Adar: My Own Private Purim

When is Purim in 2023? March 6. That's when.


They tried to kill us. We survived! Let’s drink! In a nutshell, that’s the Purim story. In celebration we are supposed to get somewhat intoxicated, if that’s something we can do and keep our health. Some say, we should get so drunk that we can’t tell the difference between good and evil. Others say, maybe that’s a little too drunk.

In Megillah 7b of the Talmud, we read a story of Rabbah and Rabbi Zeirah who took their celebrations of Purim a little too far. Rabbah got so drunk that he lost all sense of good or evil and cut Rabbi Zeirah’s throat. What a hangover he had the next day when Rabbah woke up next to his bloodless friend. He prayed with such fervor that the good Rabbi Zeirah came back to life. The following year, when Purim rolled around again and Rabbah invited his old friend to celebrate with him, Rabbi Zeirah declined. “One miracle, okay. But a miracle every year? I don’t think I can count on that,” he told Rabbah.

My Own Private Purim

My relationship to Purim is, well, complicated.

When I was a child in an industrial metropolis on Lake Michigan -- Gary, Indiana -- I attended a gloriously messy conservative synagogue called Temple Beth-El. The congregation celebrated Purim with full-throated vigor, with costume contests, a fair, and a raucous megillah reading. I was one of many children and adults booing Haman, making noise, and just loving it. We children were the first post-Holocaust generation, born in the two decades after the end of the war. Our parents were booing a very real Haman, one whose voice they knew, whose terror they knew. Some had survived the camps. Others, like my parents, were the children of those who survived pogroms. We were all loud-mouthed immigrants in Gary. And the adults were busy having as many Jewish children as they could bear physically, financially, and emotionally. For my parents that number was 5. Purim was our holiday. It belonged to us.

We were coming back from the dead.

But who can depend on a miracle every year?

Why Do You Feel Responsible?

Much later, I had the honor to study with the amazing Matti Megged, a Jewish philosopher, writer, and educator. A friend and I would join him in his library and study texts from the Torah together. We studied slowly, spending a year on Genesis. On Purim in 1994, we were studying together when we heard the news of the massacre of Palestinian Muslims at the Cave of the Patriarch. Matti and I were heartbroken, furious, emotional.

We hoped our grief could bring those lives back. But again, our miracles were used up.

My fellow student, a good friend and non-Jew, could not understand our reaction.

Why do you feel so responsible? she asked.

How could we not? we answered. This is what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be part of a minoritized group. It's hard, almost impossible, to separate one's own identity from that of others. Some of us feel responsible even for the very worst of us -- especially for the very worst.

After that day, I could not celebrate Purim. I couldn't help but wonder about the 70,000 collaborators with Haman who were killed. Was that really necessary?

And now... now with fascism on the rise and being accepted as normal and inevitable, I wonder again. Will I learn the lesson that Jews and other minoritized and marginalized groups have learned over millennia: to know when to flee and when to hide and when to fight?

And Yet...

I am left with a new Purim question. What does it mean that Haman's grandchildren studied Talmud? (Thanks Sefaria, for these strange tidbits of info!) I am the generation of Haman's grandchildren. And I too have studied with them: with the son and grandchild of Nazis. They are among my favorite people in the entire wide world: warrior scholars who have dedicated their lives to the struggle against anti-semitism, anti-Black racism, and injustice. Did those who studied with Haman's grandchildren feel even half of the love and respect I feel for my dear friends?



On Purim from the Artist

Image by Ali Shrago-Spechler, who writes:

"It is said that during Adar, we are to view and experience the world with a deep consideration of all of its quirkiness and contradictions. On Purim, we dress as our enemies and get so drunk that we cannot distinguish between evil Haman and the brave Mordecai. For this reason, I have decided to take a closer look at the topsy-turvy nature of the Purim story and have created an image that shows Vashti and Esther, the two feminist heroes of the narrative, mourning over the death of Haman's 10 sons mentioned at the end of the story. Offering a twist from the Bible Esther who insisted on hanging Haman's sons, I wanted to use my work to not only consider these acts of violent retribution, but to offer a notion of soft mourning and regret."