Which is better: hamantaschen or latkes? It may sound like a simple question, but each Purim, academic luminaries the world over debate it with scholarly rigor as if they were defending their dissertation or arguing a case before the Supreme Court. Recently, physicist Jeff Harvey managed to find a way to connect hamantaschen to string theory.
Last year at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, before an audience of superheroes, Elvis impersonators, and Ahasuerus courtiers who all had been enjoying Cape Ann Brewing Company’s special “Queen Esther’s Decree” beer, congregants Tim Averill and Alan Pierce argued the merits of sweet vs. savory, circles vs. triangles, human politicking vs. divine miracles. Averill is a debate coach and Pierce is an attorney, so it was a fascinating game of intellectual ping-pong.
Just like Purim itself, the debate was simultaneously silly and serious. In truth, Purim and its pastries are no better or worse than any other Jewish holiday and its signature foods. But Purim, which celebrates the Jews of ancient Persia avoiding a plot by the wicked Haman to annihilate them, is a unique, and some might argue, underappreciated holiday.
In the 1800s, it was one of American Jewry’s premiere fêtes, and every community held an elaborate Purim ball. But latkes won out. Hanukkah slowly replaced Purim as the festive, gift-giving holiday.
“There isn’t an overt miracle – there’s no sea-splitting, no eight candles burning bright for eight days, and while some may see that as meaning that Purim is less great, the sages tell us that is actually a greater revelation of God …when God reveals himself in a natural way, that’s even greater,” said Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody. “That’s why it’s such a frustration that the holiday is not more widely observed. For that reason, all temples do whatever they can to spruce up attendance.”
The holiday begins on a Monday night this year – March 9 – when it can be tough to get everyone to come to a big party. But Schusterman, like many other rabbis, is still going all out. This year, he’s joining with Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott for an adults-only party at Granite Coast Brewing in downtown Peabody, and the next day will host a free hamantaschen bake-off, followed by a reading of the Megillah.
Following one of the Purim mitzvot that Jews should reach a state where they can’t tell the difference between the wicked Haman and the wise Mordecai, Tobin Bridge Chabad in Everett also will host a night of fun and games at the Winnisimmet Lounge in Chelsea.
But according to Tobin Bridge Rabbi Sruli Baron, the exact meaning of the mitzvah is subtler.
“The terminology in the Talmud is, ‘Until you reach a place of unknowing,’” said Baron. “Obviously, there’s this debate if that means literally getting blackout drunk until you’re incoherent, but most lean towards a more moderate approach where the meaning of the holiday is reaching this unknowing place, that innate sense of Jewishness beyond any kind of rationale or emotional connection – that innate feeling that I’m Jewish and I’m proud and I’m happy and I’m celebrating that. That’s why it’s this party holiday, because partying and joy allows you to reach that essential place.”
According to tradition, Jews only reach such a rarefied state on one other holiday, and it’s hardly one you’d expect to be grouped with Purim: Yom Kippur. While these two holidays initially seem like polar opposites, rather they’re a sort of yin and yang: different but complementary modes of arriving at the same destination. In fact, Talmudic scholars noted the similarity in their names, and pointed out that Yom Kippurim would literally mean “A day like Purim.”
“Yom Kippur, which delves to the core of being Jewish, and Purim, have the same destination,” said Baron. “Yom Kippur you accomplish one way, it’s kind of more intense and somber, and you’re digging away the layers to get to that place, and Purim is the same thing, and obviously the way to accomplish it is radically different.”
North Shore synagogues are embracing the time-honored tradition of carnivals, costumes, and funny, silly plays, musicals, and spoofs. Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody will host a carnival with costumes, games, hot dogs, and a performance of “Megillah on the Roof.” Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott is inviting guests to “help Esther save Purim” by dressing up as superheroes. Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead is bringing out face-painting, a GaGa pit, and a bounce house. Most congregations also are taking part in the mitzvah of mishloach manot, wrapping Purim gift baskets that often go to local charities.
Before all the fun, congregations take time to read the Megillah, which tells the story of Purim. While Chabadniks generally like to read “the whole Megillah” in its original Hebrew, Reform and Conservative congregations often read abbreviated versions in Hebrew and English in the same way the Haggadah can be amended during Passover. Some congregations, like Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead and Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, hold a separate adults’ service. Others, like Congregation Shirat Hayam and Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody, read it right before the party.
At Tiferet Shalom, longtime music director Bryna “Bunny” Tabasky writes a new two-hour Purim Spiel each year, and a dedicated cast of congregants rehearses twice a week for a month. Each year follows a different theme, from the Beatles to Elvis to show tunes to St. Patrick’s Day. Back in 2017, Tabasky even incorporated a mini “Women’s March” against Haman.
At Shirat Hayam, passages from the Megillah are interspersed with musical numbers. Accompanied by the temple band, performers sing songs like “Oh Esther, give me one more chance” to the tune of the Jackson Five song.
“What we want to accomplish in this one celebration is intergenerational Purim that really can capture 3-year-olds, 50-year-olds, and 80-year-olds, and each finds something meaningful in connection to the story,” said Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Shirat Hayam. “It’s got a female and a male hero, it’s a Diaspora story, it’s a story of resilience and courage and hope, and I think all those elements allow it be appreciated by young and old.”