A Queen, A King, A Hero and a Villain: Purim Celebrations Abound

by Rivka Chaya Berman - BRANFORD, CT

March 22, 2005

As Purim revelers in Branford, CT, munch on sour pickles with enough punch to provoke puckers, they will be stepping back in time at Chabad of the Shoreline’s Purim-in-the-Shtetl celebration. Down the coast in South Broward, FL, Chabad’s Purim brunch will be decked in patriotic red, white, and blue for an all-American feast. Out west, preteens and precocious kids will strut their stuff at Chabad of Westminster, CO, in an American Idol-like tournament publicized as “Who will be the next Queen Esther?”

More and more Chabad centers across the United States are structuring their Purim celebrations around creative themes. Food, activities, crafts, even the sound of the holiday have been molded to fit themes tame as “Purim in Israel” to the elaborate “Purim at the Beach.” These themes go beyond Purim’s built-in curiosities as a historical holiday based on castle intrigue, a heroic Jewish queen who saved the Jews from annihilation, and an evil prime minister who wore a tri-cornered hat.

Purim’s low profile is the reason the holiday needs to be dressed up in mod themes, according Rabbi Benjy Brackman of the Chabad House Synagogue and Cultural Center in Westminster, CO. “Most people have never heard of Purim, and the closest they have ever come to Purim is that is sounds a lot like Yom Kippur,” said Rabbi Brackman, referring to the Jewish holiday of atonement. “Unlike Chanukah, where Jews are looking to do something Jewish, you need to pull people in the door to celebrate Purim.”

Even among Jews in the know, Purim suffers from its image as a the Jewish Halloween, said Rochel Baila Yaffe, representative of Chabad of the Shorline in Branford, CT. On Purim it’s a custom to dress up and an obligation to give food gifts. This leads adults to think of it as a “ho-hum children’s holiday,” said Yaffe. “Having a theme takes Purim to another level of fun for adults. It keeps people on their toes because they look forward to something new.”

In order not to lose the meaning of Purim in the thematic fun, Yaffe and her husband Rabbi Yossi Yaffe plan to weave traditional Purim activities into the shtetl theme. Because the holiday includes a requirement to feast, the Yaffes will be serving shtetl faves like chopped liver, stuffed cabbage and tzimmes stew. Community members will bake traditional triangular pastries, hamantaschen, with shtetl matriarch “Bubbe,” which is grandmother in Yiddish, lingua franca of the shtetl.

“We are not trying to hide Purim,” said Yaffe. “We are trying to reframe Purim in a cute way.”

Over in Colorado, Rabbi Benjy and Leah Brackman have also given a lot of thought to maintaining the balance between theme and holiday meaning. The first 45 minutes of the celebration will feature a talent show -- itself a mirror of the beauty contest in which the holiday’s heroine, Esther, was picked as queen. After the adults vote for the winner, American-Idol-style minus the booing, Rabbi Brackman will read the Megillat Esther. Here, too, education and getting Jewish people involved in their heritage will be the aim. A cartoon slide show illustrating the action will be beamed behind Brackman to keep pace with the Hebrew words.

Last year, the Brackmans set their Purim celebration in the Wild West, complete with cowboy hats. The Yaffes have held a Mexican Purim with mariachi players singing Jewish songs, maracas in place of traditional noisemakers, and a piñata to whack whenever the villain Haman’s name was mentioned. Brackman admits that coming up with an original theme each year is a challenge.

Some Chabad centers have gone the international route for their celebrations’ themes. The Shemtovs at Chabad of Stamford, CT, are mixing Purim practices with Japanese flair. Youngsters will roll candy sushi with Rice Krispy treat type filling, fold Haman’s hat ala origami, and color Purim themed manga coloring books. Adults will sip green tea, nibble sashimi or sushi and watch a sushi demonstration.

No matter what the theme the goal of every Chabad Purim celebration is the same: to give Jewish people from all backgrounds an appreciation of the holiday’s message. Within the deepest concealment, the darkest days of history, revelation was and will be found.

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