe holidays. This seems to be specific to Judaism; I’ve noted that in other religions people celebrate holidays.

By “observe” holidays, we can mean either of two things. One derives from the Hebrew verb that is used in this sense, which has the root shin-mem-resh and most often means “to guard.” This describes our attending services and carrying out the prescribed rituals out of a sense of duty.

The second is the ordinary English meaning of “observe”: to watch as a bystander, without participating. Both meanings are at odds with celebrating Purim. Although there are specific mitzvot for Purim—reading the story of Esther and giving food to the poor—it’s most important to have a good time. This is why even a megillah reading is usually lighthearted, if not downright silly. And it is, frankly, burdensome to attend Purim celebrations without participating in them.

We do our children a disservice if we teach them that everything in the temple or synagogue is supposed to be sober and formal. (We would also be wrong not to teach them to be serious when it’s appropriate, but that’s not the issue at Purim.) And if we inadvertently teach them that some celebrations are only for children and others, presumably, are only for adults, it’s the wrong message.

So I encourage everyone to get into the spirit of Purim. Bring the whole family to Purim events: dinner and megillah reading at Congregation B’nai Israel on Friday, March 6, megillah reading at Congregation Shomray Hadath on Monday, March 9, and the Jewish Community School Purim carnival (downstairs at Shomray Hadath) on Sunday, March 8.

And wear costumes. It’s not just for children—dress up in something outrageous no matter what your age. It doesn’t have to be a “made” costume, just something inappropriate to wear at regular services, or something so far out of fashion that it’s funny. Let your children see that the way we take Purim seriously is by not taking ourselves too seriously.