Mirth and Melancholy: My Purim Experience
Jackie Mason had it wrong when he said gentiles are focused on the next cocktail and Jews on the next meal.
I’ve now grasped that Jews do their share of imbibing.
There’s wine every Shabbat, single malt on Simchat Torah, egg nog on Hanukkah (okay, maybe just in my family), four cups of wine on Tu B’Shevat, four cups on Passover, and now, I’ve learned, we’re supposed to get blotto on Purim.
So of course, I had to attend my first “Purim Scotch Tasting” at the esteemed Temple Emanu-el on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Presiding behind the makeshift bar was the convivial Senior Rabbi, Joshua Davidson, who has, in his brief two years at Emanu-El, already built a buzz for combining erudition, warmth and wit.
“Macallan or Dewars?” he offered those lined up for a sample. “Rocks or neat?”
Since I had been fasting since sun-up in observance of Ta’anit Esther (the Fast of Esther – see previous post,) I was already a little woozy.
But as they say, “When in Rome,” (or in temple…). So as soon as my fast ended at sundown — 5:50pm (believe me, I checked) — I bellied up to the bar.
Suffice it to say that whisky is not the best way to break a fast.
To soften the blow, I reached for some hamantaschen. But I had barely a second to recover; it was time for the megillah, the annual recitation of the Esther story – and I’d been given a role.I watched Davidson suddenly transform himself from cool taverner to menacing Haman, as he donned a black cape, pirate hat, and black leather gloves. “I had to combine Darth Vader, Dracula and Captain Hook costumes,” he said to me in a dry aside. “You don’t come by a Haman costume easily.”
The assigned readers were encouraged to make use of the hats and props lined up on stage. I’d been assigned the first section. “Choose a prop!” Someone instructed. I reached for the crown.
“That was going to be MY prop!” shouted a girl who can’t have been six years old.
“Way to go – spoiling a kid’s megillah,” I scolded myself. I surrendered the tiara and grabbed the nose glasses.
Someone then told me to pick a “direction” from slips of paper – a prompt for how to perform each section:
My directive: “Act as if your leg is being bitten by a dog.”I gamely attempted to pantomime this, but the applause wasn’t exactly deafening. Davidson’s colleague, Rabbi Amy Ehrlich, was kind enough to capture the moment with an iPhone (see photo).
The next reader had to enact being “being swarmed by bees.” She was better at the bees than I was at the dog. Her bee attack was totally believable.
The education director, Saul Kaiserman, rose to his challenge: “Sing every line like an opera score.” He killed it with a bona fide baritone.
Rabbi Davidson was Stanislavski-worthy: he had to read his part as if he were giving birth in the back of a taxi. If you’ll excuse the pun, he delivered.
I was struck by the unbound giddiness of this ritual, that the so-called “People of the Book” could also be The People of the Party – if only once a year and however sober the source material. (Haman’s plot to wipe out the Jews isn’t exactly a laugh riot. Nor is the Jews’ revenge — cast as self-defense — when they slaughter 75,000 Persians.)
But there was also a deeper takeaway: our tradition allows for letting go, even as it emphasizes holding on. We should revisit calamities of the past, but create moments to exhale in the present. There’s something undeniably spiriting — and arguably important — about watching our authoritative clergy leaders loosen up.
Just six months ago, I saw Rabbi Davidson in a very different context, as one of a few clergy members invited — along with Jewish journalists, educators, artists, and social justice advocates — to a three-day conversation about all things Jewish convened by The Jewish Week newspaper. In small breakout groups, we discussed serious subjects ranging from the coarsening of Jewish disagreement to whether non-orthodox Jews have anything to learn from Chabad. I saw Rabbi Davidson dissect Torah and thoughtfully grapple with hard questions. Now I was watching him do Lamaze breathing while recounting the words of Mordechai.
My entire Purim-eve day (last Wednesday) was an exercise in those refreshing contradictions: mirth and melancholy in one small duration.
