Now don't get me wrong — I'm not Jewish. As a well-trained vaudevillian I have a whole menu of patter I can dish up on the subject. I was raised a Unitarian but when I got older I found their beliefs too narrow and restricting. [Badabump.] Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week. Tip the veal. Try your waitress...
But I'm a musician, and a trombonist (thank you, you're too kind. In fact, you're all kinds), and quite apart from accidentally discovering Mickey Katz as a child, having a sister whose best friend from Scouts was an MOT, and marrying a nice Jewish girl a little while back there, about ten years ago I happened upon a couple of boychicks at a solstice dinner and the next thing I knew I was playing klezmer, music highly suited to improvisational trombonistics. Which is to say, Jewish dixieland. A perfect fit, plus it gets me into a lotta simchas. So while I'm never going to learn the Hebrew alphabet (shoot, I have enough trouble with English), I'm in the enviable position of being able, from my seat in the band, to cherry-pick the best that Yiddishkeit has to offer. As in, well, holidays.
And as far as I'm concerned, Purim is the Best. Jewish. Holiday. Evar.
Now that's a strong assertion, certainly. And it needs some extraordinary substantiation to be taken at all seriously, which I'm not all that excited about providing. But look: Judaism has a whole slew of great holidays that Gentiles never get to celebrate. There's Chanukah, of course, which started out as a minor celebration and turned into the Jewish Christmas with eight nights of presents (oh, yeah!). Plus, there's gambling. And how about Sukkot? That's when you get to build a fort in the back yard! Very cool, fun party days, even if you don't get off from school for them. And even the sober sacred Ash Wednesday type things like Passover have their elements of coolness, with scripts and stories the whole family gets to participate in.
But Purim! Purim is like the Jewish Fourth of July Mardi Gras Halloween April Fool's Day. With cookies and schnaps. And costumes. And comic skits. It's a real fun time is what it is, li'l kids in all the costumes they didn't wear at goyishe Halloween running around, tates (and mames too) taking hits from covert flasks, and everybody gobbling down little three-cornered jelly-filled crusty cookies called hamentashen (yum!).
Lest you think, however, that Purim is a religious observance with only the fun stuff, we hasten to add that there's a serious element too. During the festivities, the entirety of the Book of Esther is read aloud. In Hebrew. And everyone is enjoined to stay and listen to the whole thing and not fall asleep or gossip in the back. The Book of Esther is also known as the Megillah, or scroll, so from this solemn commemoration we are also given both the highly useful phrase "the whole magilla" and the name of a popular children's cartoon gorilla. Cultural heritage is a goodness.
Still, right before or right after or sometimes in between the reading of the Megillah, the congregation puts on a play of the story of Esther and the King and Mordecai and Hamen (BOOOOOOOO!!!!!), which everyone joins in on in good old melodramatic fashion. Interpretations run the gamut from sincere and sober to wildly goofy, in keeping with the Festival Of Fools midwintery character of the event. This year I landed a bunch of music work and was privileged to witness one Purimspiel in which the King's lines were all quotes from Elvis songs and another in which the entire story was sung to tunes from A Chorus Line. Now that's what I call religious observance!
But wait. There's more.
As a sticky adherent to the doctrines of Wha?, I'm necessarily a skeptic regarding the historical veracity of religious texts. It's far too easy to get lost in the suchness of God's Only True Word Really and wind up gutting your next door neighbor over a misplaced comma or the like. One of my favorite things about Purim is that its entire basis, the Book of Esther, is universally acknowledged by religious and secular scholars alike as one of the earliest examples in sacred works of plain, flat, out-and-out fiction. None of these people ever actually lived. Even so, it's a ripping good read, a rousing saga of hope and empowerment and solidarity in the face of prejudice and oppression, and its veneration reflects Bokonan's belief that useful religions can be built from foma (harmless lies), a surprisingly modern concept for such an old and bullheadedly stubborn religion.
Leave it to a rabbi, though, to really find the kernel of universality in even the most earthy texts. Ada, decidedly unorthodox Jew though she may be, likes to attend a little schul up on Capitol Hill. This Purim weekend, the Torah reading was from Esther, and afterwards the rab noted that the five books of Moses are all about divine intervention on behalf of the Jews, the so-called Age of Miracles, while the Book of Esther, truth or consequences though it may be, is a narrative in which the Almighty stays in the background and it's the Jews themselves who do the intervening, a change of perspective that might well be called definitive. I myself would add that it also displays a feature that's few in the hill across the broad spectrum of sacred literature, namely a strong female central character.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I have another Purim party to play. MOAR HAMENTASHEN!