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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

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Moving beyond the child’s Purim

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Purim is an educator’s dream.

The Megillah offers a compelling narrative, which can be taught through plays, puppet shows and text study. Like a good Western, the lines are clearly drawn between the heroes and villains, enabling children to cheer and scowl at the appropriate junctures. The customs and rituals – dressing up, gragging graggers, baking hamentashen, delivering mishloach manot, giving matanot le’evyonim, eating a Purim seudah – are engaging and deeply rooted in the messages of the holiday.

With the educator’s job made easier, it is no wonder that Purim has evolved into a pediatric holiday. I use this term in two senses. First, it is a holiday centred on children. We ogle over children’s costumes, permit noise in the synagogue that would be frowned upon during the year, dole out candy, and have Purim carnivals specifically for children. Children are at the centre of any Purim celebration, demonstrated by the fact that most synagogues do not run separate children’s services during Megillah reading, as they would on other holidays. On Purim, the synagogue becomes the children’s service.

The pediatric approach to Purim is also manifest in our teaching of the holiday. In many respects, our study of the Megillah and the messages of Purim is stuck in an underdeveloped, elementary phase, rarely seeing the light of fresh, critical, adult analysis. Too often, we allow the narrative of Mordechai and Esther to stagnate in the narrow setting of Shushan without considering its implications for contemporary ethical study, or querying the characters, their actions and decisions.

In instances when we do depart from the Megillah’s story, the themes often seem designed more toward engagement than critical analysis. As an observer of high school curriculum and pedagogy, I have seen countless classes and activities focused on the question of drinking on Purim – “ad delo yada,” until you cannot discern between Haman and Mordechai – exploring questions such as: Are we required to drink? Permitted to drink? And if so, how much? While a study of alcohol consumption and abuse, and the parameters articulated in rabbinic texts is both engaging for teens and important to discuss, when this represents the outer limit of our teaching of Purim, we miss the boat on the depth of the Megillah’s potential as a cornerstone text for teaching complex issues.

The Purim story is ripe with ethical questions for debate: domestic violence, sex trafficking, poverty, slavery, exile, identity conservation and assimilation, consumerism, genocide, and the death penalty.

This year, in addition to dressing our children up in costumes and celebrating with them at a Purim carnival, let’s study the Megillah with new lenses. Let’s question issues of consumerism and gluttony at Achashverosh’s lavish banquets and his wanton treatment of women. Let’s explore Mordechai’s conflicted relationship with the state and Esther’s willingness to conceal her Jewish identity. Let’s consider the ethics of the death penalty handed down to Haman and his sons, and of the Jews’ request for an extension of their immunity to kill their aggressors.

It’s time to free Purim of its tight casting as a children’s holiday and view it as a rich opportunity to engage both the young and old.


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