By Jenny T. Burns
Let’s be honest. It’s pretty easy to get our families excited about Chanukah. There are presents, fried foods, special wrapping paper in grocery stores, Chanukah greeting cards, memorable storybooks like Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, and there’s even the occasional Chanukah-celebrating character on Christmas TV specials. When we’re being represented in the majority culture, it’s so easy to get onboard. It’s like big corporations and Netflix are even trying to help us! We get to catch some of the Christmas-marketing wave and use it to our advantage.
Now, let’s keep being honest. It’s not so easy to get our families and communities excited for every Jewish holiday. Consider Purim. Like Chanukah, it’s a fun holiday, one we should be cheering about. We give gift baskets, eat special cookies, have some adult drinks, get dressed up and make tons of noise. Ask someone who’s travelled in Israel during Purim and they will have the most unbelievable stories about parades, or cities practically shutting down to celebrate, and the indescribable in-your-face party of it all. Many here in Ottawa will call it a success when our kids come to Hebrew school or the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC) in costume. A bit of contrast, to say the least.
Without that aid of secular marketing, most Jewish holidays lack visibility and a subsequent feeling of anticipation. In short, unintentionally, we and our kids are taught by cereal boxes, TV specials and department store displays to get jazzed for Halloween, not Purim. What’s more, when it’s hard to be enthusiastic about something, we’re less likely to participate or encourage our families to participate. Case in point, I have far more Halloween memories from childhood than Purim.
Keeping in this vein of honesty, I’m no exception to all these visibility and minority culture issues. I have to check the internet to see when Purim is. I have to set reminders on my phone to make hamentaschen or mishloach manot or to look over the story of Esther. My brain is already skipping ahead to Passover prep, partly because of all the cleaning that’s coming up, and partly because grocery stores are already putting out matzah and displays of chocolate eggs.
Yet, ignoring or downplaying our holidays will only help to water down our Jewish culture and religion. So, yes, it’s a struggle, but one that must be faced head-on. Like our Shushan ancestors, we have to find ways to keep being Jewish as a minority. If Netflix won’t help, we have to do the marketing campaign for ourselves and our families!
Now, I’m no expert, but here’s what’s been working for my family. Aside from the delicious baking traditions, I find that my greatest resource is the internet. I make YouTube and Spotify playlists that help create the Purim vibe in my house – even a week before Purim arrives. Sometimes it’s a “Shalom Sesame” video where Grover can help my toddlers say the word ‘hamentaschen,’ and sometimes it’s a playlist of all those amazing acapella groups.
When it comes to other traditions, my family never really got into mishloach manot, until we were introduced to the Secret Esther/Sod Esther tradition by my friend Marian Leimovici. Yes, it is undoubtedly like Secret Santa, only Sod Esther gives mishloach manot. About three weeks out from Purim, at Shabbat dinner, my family draws names. We are then each responsible for putting together a fun, personalized gift basket for our person. We exchange gift baskets on the Shabbat before Purim and the whole experience helps us get amped up for the holiday. Also, since Purim isn’t around the time of any Christian holidays, my non-Jewish in-laws can easily participate in this tradition and help their nephews/grandsons celebrate a uniquely Jewish holiday.
Now, after all that on-ramping, when Purim is upon us, my family has the motivation to participate. Maybe it’s attending one of the amazing programs at the SJCC or a synagogue. Maybe it’s a big family dinner that includes both sides of my interfaith family. Maybe it’s a movie night with Purim-themed films. However we end up celebrating, we are present and participating in our Judaism. At the end of the day, the harder we work to get excited and make something special, the more that something starts to feel like a celebration we can look forward to year after year.