Wednesday, March 10, 2004


It was Purim night and Aviv was in a funk. About his costume.

“What if someone else is wearing the same thing?” he complained, sounding a tad too much like his worrywart father. “Or what if I have to go to the bathroom?”

His hand-me-down Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle outfit could only be unzipped from the back, necessitating adult aid in disrobing.

“I’ll take you to the bathroom,” I reassured Aviv. “And maybe there’ll be a girl Ninja Turtle.”

Aviv looked at me with a mix of six-year-old bemusement and pity, as if to say everyone knows there are no girl Ninja turtles. And I don’t play with girls!

Still, there was no question Aviv would be dressing up. Costumes are a big part of the fun on Purim, the Jewish calendar’s official holiday of disguise. Kids and adults alike dress up as everything from mini-Queens and Kings to go-go dancers and faux-Village People.

The tradition harks back to how Esther, the Biblical heroine of the Purim story, hid her true identity as a Jew until the last possible moment, dramatically saving her people from annihilation at the hands of Persian King Ahashverous’s wicked Chief of Staff Haman.

(We’re also instructed to drink until we can no longer differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys, but I tend to leave that part out when making the holiday relevant to the six-year-old set.)

The highlight of the Purim holiday (other than the drinking) is the reading of the megilla, a scroll contaiing the Purim story, while the assembled congregation tries to make as much noise as humanly possible every time the name of Haman is read.

Some shake baby rattles, others bang on bongo drums or stamp their feet. This year, one guy dressed like “Cousin It” from the Adams Family had his cell phone set to play polyphonic tunes on cue. I think I heard Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

Nice touch.

As we readied our rattles to obliterate that first utterance of the name, there was a loud bang from outside. Then another boom. Aviv shot up.

“What was that?” he demanded, looking not a little upset. His awareness of the world around him has increased of late, and he’s been asking a lot of questions about bombs.

Everyone else in the room simply continued in their merrymaking with the nonchalance of old pros.

That’s because they knew what I have learned since moving to Israel: that the explosions from outside were simply purimcrackers: firecrackers set off on Purim night.

When I heard my first purimcracker, my initial thought was: how incredibly inappropriate. Not just because it was disturbing the megilla reading. Rather, why would anyone want to spark a panic with a sound approximating a bomb when there are so many real bombs going off right under our noses?

OK, maybe it was a fun tradition ten years ago. But now? In the times we currently live in?

Now, I'm no old fart who's forgotten how to have a bit of fun. Along with firecrackers, fireworks have long been used to highlight Independence Day celebrations around the world and I have certainly indulged.

The Fourth of July back in the “old country” wouldn’t have been the same without the mandatory trip down to the Red Devil fireworks stand to pick up a big box of fountains, roman candles and snakes. My brother, my parents and I would set them up in the middle of the suburban cul-de-sac we grew up on and, alongside all the other kids and their parents, light off one after another.

It was incredibly dangerous. And totally fun.

But that was when war seemed far away. Not down the block.

Still, I can understand the connection to Independence Day. But what’s the deal with Purim?

I mean, what was Esther’s first response when her uncle, Mordechai, confronts her with Haman’s plans of genocide? She tries to bury her head in the proverbial Persian sand and ignore the peril. That is until Mordechai makes it clear that, just because she’s the Queen, it doesn’t mean she’s going to escape the fate of her brethren.

So what happens next? Esther orders the Jewish people to fast for three days. Mordechai dons sackcloth and ashes. Not a particularly military response. Esther eventually uses her position to lay a trap for Haman, convincing the King to hang He Who’s Name Must Not Be Heard in a classic case of court intrigue.

That’s where most people close the book and call it a night. We won. Now let’s eat.

But the final, less discussed section of the Purim story goes into great detail about how the Jews armed themselves and fought against those who were coming to kill them. And won big time. In a matter of mere months, the Jewish people were transformed from a seemingly powerless minority into a lean mean fighting machine.

By the end of the megilla, the Jews have slaughtered some 75,000 of their enemies and Esther’s uncle, Mordechai, has been appointed Prime Minister.

In this light it seems that maybe purimcrackers aren’t that inappropriate after all. And the plethora of costumed cowboys, bullfighters and superheroes - they're not just out to mark the art of disguise ala Esther, but to remember the military heroes who took over, once Esther’s true identity was revealed.

And that also includes one little worrywart Ninja Turtle.

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