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Festive holiday Purim is like hiding in the open


Published: Sat, March 11, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.


Masks, disguises, secret identities.
Batman? The Lone Ranger?
Of course not! Purim is coming!
Purim, the festive holiday beloved of Jewish children, begins Monday evening and ends at sundown Tuesday. It's the holiday when we read the Book of Esther from a scroll, and everyone cheers when the hero Mordechai is mentioned, and boos and makes a deafening racket when they hear the villain Haman's name.
We sing songs about what happened in Shushan, the capital of Persia, a long time ago, when this wicked, wicked man sought the destruction of our people, and failed. We eat triangular pastries meant to resemble Haman's three-cornered hat (or, some say, his devilish ears).
A real drink
The kids are in costumes and masks and grownups revel on the one holiday when it's OK to have a drink. A real drink, not just a cup of wine, as we would use weekly to declare the Sabbath holy. Bring out the single malt!
It's another kind of mask. In fact there's a much-discussed commandment to drink to the point that one cannot tell the difference between the shouts of "Praised be Mordechai" and "Cursed be Haman" during the reading of the scroll. Purim demands designated drivers.
It's a day when everything is upside down, backward and turned on its head. Even the most austere houses of learning join in the revelry, making fun of their beloved teachers and rabbis -- and even God -- in plays called Purimshpiels.
Purim in Israel is sort of like Halloween in San Francisco. Bank tellers and postal workers dress in costume. People are walking and riding the bus all dressed up. It's sort of like Mardi Gras read from right to left, each disguise cleverer than the next.
But Purim doesn't get the press it deserves in these parts.
A darker side
And there is another, darker side as well.
In the introduction to a collection of early Batman reprints from my personal collection, the editor tells the following story: His 5-year-old son was playing superhero. He had all the prerequisites necessary to deal a death blow to the dastardly demons of the underworld: a mask and a towel for a cape.
The questions came, "Why the cape?"
"So I can fly, silly!"
"Why the mask?" The answer came forth with that self-assurance that makes the one asking feel stupid: "So nobody will know who I am!"
Collective identity
Of course. We Jews should know that. Hiding who we were became, over the centuries, a hallmark of our collective identity. Stories in the Talmud indicate that the Jews in Arab countries frequently assimilated in their forms of dress and were indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbors. They weren't exactly hiding, but they weren't wearing clothes that said, "Hey, we're Jewish!"
Fast forward to the re-Christianization of Spain, with its frightening Inquisition. Thousands of Jews claimed to convert to Christianity to save their lives. But family customs lasted for hundreds of years: lighting candles on Friday evenings and fasting for 24 hours on a certain day in the fall. The Spanish called them "marranos," an ugly epithet meaning "pig." The converted Spanish Jews called themselves "Conversos." And for centuries they wore the mask of another religion in order to survive.
Painful truth
The book of Esther teaches us the painful truth about what we often needed to do in order to survive in a land not our own: enter the intrigues of the court, become indispensable to the king, know all the ins and outs of the way the government works, catch them off guard and don't let them know who you are.
But is it just us? This past year showed Christians in Iraq and Turkey dressing like Muslims in order to avoid becoming victims of violence. Why do we wear a mask? So nobody will know who we are.
Obviously, keeping a secret identity is not the only message to be learned from Purim. While God is not mentioned once in the entire book, the messages of divine protection and redemption are clear to anyone reading the text with a historical perspective.
The important message to take care of each other is reinforced by the practices of giving gifts to the poor and taking portions of treats to our friends. We're reminded of the power of prayer when, the day before Purim, we emulate Esther's fast before taking her life in her hands by seeking an uninvited audience with King Achashveroush. After all, it worked for her. And eventually she removed her mask and revealed her background to the king.
On Purim, we read an ancient story with a modern message. Ultimately that message is one of hope. It's because we know the story of Esther and Mordechai that we can take pride in our longevity as a people. It's because we know what happened back in "Shu-Shu-Shushan long ago" that we can look forward to a bright future, despite all the bumps that are sure to be thrown in our path.
Happy Purim.
Rabbi Joel Berman heads the Ohev Tzedak-Shaarei Torah Congregation in Boardman.


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