Quondam Dreams

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Purim, Or: Why Am I Not Drunk?

It's Purim.

Why am I not drunk?

*sigh* I'm such a bad Jew.


And for those of you who have no idea what that was about...

Around this time of year, quite a few traditions have end-of-winter blow-outs. Catholics, for example, have Mardi Gras. Hindus have Holi. And we Yids have Purim.

"So, wait," one might say. "You heckle a storyteller, dress in costume, mock authority and have a mandate to party until you can't remember why?"

Yes. Plus, cookies!

For those of you too lazy to Google Purim or grab your nearest bible and flip to the Book of Esther, here's the very brief rundown: King Ahashveros (or Ahasuerus, or one of any number of transliterations of various dialects -- this story's been around for a while, so things have gotten a bit confused) dumps his queen when she won't come dance for his pals. Being an ancient king, he decides the best way to find a new queen is to hold a beauty pageant -- 'cause, you know, why promote from within the harem when you can bring in fresh blood? This chick named Esther wins. Esther is Jewish. This is not common knowledge.

The king (and if you think I'm going to try to type out that name again, you're even crazier than I am) has this advisor, Haman. Haman is your basic power-hungry narcissist. His latest edict is that everyone should bow down to him when they see him. This doesn't sit too well with one Mordecai, who, besides being Esther's cousin (or uncle, or general guardian -- like I said, this story's been around for a while), is very wise. You may question the wisdom of not bowing down in front of a guy who can have you killed, but that's another matter.

"Hey, Mr. Your Majesty," Haman says to the king. "You've got a group of people in this here kingdom who don't follow your laws. You shouldn't let that stand."

"Hey, you're right, Dick Chen--" sorry -- "Haman!" says the king, who spent very little time thinking about the example he was actually setting for future leaders. "Do whatever you want with 'em." He might have looked into the matter a little more, but Haman was a trusted deputy, and it was naptime.

"Excellent," hissed Haman, and went to his secure undisclosed location to plot. He knew he wanted to kill all the Jews. Well, really, he just wanted to kill Mordecai, but he wasn't going to turn down a chance to off the rest of them while he was at it. It was going to take a little time to plan, though -- ancient Persia was freakin' huge -- and he needed a target date. So, he drew lots, and decided to schedule the massacre in for Adar 13th.

Mordecai, of course, found out about the plot. He went to Esther.

"Cousin," he said. (Or "niece," or "ward," or whatever.) "It's on you."

"What's on me?"

"Saving all of us. You're married to the guy who can stop this. Talk to him."

"Uncle." (Or "cousin," or "substitute dad," or "dude," or whatever.) "I'm just married to the king. I never actually see the guy unless he asks to see me. You want me to get fired like the last queen? Or killed, even?"

"Um, no. That's kind of the point."

"And that means I've gotta break the news that I'm a Jew, too. Great. Anything else you want me to do, Mordi? Go play in chariot traffic, maybe?"

"Nah, just save us."

So, Esther set up a little dinner party for her husband, rightly figuring that there's nothing like good food to make a guy forget that you're doing something he hates in principle. (In some versions of the story, Haman's there. While dramatic, it's really not important to the plot.)

"Now, about this plan of Haman's," she said, and laid out the whole thing in the most ass-kicking way imaginable.

The king agreed that it sounded like a seriously bad idea -- especially since it would have included killing the prettiest girl in Persia and the indeterminately-related Mordecai, who'd busted a murder plot against the king earlier on in the story. In the end, Haman was strung up instead, and the Jews partied to celebrate their victory over evil. This eventually lead to a Talmudic mandate that we should make with the merry until we can't remember the difference between good Mordecai and wicked Haman. Religious Jews observe a minor fast in the daylight hours leading up to Purim. Officially, this is to commemorate Esther's fast before making her pitch, but I think it may have more to do with the efficiency of partying on an empty stomach. (There's also some stuff about giving food to those in need, but we're supposed to make tzedaka contributions year-round as it is.)

That's the brief version of the story. We've skipped over most of the sex, booze and palace intrigue. It's out there if you want to read it. By now, you've probably missed local synagogue readings -- not that you would have heard much anyway; it's traditional to make a lot of noise whenever Haman's name is read, and it pops up a lot. Then it's off to drink, eat, and put on plays that mock authority figures.

One thing you may have noticed is that God doesn't figure into this story. Actually, that particular character doesn't appear in the book of Esther at all. You can ascribe whatever you'd like to divine intervention if you're so inclined, but at its heart, this is a folk-story about people and what they do. There's a long-standing tradition of telling the story using contemporary references. (You can Google that, too.) I was taught that the book of Esther was a late addition to what we now know as the Hebrew bible; turns out that the rabbis who were assembling the canon didn't want to include a God-less book that gave people license to mock them. Those people then said, basically, "If you dump Purim, we're dumping Judaism". Hello, Megilla Esther!

Those of you who know me know that while I'm Jewish as all get-out, I'm not particularly religious in a conventional sense. I'm sure that somewhere, someone is shaking their finger at people like me -- "You only do the things that are convenient!" That's something to tackle in another post; for now, suffice it to say that Judaism makes room for all sorts of interpretations, including us secular and humanist types. If there's one thing we can all agree on, though, it's that a day on which one is supposed to make a lot of noise, eat and drink too much, put on snarky plays and generally celebrate people not killing people just because they're different is a fine idea -- and a great way to blow off a winter's worth of pent-up steam.

As for why I've been sober this whole Purim: I'm not feeling all that well. Health trumps mandates. Fortunately, hamentaschen are quite acceptable cookies to eat when one is under the weather. I wonder if the deli near me will still have some tonight. Mmm. Cookies.


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