A basket of Purim links

Happy Purim!

Not surprisingly, given the existence of our three-month-old son, I haven't had the chance this year to write anything new about the festival. So instead, I figured I'd point to this blog's Purim category, which includes all of the Purim-related posts I've made in years past.

And as a kind of virtual mishloach manot (basket of tasty goodies traditionally given to friends at Purim-time), I offer these links to three of my favorites among those posts:

  • 2009: The end of Esther. Let's be clear: in my understanding the Book of Esther is not a historical text. The story it chronicles never "happened." (Biblicist Marc Zvi Brettler calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce.")

    But even if we relate to the megillah of Esther as pure story, as a rich and finely-crafted parable about masks and inversion and the challenges of living in an era when God's face may seem as hidden from us as God's name is absent from this traditional text, how can, or should, we deal with the violence at the end of the story?

  • 2008: מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen? As a kid I learned that Haman (boo!) wore a tricornered hat. These tricornered cookies are called "hamantaschen" which means "Haman's Hat" (actually Haman's Pocket, but close enough) and we eat them as a sign of our triumph over Haman. In adulthood it's become clear to me that this is an anachronism (among other things, tricornered hat? in ancient Shushan? really?) but it's still an entertaining drash, mostly because it allows me to picture Haman as a kind of arrogant little Napoleon.

  • 2006: Purim homily. On Purim we don masks and costumes, pretending to be someone else -- a king, a queen, a villain, a jester -- for the night. These masks and veils can remind us that the ordinary identities we wear -- mother, daughter, banker, doctor -- are also constructed. We wear them because they protect us, or they feel good, or they feel safe...but deep down, we are both more than and less than our public identities would indicate. Deep down, there is a part of each of us which never changes, no matter what mask we wear. That part of us is continually at-one with God.

Those are three of my favorites, but there are plenty of other posts which take different tacks. I hope you find something in these Purim posts which resonates with you, and I hope your Purim is joyous and sweet!

The end of Esther

A lot of bloggers are posting "Purim Torah" today -- think "April fool's posts," more or less. I don't have any Purim Torah to give over, so instead I'm posting a serious piece that I meant to post a few days ago but life got in the way.

There's a lot to love about the megillah of Esther. I've waxed rhapsodic about it before in these pages (I direct your attention especially to last year's Redemption and the true king and to The whole megillah, my 2006 review of JT Waldman's gorgeous graphic novel rendition of the story.) But near the very end of the scroll, there's some material I don't love quite as much.

Chapter nine of the megillah describes the revenge the Jews take on those who had desired to slaughter them, and reading it makes me uncomfortable.

Let's be clear: in my understanding the Book of Esther is not a historical text. The story it chronicles never "happened." (Biblicist Marc Zvi Brettler calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce.")

But even if we relate to the megillah of Esther as pure story, as a rich and finely-crafted parable about masks and inversion and the challenges of living in an era when God's face may seem as hidden from us as God's name is absent from this traditional text, how can, or should, we deal with the violence at the end of the story?

Continue reading "The end of Esther" »

Purim: accepting the highest Torah

You may remember that I'm taking a class called Moadim l'Simcha ("seasons of rejoicing"), a class in the Hasidic sacred year. We're studying the round of the year through the prism of Hasidic texts, beginning with where we are now in the year, e.g. the lead-up to Purim. In last night's class, we read a few short texts by the Sefat Emet, a.k.a. Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter. These are texts about the deep spiritual teachings of the holiday of Purim -- which is not historically a holiday in which I find a lot of resonance, so it's been fascinating for me to dip into these Hasidic teachings which uncover some really beautiful stuff here.

I liked our first text so much I thought I'd share it with y'all. Here's one paragraph from the Sefat Emet on Purim; the italicized material is translation, the plaintext is my own commentary. Full disclosure: many of y'all may find this a bit, hm, esoteric? :-) But I think it's really lovely, and it's giving me a whole new perspective on a holiday I've never liked all that much, so -- if the notion of unpacking a dense paragraph of Hasidic prose-poetry about Purim appeals to you, read on.

We read in the Gemara: "Raba said, it is the duty of a man to mellow himself on Purim until he cannot tell the difference [between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai']." (Megillah 7b)

One thing which is lost in translation is that the word I'm rendering as "mellow," לבסומי/lib'sumei, is related to בסמים/b'samim, spices, as in the spices we savor at havdalah to keep our souls intact as Shabbat departs. So while it seems initially that the Gemara is talking about the obligation to drink until one can't tell the difference between the good guy and the bad guy in this story, a discerning reader may suspect that there may be something else going on here.

