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The Fear Factor

Is Purim's message of evil too scary for young children?


by Jane Ulman

March 13, 2003 | 7:00 pm

"Haman wanted to hurt our people. We pushed him in the water and a shark ate him," announced Hayden Cohn, 3, a student in the Valley Beth Shalom Nursery School in Encino.

Cohn and his classmates were illustrating their version of the Purim story with a large mural of Shushan's palace, next to a shark-infested ocean.

With its dark themes of violence, hatred and genocide, the story of Purim  is enough to make a kid cry -- yet somehow it doesn't.

Instead of fretting over the fate of the Jewish people and hiding out from the evil Haman, preschoolers across the city are making masks, shaking groggers and baking hamantashen. They are dressing up as Mordechai, Esther, Vashti and Ahasuereus. They are staging puppet shows and plays and belting out, "Oh once there was a wicked, wicked man." And they are saying to their friends who dare to dress up as Haman, "Don't you ever, ever do that again!"

"Purim gives children a sense of mastery over their fears," said Audrey Freedman-Habush, Valley Beth Shalom's nursery school director, who is not aware of any preschooler becoming traumatized or even frightened by the story.

Perhaps because teachers are careful to tailor the holiday story to the appropriate age group and because young children have their own special way of dealing with fantasy and reality. 

"With the younger children, we don't say that Haman wanted to kill the Jews," Freedman-Habush said. "We say he wanted to hurt the Jews."

Carole Perl, early childhood director of Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Los Angeles, agreed.

"Of course, a few children come in with the knowledge that Haman wanted to kill the Jews, but we brush over it," she said.

And even with slightly older children at Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director, explained that they had to change the words of a song from "Kill all the Jews" to "Get rid of the Jews."

"It's also really important, even with young children, to emphasize that Haman was a very mean man and to put the blame on him, as the perpetrator, and not the victims," Janice Tytell, principal of University Synagogue's religious school in Brentwood, pointed out.

The images that words create are also significant.

"With 2- and 3-year-olds, you don't want to say things like, 'They hanged Haman and his 10 sons on a tree,' which is too explicit," Dr. Abraham Havivi, child psychologist and ordained rabbi, advised. "Having frightening images in their minds is upsetting; they don't have a way of shaking it off and forgetting about it."

Older children, 4- and 5-year-olds, however, know the concept of good guys and bad guys because it's part of the media culture. "They're more comfortable with the word 'kill,'" Havivi said, "and the theme of the bad guys getting killed is not so disturbing."

But what ultimately seems most important to all these children is that the Jews survived.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, rosh kehilla (spiritual head) of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, said, "We want to portray to the children that God protects us from the bad guys. That's our hope and that's the optimistic message we want to impart."

"The story of Purim is a perennial story and a universal story of good triumphing over evil," Korobkin added.

The Purim story, unlike the cartoons on television and in movie theaters, usually has a positive impact on young children. The images are more abstract and the events less immediate.

"Bible stories, for young children, are like fairy tales," Havivi said. "They are attempts for kids to psychologically gain control over the suffering and danger and evil that exist in the world." But in general terms because this age group is mostly unaware of today's frightening world situation and is not relating Haman to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

This is the theory that psychologist Bruno Bettelheim espouses in his book "The Uses of Enchantment" (Random House, 1985). Havivi explained that children, until about age 7, have a tremendous capacity for fantasy and magic, believing that these stories are real.

"Our tradition gives us the ability to give kids powerful and emotionally important experiences, connecting them to God and to their Jewish heritage," he said.

It's important that we don't debunk these fantasies or give children more information than they request.

"We have in our culture a tremendous impulse to disclose every single scientific fact as early as possible. If kids are worried, they'll let us know," said Dr. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist.

Judaism predates Sigmund Freud and the other psychologists by thousands of years. Experts agree its storytelling tradition gives children a safe context in which to process good and evil. And as much as parents want to protect -- even overprotect -- their children, it is crucial that children are exposed to life's dark side. Judaism offers no shortage of opportunities.

Children should also be exposed to life's fun side, especially in today's over-programmed society.

"Two years ago, the Harvard University Admissions Committee issued a report describing some of their incoming students as 'dazed survivors of some bewildering lifelong boot camp,'" Mogel said. "Purim is a wonderfully fun and colorful antidote to that."

But Purim, along with other stories from our tradition, is more than a fairy tale. "The Bible is not a book like 'Grimm's Fairy Tales'; it's the sacred center of our faith," she said.

And it helps build a strong Jewish identity. "We use the compelling nature of the Purim story to transmit our ideals," Havivi said. "It's not emotionally effective to say, 'It's important to be good and to fight the bad guys.'"

But an incredibly compelling and dramatic story like Purim, or the story of the Israelites' escape from Egypt or the Maccabees' defeat of the Syrian-Greeks, captures a child's attention.

As children become older, they move from fantasy and magical thinking to concrete learning and begin asking questions: Is that story true? Why did that happen? They are then ready to handle more complex themes.

"In middle to late elementary school, you can tackle Haman's wanting to kill the Jews as an anti-Semitic act. In fact, because of recent historical events, it's hard to avoid the subject," said Janice Tytell, religious school director at University Synagogue.

"By middle school," Korobkin said, "there's no reason not to give the child the full content of the text and to discuss the problems of assimilation, intermarriage and the great sacrifice that Esther made."

And in high school, Malkus hopes that students will be exposed to even tougher issues. "On the one hand, Purim is a farce," he said. "On the other, it presents some deeply disturbing issues, like the killing the Jews perpetrated on the rest of Persian society."

But in preschool and in the early elementary grades, Perl said that kids can be shielded. "We have time," she said.

But not much. Because as soon as Purim ends, day schools and religious schools will begin preparing the children for Passover. And how do we explain the 10th plague, the slaying of the first-born children?  

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