Last Thursday, I enjoyed a wonderful evening at Congregation Beth Sholom, where I joined in their celebration of Purim. During that time I consumed tasty pastries, listened to a dramatic story and drank in the ambience of a participative, family-centered celebration.
First, the story
Purim is a traditional Jewish celebration centered on the Book of Esther. Having all the hallmarks of a stage drama, it is most entertaining. The story is set in Persia during the fourth century BC, when all Jews were subject to the Persian empire. Its king, Ahasuerus, had a wife, Vashti, whom he commanded to come before him at a lengthy state banquet wearing her crown. (Some scholars have interpreted this as wearing only her crown.) With modesty she declined to do so and was removed as queen. Ne
eding a new consort, he looked for a new queen in a yearlong process involving all 127 of his provinces. Ultimately, Esther, a Jewish girl, became his choice and was named queen. At the time, King Ahasuerus did not know she was Jewish. An anti-Semite, Haman, was given the role of prime minister. Esther’s cousin Mordecai, a Jewish leader, refused to bow to Haman in response to the king’s order. Indignant, Haman asked Ahasuerus to order the killing of all Jews. The extermination date chosen was the 13th of the Jewish month of Adar, picked as the result of a lottery conceived by Haman. Purim is named after the word “lots.” Mordecai and Jews throughout the empire fasted, lamented and mourned. Next, Esther asked her king and Haman to join her for a feast, where she revealed that she was Jewish and Haman’s treachery against the Jews. As a result, Haman was hanged and Mordecai was given the prime minister’s position. It was then decreed that Jews would have the right of defense against their enemies.
The 13th of Adar was when the Jews killed a number of their enemies. The 14th of Adar was a day of rest and celebration. The 13th of Adar is observed as the Fast of Esther and the 14th of Adar is Purim.
Purim celebration at Congregation Beth Sholom
As I arrived at the synagogue, members were beginning to enter. Most of them were dressed in costumes, including a pirate, policewoman, ballerina, superhero and movie star. There was an air of gaiety as people continued to arrive, most with trays of a special dessert especially for Purim called hamantaschen, triangular pastries made from a circle of dough filled with a sweet filling, folded into a triangle and baked. The name refers to Haman, the villain in the story.
The Esther story is called the megillah and is from the Book of Esther scroll. So we were there to hear the reading of the megillah. However, for what happens during the reading, Rabbi Michael Oblath read an abbreviated version or we might have been there all night.
Refreshments were served first. There were many flavors of hamantaschen brought by the congregation. The children made masks and had pictures taken with the rabbi, who was dressed in an elegant plushy hamantaschen costume he had made. We then entered the synagogue for the megillah reading. As people came in, graggers (noisemakers) were made available to use during the reading. The rabbi reminded those present that when Haman’s name is mentioned in the reading, children were to twirl their graggers and adults to boo to eradicate his evil name. He also encouraged yeas for Mordecai, Vashti and Esther. There were many children in attendance that night. Truly it was a family evening.
As the abbreviated megillah story was read, there were sustained interruptions by the children with graggers drowning out Haman’s name. Rabbi Oblath was patient as the story was slowly read. Some of the parents had a difficult time silencing their children after each gragger outburst. Clearly the children were familiar with the Esther story and enjoyed its reading. Nonetheless, I was made aware that night that this faith tradition involves its children from early on in meaningful expressions and clear understandings of key scriptural stories. Another celebration at this congregation is the observance of Seder, the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage.
If you’ve not experienced this congregation’s joy, community Seder is coming up on April 4.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith for Alaska Dispatch News and on his blog, Church Visits.