Purim | March 4-5, 2015 | March 23-24, 2016

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Power Suits

Dressing up is a crucial element of the Purim celebration—as well as a powerful piece of the Hunger Games trilogy of young-adult novels

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the forthcoming film adaptation of The Hunger Games. (Murray Close/Lionsgate)

Once upon a time, a young girl from an oppressed minority was summoned to the capital. The nation watched as she competed against her peers, and won. She could have done the thing that was expected of her and lived happily ever after. But instead she risked everything—not just her newly won riches and standing, but her life—to stand up for her people. And these people, with her as their heroine and figurehead, rose up violently. We would like to say that then they all lived happily ever after, but the text doesn’t quite permit us that luxury. Still, the war was epic, and the story became beloved, the bitterness of the ending often skipped over. Its legend is considered myth, fairy tale, or fantasy, even though the supernatural is notably absent.

Sound familiar? This is the story of the Book of Esther—and of the Hunger Games, a trilogy of young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins with an eagerly anticipated movie adaptation coming out March 23. The Hunger Games and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay are set in the future totalitarian nation of Panem, in what used to be America, where America’s reality-television obsession and the growing gap between rich and poor have been taken to their dystopian extreme. Every year a boy and a girl from each of Panem’s 12 districts are sent to compete in the Hunger Games, a broadcast reality TV show in which 24 children fight to the death until only one survives. The annual show is both entertainment and commemoration of the crushing defeat by the Capitol—a city for the nation’s rich and powerful—of an uprising of the districts, decades before. The trilogy’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from District 12, a poor coal-mining district, and her background—half-orphaned and impoverished—is both asset and defect in the competition; on the one hand, she lacks the physical size and training of children from the wealthier districts, and on the other, she is tough and resourceful.

In the Book of Esther, the Jews of Persia are to be put to death, a plan devised by the evil Haman, a minister to the king. But Queen Esther foils Haman’s plan, revealing to the king that she is Jewish. The Jews triumph, and the gallows, built by Haman to hang the Jews, are instead used to hang Haman and his sons, among others. Every year on the 14th of Adar, the holiday of Purim celebrates this victory. The Book of Esther is read aloud twice, in a spoof of the king’s proclamations, on which the story hinges, and of the reverence of the usual Torah and Haftorah reading, and the story is reenacted with drunken celebration, masks, costumes, and pageants. Purim isn’t the only holiday in which we remember a story by reenacting—on Passover, we are taught that each of us has been taken out of Egypt—but it is the only one in which costume and disguise are central to the observance. (more…)

Home Away From Home

The Book of Esther, which chronicles the story of Purim, has special resonance for Jewish communities thriving in Diaspora

An early-19th-century Book of Esther on parchment, probably from Italy, with illustrated scenes from the story of Esther. (Sholem Asch Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The Book of Esther seems out of place in the Bible, even to serious Bible scholars. Although it tells of near-tragedy, it is written melodramatically, almost as a farce; it is very hard to read with a straight face. The story and its style are altogether out of keeping with the other texts canonized as the Bible. In fact, the Book of Esther—which tells how Queen Esther saved the Persian Jews from a genocidal plot designed by an evil minister named Haman—doesn’t even mention God.

Yet despite its unique story and tone, the Book of Esther—also known as the Megillah, which is chanted aloud every Purim (this year, on the evening of March 7)—does have its place in the Bible. It forms part of a section of the scriptures known as the “Five Scrolls,” the other scrolls being the Book of Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations. There appears to be a common denominator to these short books: Each of them has a special interest in Diaspora. And the Book of Esther has a unique perspective on the subject.

Diasporas pose the dilemma of relating to an often-hostile “host” society and, at the same time, to the collective memory of a homeland. The Five Scrolls—separately and together—are an invitation to consider that delicate balance. They offer four broad responses: Return, Revenge, Takeover, and Remain. We call these Diaspora Dreams. (more…)

Be Happy

We’re commanded to be happy on Purim, and it turns out the acts required for proper observance—from donning costumes to celebrating with others—provide useful tricks for brightening moods year round

Purim in Jerusalem. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

A lot has been recently written about happiness. Books like Stumbling on Happiness, The Politics of Happiness, and the best-selling The Happiness Project posit that happiness is something that can be attained, albeit with a bit of hard work, if we better understand our own mental processes. It seems that happiness is hip these days, as I could not help noticing when I began preparing for Purim.

“When the month of Adar enters, we increase in happiness,” the Talmud teaches. This slogan appears across Jerusalem, where I live, at this time of year, as many of the city’s storefronts are converted into costume bazaars (pirates, cowboys, fairies, and butterflies—the standard fare) and the stands in the shuk that sold dried fruit for Tu b’shvat now feature mini candy bars and Gummy Everything for inclusion in mishloach manot packages, the baskets of food that are traditionally exchanged on Purim. Walk into any of these shops and you hear the same recording of happy voices singing “Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’simchah,” (Once Adar begins, we increase in happiness) like the ubiquitous Jingle Bells of American Decembers. Happiness, you might conclude, is about plastic sunglasses and glitter and colorful wigs.

