March 24, 2005
A Minor Holiday’s Major Following
It's not a religious holiday per se, it appears nowhere in the Torah, God's name isn't even mentioned and it's considered one of Judaism's minor festivals. Yet over the years, celebrating the holiday of Purim has become a major event on the Jewish calendar. Why?
It's easy to understand why getting dressed up, eating lots of candy and hamentaschen, drinking the night away and partaking in a festive meal appeals to many. But it's only really in the post-war era that Purim has become a major player in the Jewish calendar.
Purim was a far more significant holiday in the 19th century, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and the author of "American Judaism: A History" (Yale, 2004). However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the popularity of Purim gave way to Chanukah and its concept of gift-giving because of the abundant gift-giving at Christmas.
"Purim had the misfortune of not falling at the same time as an equivalent Christian holiday," Sarna said. "And with Halloween being stripped of any religious significance, Jews preferred to participate in Halloween, leaving Purim without a lot of energy."
The only real equivalent to Purim is Mardi Gras, but with that holiday focused in New Orleans, it wasn't enough to put Purim on the map.
So when did the tide turn back toward Purim?
Purim began to enjoy renewed vigor in the post-war era, Sarna said, for a variety of reasons.
"Part of it is because it's a naturally appealing holiday," he said.
Particularly with the emphasis on rebelliousness.
"Jews are rebels and the idea of turning a structure on its head is very appealing to us," Sarna added.
And part of that appeal came from Jews ceasing to worry less about what their neighbors thought and having the freedom to dress up and violate various taboos without fear of repercussions.
Purim has also become more and more centered on children, with a strong focus on carnivals and dressing up.
"As a rule, child-centered holidays in the U.S. are much more likely to gain popular support," he said, adding that in the post-war period, there was a rise in suburban synagogues in response to the baby boom. As such, synagogues were able to mount large carnivals, which was part of the whole movement back to child-centered Judaism.
It has certainly taken hold. This Purim, Los Angeles synagogues and schools, as in previous years, will be holding large carnivals aimed primarily at children but with incentives thrown in for the adults, too.
Temple Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica has been holding a carnival in one form or another since 1942.
"It's a huge communal event," said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels. "We usually have around 500-600 people show up."
Temple Beth Am has been holding its annual carnival for 10 years, with the carnival attracting around 1,000 people each year.
"We're creating memories for kids," said carnival organizer Susan Leider. "And being connected Jewishly is about being able to call upon this bank of Jewish memories, and a fun Purim experience for kids is an important part of that."
But it's not just children who are reaping the rewards of the holiday -- in recent years it's also been widely embraced by women. In an ever-evolving religion where women are looking to play more significant roles, seizing on Purim was a natural choice, and it's no longer strange to see women's megillah readings.
"Some women have also turned Vashti into a type of pro-feminist," Sarna said, referring to the one-time queen of Persia who is often simplistically considered a villain in the Book of Esther for refusing to show up naked to a party given by her husband, King Ahasveraus, forcing him to find a new queen (Esther).
Women and children are not the only ones who have benefited from the Purim renaissance. Part of the holiday's success is its appeal to Jews of all religious affiliations.
"With the renaissance of Jewish life in this country, there has become a stronger desire to celebrate our own holidays, particularly when they have resonance on the larger culture," said David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "And ethnicity now has a respectability that it did not previously possess."
Jews today are much happier to embrace Purim than Halloween, Ellenson said, because both offer similar elements (the parties, eating candy, dressing up), but Purim is an authentic Jewish holiday that is specifically connected to Jewish pride, survival and continuity.
Once, the whole issue of vengeance against Haman and his sons was deemed problematic by earlier generations of Reform Jews, Ellenson said.
"But with the rise of ethnic pride, concerns with Jewish continuity and the universal themes of escape from prejudice and destruction, Purim has found a ready audience among Jews of all types," he added.
It's something that Rabbi Sharon Brous, of the newly founded IKAR synagogue in West Los Angeles, has incorporated into the shul's first Purim celebrations.
Founded 10 months ago with the vision to "create a community of intellectual and spiritual life and the pursuit of Justice," IKAR's Purim carnival for adults and children is a "Justice Carnival." Every fun carnival booth will be accompanied by a social justice or human rights booth so people can still enjoy the Moon Bounce or the bean bag throw but read about the fight against AIDS in Africa or efforts to help tsunami relief.
"The idea is that the kids understand that by being Jewish and celebrating Purim, it's also connected to other things," Brous said. "That performing mitzvot for other needy people is a critical part of being Jewish."
Whatever the rationale behind each individual organization's celebration of this "minor" Jewish holiday, celebrating Purim looks like it's here to stay.
"It doesn't yet vie with Chanukah ...," Sarna said. "But the appeal is certainly growing."