A Purim Primer: If You Can Read This You’re Still Too Sober

Happy Birthday Dad! You paid for four years of college, and here I am dressed as a cartoon character. Was it worth it?

You can tell Purim is a real Jewish holiday because the story follows the same script as all Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us. We won. So let’s eat. Only Purim’s a little different because, along with the eating, we’re also told to get soooo drunk that we can’t tell who is our friend and who is our enemy. Long ago, some rabbis—the lame rabbis—said that what God probably meant by that is that we should drink a little more than usual then fall asleep. But I have a feeling that there will be a lot of people at, say, The Loop tomorrow night who’ll beg to differ.

Also unlike other Jewish holidays, on Purim we dress up, we perform amateur theater, we eat Napoleonic cookies, and children with ADD have an excuse to be more annoying than usual. (You know how annoying graggers are? I wanted to link that last sentence to a YouTube video of kids with graggers, but there isn’t one. The YouTube community has shunned graggers! There’s a ten hour video of an animated cat surfing on a rainbow, but nothing involving this supposedly cherished Jewish custom.)

So there’s that. But when you consult the scrolls you can find out so much more. For instance, like the story of Abraham smashing the idols, or the case of the missing Bingo caller on the Ark, the story of Purim is not actually in the Torah. It gets its very own book, the Book of Esther, which became the 24th, and last, book to make it into the Tanakh. With that list capped, future prophets had to find other places to canonize their works, like on websites about cats, in the pages of Dianetics, or on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Women, as usual, pretty much get the shaft on Purim. The old white men who seem to decide all the important women’s issues do recognize that women, you know, play a pretty big role in this story. So a woman can hear the Megillah read to her. But can she also read the thing? Of course not.

The Purim story isn’t short on memorable characters, speaking of women. There’s Vashti, Esther, Mordecai, King Ahasuerus, and Haman. Haman’s name, which occurs 54 times in the Megillah (but who’s counting), is traditionally greeted by boos and jeers, or just lots of noise whenever it’s mentioned. This tradition, started in the 13th century by Franco-Prussian Jews, stems from a commandment in the Torah to blot out the remembrance of Amalek, who was an evil dude in the Torah, and from whom it’s believed Haman is descended. And since nobody can prove that Ahmadinejad descends from Amalek (though $20 says someone’s tried) Haman will have to do. The most popular way this is done is by rattling a gragger (Yiddish for headache), which we’ve already discussed. Jews around the world do this, with the exception of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who ban the practice because they’re smart. Some Jews write Haman’s name on their shoes and stomp until it disappears, some write his name on rocks and bash them together until they’re worn, and some walk the streets with a burning effigy of Haman. Because what better way to celebrate a merry holiday than to burn a likeness of someone who almost killed you. Right guys?

Purim’s also the only (or maybe one of the only?) major Jewish text to not include any mention of God. Scores of rabbis have justified why this is, and it makes for pretty entertaining reading to see some of their fancy excuses, but I like the lack of reference, because it reinforces the idea that Judaism is more than just a religion. It can be celebrated in myriad ways by a wide range of people.

For instance: last year I was in Jerusalem for Purim. I dressed as Super Mario. Israelis loved it. They all wanted my friend to take a picture of them posing with me. So now there are all these pictures on Facebook of me as Mario with random Israeli arsim who will never see these pictures. It rained that night. We went to a party in some guy’s rooftop apartment. There was wine. There was pot. An American Chabadnik showed up and busted out a Megillah scroll from his raincoat. He took a couple puffs from the joint. He started reading. Us adults made animal noises whenever he read Haman’s name. I take back my comment about annoying ADD kids. He finished reading. We left the party. I found Luigi! It was an awesome night.

That will always be what Purim is about, at least for me: taking pictures with random Israeli high schoolers, and drinking wine with a pot-smoking oleh who can chant the Megillah. Because Purim is happy. Purim is a celebration. We don’t have to fast and hate ourselves like we do on Yom Kippur. We don’t have to fast and cry ourselves to sleep like on Tisha B’Av. We don’t have to bread-fast and cry on the toilet like on Passover. All those are important, obviously, but on Purim we get to drink, we get to eat, and men get to dress up like women (which the rabbis allowed!).

It’s a holiday created as a rebuke to the Hamans of the world, or the Nazis, who often staged their worst attacks around Jewish holidays. It’s a holiday to show the world, in the immortal words of Chumbawamba, “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.”