Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Grappling with Purim

When I was a kid, I never liked Purim. It seemed like a bunch of people running around in costume for no obvious reason. Halloween seemed more fun and more likely to result in candy for me, personally. Despite not being frum, my family has some Litvish tendencies, so my parents didn't even like the service at our synagogue.

There were some positive developments along the way, such as my ninth grade class at Schechter, where we studied Megillat Esther as literature. I really enjoyed it and discovered that it much less silly than I had thought. In 11th or 12th grade, I spent Purim with some friends in NCSY (the Orthodox youth group), and with them I heard my first complete Megillah reading and had my first Purim seudah (festive meal).

College was less good, but that was only because I didn't really like my college's Hillel, so my dissatisfaction wasn't limited to Purim. Also there were some girls who liked to dress up in theme costumes, and I was somehow never included. All those girls are married now, and I'm not, but I don't draw any conclusions from that.

But, when I moved to where I currently live, I fell in love with Purim. Lots of dorks in dorky costumes! A choice of Megillah readings, including one where people do voices! Parties with my friends! Candy! (OK, there was always candy, but candy is so much better when you're already having fun).

So, I'm still here where I live, but this coming Purim has raised a lot of issues for me. First, there was the attack on the Mercaz HaRav (Kook) Yeshivah in Jerusalem. It horrified me beyond words. Some insane Arab terrorist killed teenagers in Jerusalem while they were studying Torah. And someone said up a Facebook group in his honor! The reaction, alas, left something to be desired. According to The New York Times, which isn't the best source necessarily, but this doesn't sound so far-fetched, the Israeli government is trying to figure out whether it would be legal to demolish this guy's house, which I'm pretty sure won't help. Then the Rosh Yeshivah of Mercaz HaRav, whom I acknowledge must be suffering terribly, said in his eulogy, "The murderers are the Amalek of our day." Since we just passed Shabbat Zachor, I think we know what that means. I am very worried that right-wing Israeli religious nationalists will kill Israeli Arabs and/or Palestinians this Purim. We're not that many years removed from Baruch Goldstein, who is still treated like a hero in some circles, most visibly in Hevron. Please don't do it, guys. Purim is confusing because Megillat Esther and much of the Jewish tradition clearly glorifies killing our enemies. (Skipping those parts of the Megillah in some non-Orthodox shuls won't make that go away). I think that modern Jews, regardless of whether they are frum or not, can draw distinctions between previous times and now, and can assess what makes long-term geopolitical sense, which is also a part of our long-term survival. Killing Arabs won't help with that. But not all Jews are modern (which is their choice), and not all Jews are sane (and I am not equating non-modernity with insanity--these are two separate categories), as Jewish tradition also attests, so I'm very concerned.

Second, a friend of mine was killed this week. He was just about my age. Many communities are in mourning. He and I often attended the same Purim seudah. My friends and I cannot figure out what to do. Some sort of seudah will take place. HaMotzi (the blessing over the bread, which is necessary in order for a meal to be considered a seudah) will be said, mishloach manot (gift baskets of food) will be exchanged, and probably everyone will cry. Great, right?

So, I'm seriously trying to figure out how to view this Purim as anything other than a disaster. Something I heard a few weeks ago is part of what I'm thinking about. My father has been reading (Former Israeli Chief) Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Lau's guide to Jewish law (a best-seller in Israel in the '70's, still in print). It was designed for the average Israeli and thus is good for American Jews, in English or the language of your preference. My father, an owner of a Jewish calendar if ever there was one, was reading the section on Purim, and he told me that Lau talked about the aspect of the holiday that is "the world turned upside down."

A brief excursus for those of you who aren't grad students, and who don't use the word "excursus" in any context, ever: A number of scholars, most famously Mikhail Bakhtin, author of Rabelais and His World, have discussed the role of Carnival (part of which we now know today in America as Mardi Gras) in Europe before the advent of modernity. Basically, his thesis was that because medieval and early modern society were so unequal and generally depressing, regular people needed an outlet to avoid setting everything on fire. So, for a fixed period of time before Lent, there were rowdy, costumed, alcohol-soaked parades and other celebrations in which people dressed up as or otherwise mocked the king, the local lord, the tax collector, or all three, with no consequences as long as they went home when it was over. Commoners "turned the world upside down" and pretended that they were the rich guys with all of the money and power (and food). It's not a secret that Mardi Gras and Purim occur around the same time (unless there is a lunar leap year and the solar calendar is off), and that certain themes--the costumes, the booze, the not wanting to be able to differentiate between the good guy and the bad guy--are similar. After hearing about Bakhtin in my first year of graduate school, I did what I usually do when I hear these things. I said to myself, "Okay, Katrina, so there is a basic need in society for turning the world upside down, and it probably predates Christianity; we have turned this need into something Jewish, as we do, which is a good thing." And I left it at that.

Lau had quite a different perspective. The turning the world upside town, or turning oneself inside out, gives one the opportunity to truly and openly let oneself experience the pain of the Golah (exile--it used to refer to the loss of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel AND the absence of God's presence from the Holy Temple and the sacrifices; now, although opinions differ, depending on what you think "Jewish sovereignty" means, it refers primarily to the latter) and the suffering of the Jewish people that has resulted. Lau's statement really struck me, not least because it made Purim seem much more Jewish to me than it had since I read about Bakhtin. I heard this before my friend died, but I think that if we look at Purim as also perhaps a time of anguish (that's why lots of people drink, of course)--something the rabbis touched on in reverse when they said that Yom Kippur, Yom ha'Kippurim, is meant to be a Yom ki' Purim (a day like Purim), it can make sense even amidst our suffering. And if you look at the sweep of Jewish history, of course, Purim was often far from happy; Jews "celebrated" it amidst desperate poverty and persecution, and perhaps even while being locked into their ghettos by the government for their own protection during Carnival, which did happen. There is always a thin line between comedy and tragedy; to take a more modern example, just think of how many people are afraid of clowns. So that's the best I can do right now.


Shira Salamone said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your friend being killed. May you and his other friends and family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Purim Sameach. (Yes, that's a bit from one extreme to the other, but life in general, and Jewish life in particular, is often that way.)

ALG said...

I am so sorry for your loss. He was such a special person. This is truly devastating.

Take good care of yourself.

(I didn't know him nearly as well as you did, but I also blogged a bit about Purim and his death and how much life just totally sucks sometimes, in case you're interested.)

elf said...

I've often thought that the practice of reading parts of the megillah in Eicha trop (the tune used for Lamentations) had some relevance to this idea. Esther, after all, is a comedy about a genocide that just happens not to happen. There's tragedy right below the surface, and we seem to be acknowledging that when we switch trop. I've also been struck by how easy it is to switch from one tune to the other. I'm sure that has no real significance, but it's a little bit eerie.

mama o' the matrices said...

the Man always reads bits of megilat Esther with the Eicha trop - it's beautiful and I think, grounding.

Esther is a frivolous story with a really dark backdrop, and it makes sense that the feeling of carnival (no, I won't go directly into Bakhtin here) would be darker or lighter depending on the circumstance.

This year, perhaps it's a bit darker.