I've heard words to this effect from the holy mouth of my grandfather, my teacher -- that one must ascend high above the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

His grandfather taught him that this notion of becoming mellowed (or, one might say, spiced or perfumed) is really about ascending to a place above our constructs of good and evil. We're not just talking about getting wasted; we're talking about a kind of mystical ascent to a new level of understanding.

Continue reading "Purim: accepting the highest Torah" »

(Late) Cookies for Purim and Norouz

Last Sunday we went to Northampton for lunch with my in-laws. We had planned to spend some time bopping around town, browsing the aisles of the used-cd stores, but most things were oddly closed; apparently Sunday was some kind of holiday? (Joking! -- obviously -- and I wish a blessed Eastertide to all my Christian readers.) Still, we were bemused when we realized that even secular institutions seemed to have closed for the holiday; the only place open downtown was, amusingly, the bagel shop. So we bought some bagels and then we continued on down the road to Tran's World Market.

The layout of the stores is similar: You enter to an array of phone cards, Indian videos, over-the-counter medicines, scents and packaged snacks. Most of the stores take credit cards. The aisles are roughly divided by country or by food type. Typically, there is a row of dried noodles -- rice, wheat, cellophane (pea flour), fat and thin -- and spring roll wrappers. The soy sauces, oyster sauces, Sriracha hot sauces and fish sauces fill nearly an entire aisle. There is aisle of bulk spices, dals (lentils) and canned fishes...

That's from this post, which describes several different world markets in the Pioneer Valley. The first one on the list is Tran's, which is one of our favorite stores. Several of our cooking staples come from there: dark soy sauce in big plastic bottles, good sesame oil and sriracha hot sauce, soba noodles and strange spicy pickles. I love the sense of culinary possibility I feel every time we're there, and the way ingredients for different cuisines collide on the shelves. It's a little bit like traveling the world without leaving home.

It had only been two days since I blogged about hamentaschen, and in the process learned about the Iranian poppyseed cookie naan-e berenji, which are made with orange flower water and poppy seeds and rice flour. First I spotted the rice flour; then the black and white poppy seeds; and then the bottles of various flower waters. I couldn't resist. I brought them home, and today I tried this recipe. So Purim was a week ago; who says I can't still enjoy an Iranian Purim treat?

I suspect I should have softened my butter further, because my dough wound up a little crumbly even though I opted to use the lesser of the two amounts of rice flour the recipe offered. But the cookies are tasty; they have a fine grain, like rich shortbread, and their aroma is amazing. (Orange flower water is awesome stuff.) Having just seen Persepolis, I'm delighted to have made a first foray into Iranian cuisine.

A little bit of digging reveals that many folks enjoy these on Norouz (the Persian New Year); they're one of seven sweets that are traditional Norouz fare. Norouz begins on the vernal equinox, which in Jewish tradition we call call the tekufat Nissan; I was born on the equinox, so I feel an affinity with Norouz. (Hey, it marks a new year for me, too.) It sounds like in Iran people celebrate Norouz for 13 days, so -- these cookies may be a late Purim celebration, but they're still right on time for the Persian New Year. Happy new year to all those who celebrate at this season! I'll enjoy a cookie for you.

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מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen?

Despite the lovely savory hamentaschen recipe posted recently at the Jew and the Carrot, I decided to go oldschool and to make good old-fashioned sweet hamentaschen to bring to my shul for our Purimspiel tonight. But Ethan asked me a fine question while I was baking: what's the story with hamentaschen?

As a kid I learned that Haman (boo!) wore a tricornered hat. These tricornered cookies are called "hamantaschen" which means "Haman's Hat" (actually Haman's Pocket, but close enough) and we eat them as a sign of our triumph over Haman. In adulthood it's become clear to me that this is an anachronism (among other things, tricornered hat? in ancient Shushan? really?) but it's still an entertaining drash, mostly because it allows me to picture Haman as a kind of arrogant little Napoleon.

D'var acher / another interpretation: "mohn" means poppyseeds, and (as this article notes) it was customary to eat poppyseeds and honey at Purim-time all the way back in ibn Ezra's day. These cookies were originally called mohn-taschen, "poppyseed pockets." And then someone noticed that ha-mohn and ha-man sound alike, and started associating poppyseed sweets with our story's villain. (According to this article, poppyseeds were the tradition in Central Europe; the custom of filling the cookies with plum or prune filling is Czech in origin.)

