Jewish Journal


March 23, 2006

Wandering Jew - Upside Down


Here's a verse that should be written in Psalms: "He who is lenient about Purim is a truly unhappy person." Or, as one rabbi put it:

"Who doesn't enjoy a bacchanalian feast where it's a mitzvah to get drunk?"

Los Angeles Jewry, despite its reputation for disjointedness and spiritual lassitude, manages to be machmir -- fastidious -- in its observance of the "upside down" holiday, which includes costumes, carnivals, megillah reading, mishloach manot food baskets and the commandment to drink until you "don't know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai" -- the villain and hero of the ancient Persian story of the redemption of the Jews.

Festivities began early on the weekend -- consider Beth Chayim Chadashim's Friday night Purim celebration with its klezmer band, Gay Gezunt -- and then Saturday night with a blowout outdoor -- brr!! -- party in Beverly Hills, as well as children's carnivals around town on Sunday (not rained out, to the dismay of many parents and glee of many mini-Mordechais and Esthers.)

Ending the Fast of Esther on Monday (not necessarily as fastidiously observed as the revelry) there were a bevy of choices for megillah readings, Purim shpiel skits and parties, depending on one's religious observance, age, marital/kid status, sexual orientation, location and financial situation (the Kabbalah Centre's party was $72, a multiple of chai, 18, the Jewish lucky number -- lucky for them). Ikar's party at the Westside Jewish Community Center had a bit of something for everyone: a Purim carnival for kids, an egalitarian megillah reading enhanced by video captions and explanations from Rabbi Sharon Brous, dressed as a pregnant ski bunny (oh, the stomach wasn't a costume) and an irreverent but sometimes insider Purim shpiel followed by a liquered, DJ'ed dance party, during which the kids' bouncy was toppled over. (Talk about upside down).

A general maxim for L.A. costume parties is that women wear skimpy, sultry outfits designed to entice and attract, rather than clever cumbersome contraptions expounding on current events or clever ironies. (For example, in Washington, D.C., a friend's non-Jewish boyfriend dressed up for Purim as a wasp -- not WASP, as he's Catholic.)

On Purim, this custom of sexy dressing still holds: evidence includes a French maid, a bumblebee in fishnets, flappers, '60s mini-dresses, '70s mod-squads, butterflies, Pocahontas (yours truly). But some women risked it with clever/incomprehensible costumes: a woman in a ball gown peppered with broken credit cards (Angel of Debt), a red-faced woman dressed in all red (not meant to be an apple, but a red string; strangely she forgot to wear red strings) and someone who was An Eye for An Eye (don't ask).

The other maxim for L.A. costumery is that it's uncool for men to put too much effort into their costumes -- if they dress up at all. Clever but low-maintenance costumes included a man in dry cleaning (plastic wrap over a hanger with paper reading "Mr. Dry Cleaning"), an Olympics curling outfit, and a multitude of cowboys who were very quick to point out that they were just lazy and not, repeat, not imitating the Oscar-winning "Brokeback Mountain" -- which was spoofed in the Purim Shpiel as "Brokeback Shushan." (Get it? Shushan, the capital of Persia, the setting for the Megillah?). "Capote," another Oscar nominee for best picture, was strangely underrepresented. Go figure. Best Costume for a Jewish Man, or most effort: a JDate Profile -- random pictures replete with clichéd lines ironed on a T-shirt.

While one is supposed to hear every word of the Story of Esther, it's difficult between the noise and the costumes and the kids and the tedium of concentrating on 10 chapters in Hebrew. A couple of standout readings around town included Rabbi David Czapnik at the Jewish Learning Center in Hancock Park, who read with voices -- not supernatural voices channeled from the other side (although that would be pretty cool), but acting out the main parts of the Megillah while still following the traditional trope tunes; the "edgy" women's Megillah reading at B'nai David-Judea, an Orthodox synagogue that pushes the boundaries of tradition with its feminist takeover of the bimah, and, for those pressed for time, a superspeedy Megillah reading at Loeb & Loeb LLP law firm on Tuesday that took between 10 and 15 minutes (as opposed to the usual hour).

That sort of brevity should give one enough time to deliver Purim baskets -- or have the kids traipse around town to trade with their friends' candy or "loot." Creativity and cleverness are also a hallmark of shalach manot; some went beyond the usual wine and hamantaschen, using themes: a flowerpot filled with flower-shaped foods, a beach basket with a sand pail and beach mat, a psuedo Italian basket with red wine and a cake that looked like spaghetti and meatballs. (Why? Why? Why?) That's what many parents asked themselves this year, as people increasingly eschewed the homemade baskets in favor of sending out one basket through their shuls and schools (with proceeds donated to charity, as matanot l'evyonim is one of the main obligations of the holiday). Purim celebrations continued beyond the holiday and into the weekend.

The other one is the seuda, or the Purim meal, where wine, scotch and words of Torah flowed into one another. One particularly memorable note: After the Messiah comes the Talmud says that the only holiday Jews will still celebrate will be Purim. I'll drink to that!


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