Monday, March 1, 2010

Purim and the Book of Esther

There is actually three blog posts I hope to make today, we will see how far I get!!

This Saturday was the beginning of Purim. This is a Jewish holiday that has an annual party in my group of friends. In years past I knew a little about the origins and story, but mostly knew the saying – “drink until you don’t know your right hand from your left” – and that they ate delicious Hamentaschen cookies on the holiday. This year I learned quite a bit more because I headed over to the synagogue and attended the tail-end of the Jewish service that night and the Purim Play, which one of our friends was participating in (he actually turned out to be one of the main roles).

The “service” I am referring to is the reading of the book of Esther in Hebrew. It was quite the experience. Half the people were in costume, and every time that the bad guys name is said (Hamen), the entire crowd boos and makes noise with noisemakers to block it out. There were kids running around in their costumes playing with balloons and laughing. The rabbi’s who were doing the reading were making jokes. They had a green light to tell you when to make noise. It was a blast. You have got to appreciate a religion that knows how to celebrate!!

After the end of the reading we crossed the hall into the social room to watch the play, which turned out to be quite a big production!! It was “Purim with the Beatles” and incorporated Beatle Songs every which way. The story of Purim goes as follows. The King Ahasuerus decides he wants a new wife and orders young beautiful women to present themselves to him. He chooses Esther, not aware she is a Jew, because she is the most beautiful. He also hires her cousin, who raised her, to work at the gate. Her cousin discovers a plot and saves the kings life. The king decides to take on a new advisor, Hamen, who is a bit crazy and asks the King to order everyone to bow down to him, the King orders this. Hamen soon discovers that Esther’s cousin, and all other Jews, refuse to bow to him because they only bow to God. He starts a campaign to hang all the Jews for breaking the law. In order to save her people, Esther admits to the king she is Jewish, he responds by telling all the Jews to not obey Hamen and to fight back. From that point on Jews are safe in the kingdom, and they celebrate Purim to commemorate it.

The best song of the whole play was “A little help from my friends,” hum the melody in your head, and then put these lyrics in: “What would you do, if I said I’m a jew, would you hang up and walk out on me?... If you are a jew, I would say nothing new, it really doesn’t matter to me”. Quite amusing. Our friend performed very well.

We then headed back to the friends house and made merry with tasty food and drink, and good conversation.

On a more serious note, the thing that surprised me the most about the purim story and in general my experience at the Synagogue was the culture of persecution. The story and celebration are all about Jews escaping persecution, and the Engish translation we had of the Book of Esther included footnotes discussing the lessons Purim teaches about the holocaust and people's acceptance of that persecution. To me, it seems like it would sort of be like the Church of England celebrating a day that a Catholic king stopped persecutions, or some protestants celebrating the day that they arrived in America and were no longer persecuted. It is a very odd cultural difference, I think, between most Christian denominations and Judaism. I am guessing it is mainly the difference in the fact that Judaism is not only a religion, but also an ethnicity and culture.

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