Purim is the Festival of Lots, a celebration of the events recounted in the Scroll of Esther. Through the many colorful interpretations of the tale, we are all familiar with beautiful Queen Esther, her cousin the noble Mordechai, and villainous Haman, the king’s vizier. Their story unfolds in ancient Persia, and tells how our heroes outwitted Haman and foiled his plans to kill all the Jews. In honor of this history, we fill our iconic cookies with the traditional poppy seed paste, the original variety.
One year ago, the Purim spiel was canceled due growing concern about the spread of a mysterious new disease. Monday, March 9, 2020 we were supposed to gather together in costumes, drink our wine, and recite the Megillah. But instead we dressed in our sweats, had pizza delivered, and counted our rolls of toilet paper. Purim was the first of our festivals interrupted by the Coronavirus, back before we even knew what was happening. For this, we create tomato hamentaschen, something disturbing, unwanted, barely edible, hopefully never to be repeated.
In addition to reciting the Megillah, the mitzvot of Purim include exchanging gifts of food and drink -- mishloach manot, donating to charity (above and beyond traditional tzedakah), and eating the celebratory meal. Some may also observe the Fast of Esther the day prior, personalizing Esther’s efforts to build her resolve before approaching the king. These ritual activities ground and guide us, providing a framework for how we should participate in our community. The traditions each focus on an expanding awareness, from the personal fast, to the family meal, to the gifts for friends, to the charity for the stranger. This is the real spiritual heart of Purim, and for this, we fill our hamentaschen with apricot jam, making for the ultimate in delicious, sweet treats.
Of course, what is a modern Purim celebration without the carnival? A highlight of any Jewish school year are the crazy games, costumes, crafts, snacks, and activities of the Purim party. This tradition probably stems from medieval Italian Jews borrowing aspects of that other famous carnival that happens around the same time of year (Mardi Gras), but over time we have now made this something wholly our own. There’s even a biblical precedent for the masquerade, sort of, if you count Esther’s hiding from the King that she was Jewish. In any case, this carnival makes Purim many children’s favorite Jewish holiday, and for them, we have a chocolate-filled hamentaschen, the variety that classrooms always seem to run out of first.
And as for Purim in the time of Coronavirus? As of this writing, the details have not yet been announced. But plans undoubtedly will involve sitting in front of our laptop screens, each of us at our individual homes. Last year, as Purim was disrupted so early in the pandemic, there was no time to plan worship from home. And so Purim this year now becomes the last festival of our cycle to be modified for Zoom. We may sometimes complain about the Zoom, but our kvetching is outweighed by our gratefulness that we are able to connect to our community at all. This last year has forced us to reconsider aspects of all our Jewish holidays, and some of the changes have proved surprising -- improving, expanding, and evolving our bond to the festivals. For this, we make new traditions, filling our hamentaschen with mango, persimmon, or pumpkin, experimenting, exploring the possibilities.
So as Purim marks the passing of one year with the pandemic, we now want to believe that the vaccines and other efforts presage the end of the quarantine. Hopefully among the bad we have found some good, and can bring it with us when we emerge from our homes. But in the meantime, Chag Purim Sameach!