Monday, March 13, 2006

Why We Need Purim in the 21st Century

On the eve of Purim 2006, the relevance of the holiday's message seems almost embarrassingly obvious. Even those who only intermittently tune into world news must know that two high-profile, modern-day Hamans have been busy promoting their highly un-original plan for the destruction of Israel -- the leader of Iran and the leader of Hamas.

Weirdly, if you mush together H-A-M-A-S and I-R-A-N, guess what you get??

That's right. Haman lives. But not for long.

The way-cool story of Purim, compellingly rendered in the Scroll of Esther, or Megillat Esther, clues us in on a recurring theme in history: Evil people will concoct evil plans to annihilate Israel and the Jewish People. Tragic events will come to pass but those who seek to destroy the Jews will ultimately be defeated.

In every generation, misguided minds have been inspired to attempt what has historically proved impossible: wiping the Jews off the map.

From Pharoah fretting that his Hebrew slaves have been multiplying like pestilence to the biblical nation of Amalek (Haman's mishpocha) sneaking up on the escaping Israelites to the H-Man himself who was miffed because little Mordechai the Jew refused to bow down to him, to the Romans, the Syrians, the Syrian-Greeks, the Crusaders and the Grand Inquisitor who all had tantrums of mass destruction because the Jews worshipped Jehovah to the lumber-headed, rape-crazed Cossacks to the inimitable evil of Adolf the 20th Century H-Man and his Million Aryan March, to the poisonously petulant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the chilling character of Ismail Haniyah and all who preach contemporary Jew-hatred, this singular notion -- Hey! Let's Kill the Jews! -- has proven to have surprising staying power.

You would think that Iran would at least conduct a Google-search before undertaking the impossible mission of destroying Israel. I really think that Ahmaninejad's administration should at least create a budget line for a research assistant to prepare a feasibility study on this matter. Think about it. For way less than $100 -- the cost of about ten-hours of work from a computer-literate Iranian teen at the teen-friendly rate of $10 an hour -- Iran would end up saving something in the neighborhood of several million dollars. In addition, the advance legwork would save Ahmadinejad several painful post-mortems with his military on just why the mission failed and how the hell the Israelis could have so easily nuked the nuclear reactor, not to mention irritating condolence calls from folks like Haniyah and Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad.

But, screw 'em. Those who don't learn from history....

Meanwhile, here in the Big City, signs of Purim are everywhere. Almost every bakery in town has hamantaschen, the traditional pastry, shaped like a triangle and filled with anything from apricot to poppy seed to prune jam to Nutella; toy shops boast of their costume selections; restaurants (both kosher and non-kosher) offer a "traditional Purim meal." Even nominally Jewish shops seductively spin their pitches in Purimspeak, appealing to Jews and Jewish wanna-be's alike.

The most extreme and entertaining example of a not-necessarily-Jewish emporium doing Jewish outreach is the East Village store New York Costumes: The Halloween Adventure (www.newyorkcostumes.com). Seemingly staffed by Dracula's nieces and nephews with a few extras borrowed from Dawn of the Dead, this hardcore costume shop was populated yesterday by the most hybrid mix of humanity: Hasidic families, hipsters, goths, terrified-looking Jews from the suburbs, little boys with kipot, Eurotourists, teen girls with low-cut jeans and Stars of David, shleppy Upper West Siders, Brownstone Brooklynites, high school drama teachers, drama queens, drag queens, you name it, most of whom were drawn by the ad campaign the store had created, billing itself as a Purim headquarters.

The store was a mecca of marvelousness for me and Little Babe, who wandered in yesterday afternoon, shortly after lunch. Our previous costume-hunting journey on Friday ended in disaster when Little Babe bolted out of Abracadabra on W21st Street in a fit of terror.

(Evidently, Abracadabra had just acquired the Vincent Price estate and macabre artifacts lined the store: a 7-ft. tall gargoyle, leering clown heads, corpses propped up against a wall, terrifying visages, moving bookcases, bloodied body parts and more.)

Though it took a bit of cajoling to get Little Babe to enter New York Costumes (eyes squeezed shut, little hand squeezing my own) after the Abracadabra fiasco, once inside, he was won over by the gay (and I mean that in the old-fashioned way) spirit of celebration and the endless merchandise filling the friendly store.

Meanwhile, during the course of our leisurely visit, we found Little Babe's coveted JS Bach wig (only $14.99 and it also doubles as a Mozart and George Washington wig!), a pair of zebra-striped sunglasses for me and a couple of prank items Little Babe had been hankering for: a switchblade comb and a disappearing-blade (plastic) knife.

Reassuring Little Babe that we would get the remainder of his JS Bach costume from our local Salvation Army shop, we journeyed uptown to the Jewish Museum (www.jewishmuseum.org) to see the Sarah Bernhardt and Max Liebermann exhibitions.

Little Babe's reactions to the two exhibitions were exactly the opposite of what I would have expected. He was bored silly by the captivating multi-media Bernhardt show which featured footage of her performances, artifacts, costumes, jewelry, posters and paraphernalia and sighed and yawned his way through the darkened space, barely glancing at the video screens which showed her fainting and gesticulating and creating her own immortality.

Unexpectedly, however, Little Babe was quietly attentive as we walked through the Liebermann space, listening as I read him the gallery notes, commenting on the canvases, perking up when I pointed out sites in Amsterdam that Liebermann had painted and we had visited, noting the increasingly somber cast of his self-portraits, growing pensive as he contemplated Liebermann's iconic career coming to a grinding halt as Hitler rose to power and his work was officially banned, removed from museums, his artistic footprints erased as if he had never existed.