Continue reading "מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen?" »

Purim: redemption and the true king

In Hebrew school yesterday we unrolled a small scroll across the seminar table to show our b'nai mitzvah prep kids the megillat Esther. (No, not the JT Waldman rendition, though I've just taken my beloved copy off the shelf to re-read as I do every year at this season...) We noted a few interesting things about this particular megillah -- like, for instance, the fact that the first line ends with the word המלך / ha-melech (the king) and then in the next ten or so columns the first line begins with that same word, again and again. The king. The king. The king.

Clearly this text has something to say to us about the king. Who's the king? Obviously the king is Achashverosh, right? The first line of the text says so plainly! Of course, Achashverosh doesn't seem very bright. He's clearly ruled by his own sexuality (first the episode with Vashti, then the two times when he, er, raises his sceptre to Esther his new queen.) He can't make a single decision without an advisor there to tell him what to do. And toward the end of the story he admits that he can't annul a single one of his own decrees. Some king.

This story is filled with hints of another kind of power. The power that caused Esther to be placed in a position where she might save her people. The power to which the righteous Mordechai would bow (Haman demands the obeisance and is furious that he can't have it, but the text tells us simply that Mordechai "bows to no man.") The kind of power that would avert the severity of an evil decree and enact righteousness and compassion in its place. But that power, that form of kingship or sovereignty, is never mentioned. Purim is a festival when nothing is what it appears: Queen Esther is more than she claims to be, and the gallows on which Haman meant to hang Mordechai becomes his own undoing, and the true king in the story is never mentioned at all.

My rabbi gave over the following teaching: Pesach is the beginning of the festival cycle, the first holiday in the wheel of the year. (Yes, yes, the new year is in the fall, but the beginning of the holiday cycle is in the spring. The Jewish year has four starting points.) In the story of Pesach, the Jews are in jeopardy and we are redeemed by God, "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. The vast miracles of that story (the plagues, the splitting of the sea) could only have come from God. Yes, there's a human agent involved -- Moshe -- but the traditional haggadah barely mentions him at all. In the story of the Exodus, God is the agent of change.

Move all the way around the wheel of the year, through Shavuot and the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Chanukah and Tu BiShvat, to Purim: the last festival in the year, the last stop before we begin again. In the story of Purim, the Jews are in jeopardy and we redeem ourselves: through the wisdom and faith of Mordechai, the fasting of Esther and the people, and then Esther's insight, and then the new decree she convinces the king to sign (which gives the Jews permission to defend themselves, turning their prospective day of destruction into a day of rejoicing.) Yes, God is involved -- but God is hidden, never mentioned by name. God may be the agent of change on a deep level, but the change is made manifest by our own hands.

We begin our festival year by relying on God to save us; we end our festival year by owning our own capacity to transform our world ourselves. And each year we recapitulate the journey from one to the other. In that sense, Purim is the ultimate celebration of human agency. Maybe that's why the sages of Jewish tradition suggested that in the World to Come, when creation is redeemed, all other festivals will fall away but Purim will remain: it's the quintessential messianic holiday, because it celebrates our ability to create a redeemed future with our own hands.

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Purim homily

Chag Purim sameach -- a joyous festival of Purim to you! In my CPE class we take turns offering the "opening," which is sometimes prayer and sometimes a meditation or homily, drawn from our own religious traditions. I think of it both as a way of setting our collective kavvanah (intention) for the day and a way of educating one another about our respective traditions.

Last time I had the opening I led us in the birchot ha-shachar, a series of blessings from the Jewish morning liturgy, and in the asher yatzar blessing (for the body) and the elohai neshama blessing (for the soul). I'm "on" again today, and this time I'm offering a meditation -- a (roughly) thousand-word d'var on Purim, its history and celebration, and how it can speak to us as chaplains in the work that we do. I share it here, for you as well.

Continue reading "Purim homily" »

New Orleans Purim

The moon is waxing; Purim will be upon us soon, beginning on Monday evening when the sun goes down. In honor of the coming festival, I want to point folks toward an essay that offers a fairly unique perspective on Purim: the view from New Orleans.

Though Mardi Gras, like Halloween, has become a thoroughly American holiday, I like to think of it as Catholic Purim, especially this year, when the holiday falls between the full moon of Tu B'shevat-- the Jewish New Year for Trees--and the full moon of Purim. Both Purim and Mardi Gras involve masking, both celebrate turning the world upside down, both encourage inebriation: The two holidays are in many ways soulmates.

That's from Mardi Purim, an essay by Rodger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus (among many other titles) who blogs at talkingdream.

