I think my favorite part of the Purim carnival at the Bayonne JCC when I was growing up was the “shave the balloon” booth. The shaving cream was always so foamy, you got just a little bit messy, and someone always did end up popping the balloon. As a parent, watching my own kids and their friends get very excited about slime and slime-making, I am reminded of my own love of playing with shaving cream at the JCC on Purim. I also remember making hamantaschen with my mom and singing “O once there was a wicked, wicked man…” in religious school. As a kid, Purim was a lot of fun.
When I got to seminary, one of my roommates had a big problem with Purim. A problem with Purim? What could be wrong with Purim? This smart, future rabbi helped me to look more critically at the holiday and the celebration, moving past the childhood memories of goldfish with very short lives to a more mature confrontation of the day.
The book of Esther is dark covering such themes as the abuse of power, dishonesty, inauthenticity, anti-Jewish sentiment, plots of genocide, violent retaliation, taking vengeance, rejoicing in another’s’ downfall and more. The story can be read as a reminder to remain vigilant about potential threats to our community. The book of Esther is far from G-rated. It requires the modern reader to look closely at one’s own anger and aggression.
On Purim, we are meant to remember this difficult story, but also experience joy as the Jews did in Esther 8:16: “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.” The four mitzvot of Purim are: hearing a reading of the megillah, partaking in a festive meal, giving gifts to friends and neighbors, and giving to those who are in need. While we bear witness to the complicated and fearful story of Purim, we also bring light and joy into our own lives and those around us.
It is customary to tell the story of the megillah in a Purim Shpiel and loudly blot out Haman’s name with groggers. Purim spiels have been performed for at least five hundred years. Shpiels are often written as satire and viewers will have many opportunities to laugh. The jokes, songs, and slapstick comedy of many of today’s shpiels may warrant a knee-jerk laugh, but I have often imagined that shpiels are leveraging two other types of laughter: nervous laughter and laughter as stress-relief.
I will always remember the very first 6th-grade religious school class that I taught right after I graduated from college. My curriculum included teaching the 12-year-olds about the Holocaust. I remember being surprised when one of the students started laughing in class. As young and inexperienced as I was, I thought that the child was being disrespectful. I quickly realized that, in fact, the student was scared and was laughing nervously as a way to cope with her fear. I think that we laugh at Purim, in part, to cope with how truly difficult the story is.
This past year has not been easy. We have each had to make our own way through a global pandemic. Many members of our community have worked as hard as possible to maintain employment, care for friends and loved ones, move through a divisive election year, confront loss and grief, all while remaining vigilant about handwashing, mask-wearing, and maintaining physical distance from others. Much has been hard for many this year in ways that we could not have imagined. Many are experiencing fear and significant stress.
On their website, the Mayo Clinic staff explain that laughter, in fact, is one of the best medicines that we have. Data suggests that laughter stimulates our bodies with oxygen-rich air, activates and relieves our stress response, and can soothe tension. Over time, laughter can even help improve our immune systems, pain, personal satisfaction, and mood. If there was ever a year to laugh out loud for Purim, this is the year!
As in recent years past, we are excited to laugh out loud with you at the Temple Beth El congregation-wide Purim shpiel on Sunday, February 28th at 11am, via Zoom. Please visit templebethel.org for more information about the shpiel and other opportunities to celebrate Purim as a TBE community. As we have experienced joy in the past, so too may we experience joy this year to come.