Today and yesterday were Purim in Israel. The story of the holiday can be found in the Book of Esther. A young Jewess wins a beauty contest to become queen and is uniquely poised to save the Jews of Persia from the very powerful Haman whose mission is to exterminate the Jews.
The story of Esther might not be your first thought if you are here in Israel on Purim. Purim is celebrated as a cross between Halloween and April Fools’ Day. Top items on the to-do list: Drink A LOT and party like it’s 1999. Give baskets of sweets to neighbors and friends (the opposite of trick-or-treat). Pull pranks and laugh a lot.
You could liken this version of Purim with secular Easter celebrations. Why does a bunny bring eggs in a basket? Why does he hide them? Why is the Easter Bunny a he? What does a bunny have to do with Jesus rising from the dead? Moreover, why is it that in France, Easter bells deliver eggs from Rome? Well, I digress.
There are 4 things that you are actually supposed to do on Purim.
- Listen to the Book of Esther (in Hebrew, it’s Megillat Esther – you have to listen to the whole megillah)
- Have a festive meal where you drink a lot
- This is where the sages suggested that you drink until you don’t know the difference between Mordechai and Haman
- Send gifts of food (in Hebrew, Mishloach Manot) to friends
- Give to the poor
You’ll note that dressing up is not mentioned and neither are pranks and jokes.
Purim is not one of those holidays where offices are closed, but workers are given the option of taking one of the two days off. One of two days, you ask? Purim in non-walled cities is on the 14th of Adar and Purim in walled cities is on the 15th of Adar (don’t ask, it’s complicated). Jerusalem is considered a walled city, so we celebrate on the 15th, but since people have families outside of Jerusalem, some of them celebrate on the 14th. Nowadays, the celebrating goes on for 2 days because it’s less confusing and a lot more fun.
This guy’s video went viral in Israel for his awesome flight through Tel Aviv.
Back in the day, people used to dress up as characters from the Book of Esther. No longer. You’ll see superheroes; characters from literature, movies and TV; fantastical characters; clever visual puns; or at a minimum, people wearing funny hats or wigs. If ever I dress up, I just plop on a tiara and call it done. I read one article that traced the dressing up to Italian Jews following the traditions of Mardi Gras. But the retroactively spiritual version, which I like, is that everything is hidden in the Book of Esther. She wears the mask of a non-Jew to win the beauty contest. God is not mentioned in the story, but the story is propelled forward by several coincidences that might be considered the invisible hand of God.
If you try to ask for hamantaschen in Israel, people will look at you funny. The triangular, filled sugar cookie traditionally eaten for Purim is called oznei haman in Israel. You might notice that Haman is mentioned in both cookie names, but strangely enough taschen and oznei are not the same. Hamantaschen is the German for Haman’s pockets. Oznei haman are Haman’s ears. And then there is the common story that the cookie represents Haman’s hat. But still, why are we eating anything related to Haman at all? He’s a villain! There’s no good answer for that, but the cookies are yummy nonetheless.
There’s a joke about Jewish holidays that goes like this: Jewish holidays can be summarized as “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” Purim is a great example. But it is also a reflection of day to day life in Israel and we don’t need any holidays to remember that. So Happy Purim! Let’s eat!