As you might imagine, Purim in New Orleans is like nothing else. Rabbi David Bockman used to lead a Purim service at the old Chevra Tehillim synagogue, which included a stuffed gorilla on a string, flashing lights and sirens, and at appropriate moments, a traditional New Orleans marching band, complete with caps and uniforms and doubloons marked "Krewe of Tzedekah." (A krewe is a Mardi Gras marching club, and tzedakah is Hebrew for charity; there's that cultural gumbo again...)

The essay was written, he says, a few years ago -- 2002, maybe. That its provenance is pre-Katrina is evident; I imagine if he were writing the essay today he would mention what changes the events of last fall have wrought. Still, the piece doesn't feel dated. Mardi Gras happened this year in New Orleans despite the ravages of the hurricane -- I imagine Purim will be celebrated there, too. Anyway, the essay is good stuff; read it here.

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The whole megillah

Last summer I posted about a new graphic novel, Megillat Esther by JT Waldman. It retells the story recounted in the scroll of Esther, and since I am both a Judaic geek and a fan of good comics, I badly wanted a copy. I bought one a couple of months later, at the Biennial last November. Since I like to read things at appropriate times of year, I decided to save it to read during the wind-up to Purim. Now that we've gotten our belated Tu BiShvat observance out of the way, it's officially the wind-up to Purim, so this afternoon I curled up with the book and devoured it.

I am really impressed with this book. First of all, it's a good graphic novel; each page is striking, the pictures collaborate with the words in a way Scott McCloud would surely applaud, and I would like to spend time contemplating the visual prosody of every page in the book. (The art is also a style that really works for me -- black-and-white, like woodcuts, but elaborate and detailed. Apparently the iconography is largely drawn from Persian art from 600-400 B.C.E.) Secondly, it's a faithful retelling of the original: the whole megillah is in here, in Hebrew and in English. Most often the English words are boxed and the Hebrew calligraphy is woven into the frame, but one way or another, Waldman's respect for the text is clear.

And thirdly, there are these wonderful digressions. Between the acts of the primary drama, there are vignettes, other stories, subplots, fanciful dips into midrash. Oh, and did I mention the part where this is such a topsy-turvy tale that midway through, one has to flip the book over and read it right-to-left like Hebrew text (or, to make a genre-specific analogy, like manga)?

It's possible I am the ideal reader for this book. I've been reading comics voraciously since 1993, when my friend Cynthia plunked a volume of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman into my hands. And regular readers of this blog don't need to be told how much I dig Jewish texts. So putting the two together is pretty much designed to make me bounce around in glee. But I'd argue that if you're a fan of Jewish texts, or a fan of comics, you ought to read this -- if you're not a fan of both before you begin, I'd wager you will be by the time you finish.

Seriously, this book is stunning. I count myself incredibly fortunate to own an original page from Howard Cruse's glorious classic Stuck Rubber Baby; I've got to admit, some part of me is wondering how exorbitant a page from JT Waldman's Megillat Esther might be. Anyway, original artwork aside, buy the book and read it before Purim. And be sure to say the blessing for Torah study before you crack the spine. Even if you think you know the whole megillah, you'll learn something new reading it this way.

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Holy days

This morning I went to shul for a short morning service, the reading of the Purim story, and a little ceremonial whiskey to mark the celebration. (Good thing I'd had coffee and a donut first!) There's more to Purim than I realized as a kid, when I thought it was just a dressing-up and making-noise kind of day. It is those things, yeah; but there's other interesting stuff going on. God, for instance, is never mentioned in the Megillah of Esther -- which the mystics take a sign that the book is imbued with the essence of divinity entirely beyond the binarism implied by names and naming. In other words, this most profane text (full of court intrigue, harems and eunuchs, and thinly-veiled sexual innuendo) is so holy it goes beyond any of the names for God which we can conceive.

Today seems to be holy for a lot of folks, actually. It's the Indian festival of Holi, a celebration of spring marked by merriment and shedding of inhibitions. (Hm. There's a lot of that going on.) An Indian friend of mine who lives in Singapore has told me wonderful stories about the custom of inundating people with color: colored powder flung out of windows, color exploding out of water balloons. (And the traditional beverage thandai sounds pretty tempting, though I think I'd go for it in its non-intoxicating form -- especially since I started my Purim morning with a nip of Johnny Walker red!)

Meanwhile, for Christians today is Good Friday, the day when Jesus' death is mourned. (Christian readers, help me out here: isn't March 25 also the Feast of the Annunciation, when his conception is celebrated? Having them coincide is quite a koan.) Karen has posted a powerful Good Friday sermon on her blog, which resonates for me across the differences between our traditions. "How simple it is to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television and feel that  swell of indignation that we all experience when we hear about a great injustice that has been done. And yet every day each one of us, in our own little way, gives quiet assent to the persons and policies that bring despair and death to humankind." Really worth a read.

