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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

Purim reflections

Galilee Diary #382, March 23, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it.
-Esther 2:10

And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.
-Esther 8:17

Once when I was the part-time weekend rabbi of a very small congregation in a small town in the Midwest, I unwittingly created a furor by acquiescing in a congregant's request that I write a letter to the local school board asking to tone down the Christmas observance in the public schools. In the end, the leadership of the congregation repudiated me and my letter, as my action constituted a threat to their long-standing modus vivendi as a minority in the town. I guess I should have been more sensitive – and after all, I had played Santa Claus in the fourth grade play, and my parents were very proud.

I was reminded of these experiences this week when Tami reported seeing an Arab mother in the grocery store in Karmiel on Purim, wearing the head scarf of a religious Moslem, with her little boy dressed in a spiderman costume. This was consistent with her experience at work, at the daycare center for handicapped children at the hospital in Nahariya, where Purim was celebrated with great glee, with costumes and songs and hamentaschen by the kids and the staff, who reflect the population of the region: 80% Arab.

I suppose Purim is analogous to Halloween – Halloween (All Hallows' Eve) is a pagan holiday that was taken over by the Christians, and is based on beliefs that are certainly foreign to Judaism – which doesn't stop most American Jewish kids from trick-or-treating, having Halloween parties, and investing great effort in dressing up. I suspect that very few Christians and pagans give much thought to the deep meaning of the day beyond the "values" of masquerading and candy; the only people who “remember” the original content are Orthodox Jews who decline to participate in the fun. Similarly, it seems you can be a religious Moslem and buy your kid a spiderman costume for Purim without delving into the Book of Esther with its various possible interpretations regarding exile, identity, power, and providence. You probably can spin the Purim story to support pluralism and brotherhood, but you have to spin pretty hard, especially chapters 8 and 9. Thus, it seems that Purim has become a seasonal holiday in Israel in the same way that Halloween (and even Christmas and Easter) have become seasonal holidays in North America – secular cultural events seemingly disconnected from their original religious meaning. Their observances (spiderman, chocolate bunnies, colored lights and candy canes) have lost, for many people, any connection to religious content; they have become symbols whose referents have gotten lost in the transition from religion to folklore.

Those of us engaged in Jewish education have always seen this blurring of religious meaning as a negative development, a sign of assimilation, of diminution of Jewish knowledge and commitment, a fading of Jewish identity. But here's an interesting question: if Zionism envisioned a Judaism that was reconceptualized as a national culture, not a religion, should we not be happy to see citizens of Israel of other religions who feel comfortable with that national culture? Could it be that Moslem spidermen on Purim are signs of the success of secular Zionism in creating an Israeli (as opposed to Jewish) national culture. Or should we see other people's assimilation as just as distressing as our own?

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