"Hitler didn't just hate Jews. He also hated art," Little Babe observed as we were leaving the exhibition.

The sadness of the abrupt end of Max Liebermann's brilliant career (he died in 1935 and his wife took poison upon learning that she was to be deported to Thereisenstadt in 1943) stayed with me for several hours after we left the Jewish Museum. Yes, it seemed appropriate to hear his tale on the eve of the eve of Purim (Hitler as Haman), but the message of Purim is triumph not tragedy.

Thus it was that I found myself barrelling northward with Little Babe in our red Dodge Caravan towards another mecca -- Trader Joe's (www.traderjoes.com) -- to buy ingredients for hamantaschen, the cookies that are shaped like Haman's hat and most deliciously symbolize the defeat of our enemies. Tonight, after Little Babe and I return from the revelry that is the public reading of the megillah in shul, I wil roll up my sleeves, clear a kitchen counter and make my buttery, whole wheat and Nutella hamantaschen, which Little Babe and I will then distribute to friends and homeless folks alike tomorrow afternoon, on Purim Day.

Sometimes I feel sorry for my children, growing up in a horrible new, post 9/11 reality, so different from my own secure, suicide-bomber-free childhood. When I was a kid, Israel was under constant attack but the rest of the world seemed chastened, horrified by the Holocaust, on their best behavior vis-a-vis the Jews. In those days, it seemed that the Arabs were the only outspoken enemies of the Jews (until we found out, of course, that ya couldn't really be Jewish in the Soviet Union either and that there were Jewish prisoners of conscience, still, the persecution seemed part of the whole corrupt and dysfunctional Communist mishegoss).

In the horrible new world in which my kids are coming of age, the hatred of Jews exists in sensaround, coming from all directions and in all guises. Sometimes it even comes from within, with Jews spouting the worst -- and most cliched -- type of anti-Semitic sewage.

A recent example of this was the appearance of the miscreant Norman Finkelstein on the Columbia U campus last week, invited by (big surprise) the Muslim Student Association, venting his tired tirade of Jew-hatred. The child of Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein has a worldview that posits that Jews have misused their victimization to gain cold hard cash and exonerate themselves of acts of inhumanity. Most unoriginally (yawn), Finkelstein calls Israel the greatest perpetrator of these crimes. Blah, blah, blah.

(Someone get this guy onto a couch... and fast. If anyone was ever in need of psychological help, it is Norman Finkelstein. I heard the guy talk at Columbia in 2000 and he is the most pathetic, f%*ked-up little specimen of manhood I have ever beheld. Hey Normy...Newsflash! You hate your parents, not the entire Jewish people. You hate yourself, not Israeli schoolchildren. It's called displacement. Get some help before it's too late.)

The world in which I was raised was NormanFinkelstein-Free. Back in the good old days, no one in the civilized world would give Norman the Nutjob a podium...unless by podium one meant a soapbox on the Bowery, where my "aunt" Lillian used to take me when I was a tiny little Bungalow Babe in order to learn about the inequity of the world and become galvanized to acts of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.

Ao, another new and disturbing feature of my kids' collective world seems to be this mutant creation -- Kill-Me Norman -- trying out out-Jew-hate Adolf and Mahmoud and Ismail and Mahathir and all those pea-brained neo-Nazis meeting in the hills of Idaho or wherever-the-hell.

Which means that our people need the bravery, vigilance, intelligence and historical long-view of Mordechai and Esther more than ever.

It is nearly 4:30 in the afternoon on the Eve of Purim 2006. Little Babe has just come home from school, dramatically dragging himself across the threshold in a manner that would have made Sarah Bernhardt proud. He is faint with hunger, valiantly and prematurely opting, at the age of 10, to observe The Fast of Esther, which commemorates Esther's fast before she petitioned the foolish, love-besotted King Ahashverosh on behalf of her people. Big Babe, unmindful of the fast, has come home from his Columbia dorm to forage in the kitchen and select his Purim costume. Middle Babe and HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) are asleep in India, having attended a Megillah reading earlier in the evening. Soon, I will begin to pull together the pieces for my own costume for synagogue tonight, either a mod go-go dancer or a loopy old Miami Beach matron, whichever one makes me look thinner.

As I stand uncertainly in the foyer of the 21st Century, I gratefully embrace the holiday of Purim. Purim is an unapologetic, kick-ass celebration of Jewish survival. It is a no-holds-barred collective thumbing of our nose at our enemies. When Haman's name is mentioned, we boo and yell and grind noisemakers and sit on whoopie cushions and stamp our feet and even blow trumpets to blot out his name. When we read that he and his sons are hung on the gallows which he built for Mordechai, we cheer. The reading of the Scroll of Esther is a great, participatory psychodrama. We dress up in costumes. We repeat verses along with the megillah-reader. Purim is The Great Dictator, The Producers and The Rocky Horror Picture Show of Jewish holidays...all rolled into one.

And when we reach the end of the Scroll of Esther and Haman has been defeated, we party like it's 1999.

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Dean of Investments said...

This year Purim will be particularly relevant and meaningful. It follows the speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last September on the campus of Columbia University. Ahmadinejad is a modern-day Haman. He would like to kill all the Jews, all the gays, all the Westerners and all non-Islamic Americans. I encourage everyone to visit www.leebollinger-bnaihaman.com and see what the fallout continues to be from the Ahmadinejad speech. This Purim, and every Purim, let's remember the lessons of those who want to wipe out an entire people based upon their religious beliefs.