It seems strange that today, when my tradition celebrates with costumes, percussion, and storytelling -- Purim, which some teach is the one holiday which will persist in the World to Come because it's a festival of unadulterated joy -- others are facing an annual dark night of the soul. There's a disjunction there, like a song being played in two keys at once.  Though I guess joy and sorrow coexist in the world, even on the holiest days. And I realize different faiths aren't all playing the same song -- at least, not in any melodic way we can recognize. In the (metaphorical) ears of God, I suspect there's harmony.

The Feast of Lots

Tonight at sundown begins Purim, a holiday I haven't celebrated since childhood. This year I'll be in costume again, for the first time in many years; I'm playing Haman in my shul's Purimspiel. All of the characters are cast cross-gender; our (male) rabbi is playing Vashti, our (male) past president is playing Esther...it should be a kick. I'm planning to do drag as thoroughly as I can, up to and including a necktie and a stick-on mustache! Only trouble is, I can't seem to find a tricorner hat anywhere; I think I'm going to substitute our black velvet Hogwarts wizard's cap.

I had hoped to write an essay about the upside-down fun of revealing ourselves through costuming and cloaking, why the Purim story makes a satisfying fairy tale, and the interesting resonances that arise since Purim falls this year during the Christian Holy Week. But orchestrating the spiel took up more time and energy than I expected, and I haven't had time to formulate any interesting thoughts. So instead, here's a roundup of what other folks are saying:

  • Debra Fran Baker posits a theory on why Haman acted the way he did: he had a crush on King Ahashverosh. The book of Esther is full of subtext and innuendo, so this reading strikes me as completely valid, and also pretty entertaining.

  • On a more sober note, Rabbi Arthur Waskow connects Purim with the Baruch Goldstein massacre which happened on this day. This week's Shalom Report e-newsletter also included a thought-provoking piece called "Good Friday and Purim Together: Resurrection, Rebirth and Reversal in the Face of Empire Today," but that doesn't seem to be archived online anywhere.

  • Danya talks about how she really likes Purim. DovBear, meanwhile, has some issues with it.

  • This one's from last year, but it's worth pointing to again, because I like it so much: Naomi Chana muses on what's hidden and what's revealed in Purim.

  • And SoccerDad has put up a special Purim-themed edition of Havel Havelim, which includes links to a Unitarian take on Purim, some digital hamentaschen, and a suggestion of organizations to support when fulfilling the Purim mitzvah of giving to the poor.

Chag sameach to all! May your Purim be joyful.

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Purim, Take Two

The inimitable Naomi Chana posted some excellent thoughts on Purim in response to my first Purim post. I'm amazed that it never occurred to me that Esther and Mordechai are thinly-disguised variations on Ishtar and Marduk. That's a pretty classic forehead-slapping moment, there. I guess I was so familiar with the story that it never occurred to me that these aren't exactly standard Hebrew names. I'll have to re-examine the Purim story in light of that, and see how that awareness changes it.

This morning in meditation, Jeff told a lovely story attributed to Reb Nachman, about a kingdom where all the grain became infected with a disease which was going to turn everyone mad. There was only enough untainted grain to feed two people, so he decided to save it for himself and his primary advisor; but the advisor observed that in a kingdom of madmen, "sane" people would be considered mad. So they decided to eat the infected grain, too, with one caveat: each marked the other's forehead with a black thumbprint, so that in future, when they saw each other making mad decisions, they might each remember the madness of the world.

The story relates to Purim in a certain way. The world, Jeff pointed out, is pretty mad. In the Torah we learn that God said, of creation, that it was good -- but clearly the world is not what it could be. It can be hard to look directly at everything that's wrong with the world, for fear of becoming overwhelmed by how badly things are broken. Purim is our chance to accept, momentarily, how topsy-turvy and out-of-control things really are...which, ideally, helps us keep things in perspective the rest of the year.

I don't derive the joy from costuming that some of my friends do, and I'm still not real into drunkenness, but I'm grudgingly starting to admit that there may be more to Purim than meets the eye.

There's a saying about the Hebrew month of Adar, the one we're currently in: mishne-nishnas Adar, marbim b'simcha, "When Adar enters, joy increases!" (From Ta'anit 29a.) Whether or not you're celebrating Purim, may your Adar (and mine) be joyful.