Melancholy: I set my alarm for the dawn darkness in order to have a quick breakfast before the fast began at daybreak. I took a quiet pause to mark the reason for Ta’anit Esther – the heroine’s self-denial before pleading for our people’s survival.
Mirth: Then I honored Elvis by eating his favorite sandwich—peanut butter and banana—because The King was the theme of the Purim Spiel at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, where I’d filmed rehearsal the week before. [See previous post for the video.]
Melancholy: I went to see “Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amselem,” an indelible film that captures the desperation of an Israeli wife trying to divorce her intransigent husband — my small nod to “The Day of Agunah,” the Day of the Chained Woman, which has been assigned to the Fast of Esther (see my last post).
Mirth: I delivered to our neighbors the hamantaschen which my daughter, Molly and I baked together — our first flour-drenched foray into folding circles of dough into three corners for Haman’s hat and filling them with raspberry jam.
Melancholy: I walked alone through Central Park, entirely sick of the biting cold and the absence of anything green.
Mirth: On that same walk, I was suddenly uplifted by the white expanse in the middle of the gray city.
The next day, Purim itself (March 5), I did a mental inventory to ensure I’d observed all four mitzvoth of the holiday:
Read and hear the megillah: Check. (In nose glasses.)
Have a festive meal: Check. (I enjoyed a nice chicken paillard with my former Senior Rabbi, Peter Rubinstein, and heard all about his recent public dialogue with Cardinal Timothy Dolan at 92Y. Another column in itself.)
Give two edible gifts: Check. (The neighbors seemed to enjoy our misshapen hamantaschen, but maybe they were just being polite.)
Give gifts to the poor: Check. (I donated to “charity: water” which builds wells in developing countries, and made a date to go to Warby Parker with my pal, Betty, who sells newspapers on the street corner near my shul and has cracked eyeglasses.)
Purim reinforced the openhandedness that almost every Jewish holiday requires. On the High Holy Days we’re reminded that tzedakah will “lessen the severity of the decree”; on Sukkot, we’re supposed to feed guests in our sukkah; on Hanukkah, we’re to reserve one of the eight nights to give instead of receive; on The Tenth of Tevet, the fast should focus us on the needy; on Passover, we welcome the stranger. So it is not surprising that Purim also demands that we help. Perhaps no other holiday so closely aligns drunkenness and sobriety in one 24-hour span.
“The Jewish tradition asks us to stay in between these two extremes,” says Yaffa Epstein, who teaches Talmud at The Pardes Institute for Jewish Learning in Jerusalem. “What’s beautiful about that is they’re both necessary.”
I keenly experienced these two extremes when I stood (pre-scotch) in the pew with Rabbi Davidson, saying Kaddish for my father-in-law, Milt, who died last month.
The mourner’s prayer – recited at nearly every service — is the clearest example that Judaism consistently brings back those we’ve lost, no matter how merry the festival.
Jews are repeatedly taught to hold two thoughts at once: within just ten days we celebrate Rosh Hashanah (joyful) and Yom Kippur (weighty); we eat maror and haroset in the same sandwich on Passover; in my shul on Friday nights, we say the misheberach for the sick immediately followed by the shechecheyanu for our blessings. Similarly, on Purim eve, we can recite Kaddish and the megillah within the same hour.
In his 2013 Rosh Hashanah sermon — his first at Emanu-el, Rabbi Davidson said, “While our congregation celebrates countless joys, there exists enough suffering here to break the heart.”
He’s right: Jews celebrate and weep in the same moment.
90 minutes after Milt’s passing — after the tears, tight embraces and the phone call to the funeral home — my sister-in-law, Sharon, broke the silence of the room: “So, should we still keep our dinner reservation at P.F. Chang’s?” The laughter was instantaneous and healing. We could smile despite our sorrow, hold our heavy loss and our hearty Jewish appetites in the same hands at the same time. Milt would have laughed, too.
Yes, Jackie Mason, you’re right: no matter what, we’re always planning the next meal.