Early childhood memory: Purim at my Jewish school in Frankfurt. “Chag Purim, Chag Purim, Chag gadol la Yehudim!” I am dressed up as a traditional Creole lady from Martinique, where my grandfather was from. I have a headscarf on, a cheerful-patterned skirt, and big clip-on earrings. In retrospect, I see the brilliance of this costume. What is Purim if not the Jewish response to other spring-time carnival celebrations like Mardi Gras in New Orleans to Carnival in Caribbean islands like Martinique to long-standing European Saturnalia celebrations in places like, well, Germany? Good job on that costume, Maman!
At Hillel Academy in Ottawa, Purim was a big deal too. The gymnasium transformed into an old-timey carnival with games, shows, treats and dozens of Queen Esthers, Mordechais and Ninja Turtles running around. We made plates of mishloach manot for the kids in our class and for the Ottawa Kosher Food Bank. We stuffed ourselves full of hamantaschen (my favourite is poppy seed, if anyone is taking notes).
But Purim is not just for children. And it is not just for hamantaschen either, although some might argue with me. This is a holiday for adults.
Purim is unusual. It is not a festival like Passover, Sukkot or Shavuot, and it is not described in the Torah but in Ketuvim. Megillat Esther tells a vicious tale of sexual exploitation, slavery, ethnic cleansing, deception, executions and revenge. Critics and scholars consider it satire and a parody narrative, but this was not clear to me as a child. I just thought the story was suspenseful, violent and a little naughty.
In terms of customs, we are encouraged to drink until we can’t tell the difference between the hero, Mordechai, and the villain, Haman. We wear costumes. We lampoon and mock with Purim spiels, and children dress up as kings and queens. These customs are in line with those of the Shrovetide period celebrated before Lent: Carnival, Fastelavn, Shrove Tuesday and Maslenitsa. In France, some rural villages still burn effigies to symbolize letting go of a local conflict, and Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans and Venice are famous for their masquerades. Especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, Carnival means outrageous celebrations of singing, dancing, carousing and revelry.
At university, I was introduced to the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and literary critic known for his work on the “carnivalesque” in literature and culture. His book, “Rabelais and His World,” describes the Saturnalia celebrations of medieval Europe, which were based in ancient pagan and Hellenistic rites and were the occasion for medieval European societies to find release from social pressure. Saturnalia was the chance to turn conventions upside down, to let the poor and the oppressed be kings and queens for the day, and to embrace the topsy-turvy. Saturnalia was a period of temporary freedom and liberation from the constraints of otherwise rigid societies.
The topsy-turviness and liberation that Purim, Saturnalia and Carnival encourages is what I love most about Purim. In fact, it is partly through my interest in Purim that I have been able to break barriers in my own Jewish life.
Cantillation, or chanting, always seemed inaccessible to me: abstract, otherworldly and available to men alone – until I learned that there is an app for that! JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, has an app for iPhone and Android that helps you to learn how to chant the Megillat Esther. With women’s voices and a user-friendly interface developed by my friend Rabbi Charlie Schwarz, JOFA’s app helped me to learn how to chant the chapter 5 of the Megillah as well as the blessings that come before and after the reading. It also inspired me to learn Torah cantillation, but that is another story (for Shavuot).
This year, my iPhone will be pulled out again as I try to improve my chanting of chapter 5. This chapter, like the Megillah as a whole, is suspenseful, violent and a little naughty, and it is also a story of women’s empowerment. I didn’t see that when I was a child, but I see it now.
Chag Purim Sameach!