What it is:
As told in the biblical Book of Esther, the Purim story recounts how Haman, the chief minister to King Ahasuerus, plotted to destroy the Jews of Persia. In Shushan, capital of Persia, Haman cast lots (purim) that fixed the date of the Jews' doom to 13 Adar. Esther, the king's Jewish wife, was spurred on by her cousin Mordechai to intercede on the Jews' behalf. The Jews were saved, Haman hanged and Purim became a festival for rejoicing.
Ahasuerus has been identified with Xerxes I, who ruled Persia from 486 to 465. The first observance of Purim dates from the Hasmonean period, but scholars have long debated the historical basis for the Purim story.
What to do:
Attend synagogue services on Purim eve (March 8) for the raucous reading of the Book of Esther from a handwritten scroll, or megillah.
Enjoy one of the numerous Purim carnivals around town. Eat a festive meal.
Give mishloach manot. According to Jewish law, we give a gift consisting of food items to at least one friend, and at least two gifts of charity to the poor.
Groggers: Noisemakers used to drown out the name of Haman during the reading of the megillah.
Costumes: Children from 2 to 92 traditionally dress up as characters from the Purim spiel or in other outlandish get-ups.
Groggers, masks and costumes are available at Jewish gift stores.
Hamantaschen: Triangular fruit-filled pastries, called "Haman's Ears" in Hebrew. Make your own (see recipes on page 50) or stop by any Jewish bakery.
Liquor: It's customary for Jews to drink on Purim until we can't tell the difference between evil Haman and good Mordechai. Enjoy in moderation, and don't even think of driving afterward.
What it's all about:
Purim celebrates Jewish survival. Its plot and characters can be seen as archetypes for the persecuted and persecutors of all ages.
Nowhere in the Book of Esther is God mentioned. Some scholars believe the book itself is a kind of Purim joke.
"The Harlot by the Side of the Road" by Jonathan Kirsch is an exploration of Esther's racier side.
"The Jewish Way" by Irving Greenberg.
"Purim: Its Observance and Significance" by Avie Gold.