You wouldn’t be entirely wrong: Happiness is indeed about costumes and mishloach manot. Because if Purim is about being happy, then the mitzvot we are obliged to perform on the holiday help teach us how we might stumble upon happiness. (more…)

Seriously Groggy

The Purim tradition of drowning out Haman’s name with noise dates back to medieval times. But in our increasingly cacophonous lives, an illustrator wonders: Does the grogger need to be reinvented?

Sarah Lararovic

Boy, Interrupted

Purim calls for costumes, and we’re fine with seeing little girls dressed up as boys. But a boy dressed as a girl makes us uncomfortable, thanks to stubborn ideas about gender roles. It shouldn’t.

(ohsohappytogether/Flickr)

My favorite Purim costume was Pharaoh. (Don’t fence me in with your narrow isolationist notions of confining oneself to villains of the Persian Empire.) My uncle Michael had given my mom a gorgeous gold-and-turquoise robe with navy embroidery around the neckline; it became my default dress-up outfit. Occasionally, I was Haman, because I enjoyed drawing a twirly mustache on my upper lip with an eyeliner pencil.

While most little girls see the megillah reading as an opportunity to bust out the Disney Princess garb, there are always a handful who get a kick out of being Haman, the way I did. But on Purim this year, which arrives Saturday night, there are likely to be very few, if any, little boys dressed as Esther.

Why? Because when little girls dress “boyishly,” everyone thinks it’s cute. I adored putting baby Josie and baby Maxie in Osh-Kosh engineer overalls and teensy black Converse high tops. If I’d had sons, would I have put them in pink onesies and glittery parachute pants?

Yet many parents do have what Sarah Hoffman, a Jewish writer who blogs pseudonymously, calls “Pink Boys.” (It’s the title of her forthcoming book). Whether a kid is growing up in Berkeleyest Berkeley, Calif., or in Hasidic Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the urge to be fabulous isn’t something entirely within the parents’ control. “Gender identity isn’t something we just impose on kids and expect them to suck it up, like eating vegetables or going to school,” Hoffman writes. “It’s part of who they are, whether that satisfies us as parents or not.” Sometimes, little boys who love dresses grow up to be gay. Sometimes they’re transgender. And sometimes a pretty dress is just a pretty dress. Parents needn’t jump to any assumptions about what a little boy’s love of tulle means, but they should listen to and respect the individual child’s desires. (more…)

Dressed Up

With Purim approaching and a costume in order, seeking sartorial inspiration from the Book of Esther, European paintings, Elizabeth Taylor, and several style gurus, one of whom recommends an edible hat

(Sharon G./Flickr)

For Purim this year, which arrives on Saturday night, I wanted a costume inspired by the events and characters of the story itself.

But there’s not much textual guidance. The Book of Esther opens with a description of a feast. It tells of white cotton and royal-blue wool wall hangings embroidered with cords of fine linen and purple wool, suspended over silver rods and marble pillars. There are gold and silver couches on platforms of green, white, shell, and onyx marble. When Queen Vashti, King Ahasuerus’ first wife, refuses to come to the banquet when summoned, Ahasuerus banishes her. After that, the Purim story is all plot, no scenery. With the exception of the royal finery that Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, will don for his parade—a line about blue and purple robes and a large gold crown—there is no visual information to go on.

Looking for inspiration, I rang Susan Handler, co-owner of Manhattan’s Creative Costume, which rents costumes for theater and film and to the general public. “No, we don’t really have Purim,” Handler said. “Nobody asks for Purim. People come in for Purim and want in general what everybody wants.” What in general do people want? “Today I just did a Purim couple: a mermaid and king Neptune.” Frankie Steinz, the owner of the eponymous costume shop in Manhattan, concurred: “Nobody wants Purim—we do things like fruit bowls and refrigerators and movie stars,” she said, adding that typically Purim is a time for theme parties, just not 6th-century-BCE Shushan-theme parties. (more…)

On the Bookshelf

From Hodu to Kush: anticipating Purim with books on Persian food, lust-filled kings, and biblical heroines

Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride: And Other Kosher Sephardic Recipes You Will Love

What better way to celebrate Purim—the holiday, which begins on the evening of  March 19, that commemorates a narrowly avoided genocide of Jews by Persians a few centuries before the common era—than by cooking up a feast of Persian food? Actually, this seems like a ridiculously counter-intuitive idea: Does anybody eat Wienerschnitzel on Yom Hashoah or horiatiki on Hanukkah? But counter-intuitivity is very much the guiding spirit of Purim celebration. So Reyna Simnegar’s Persian Food From the Non-Persian Bride: And Other Kosher Sephardic Recipes You Will Love offers up various tidbits of Purim lore, like the suggestion that the name of Haman’s wife, Zeresh, might be “derived from the Persian name for … zereshk,” which are “tiny dried berries” that “give a tart flavor to many Persian dishes.” A Venezuelan UCLA alumna who learned Persian cuisine from her Iranian Jewish mother-in-law, Simnegar offers only kosher recipes, despite her Catholic childhood: Having discovered her family’s converso roots as a child, she converted to Orthodoxy as an adult and now takes pride in cooking “marrano dishes.” “There is nothing better,” she has remarked, “than seeing my children with tzitzit and kippot, indulging in marzipan!”

***

Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom

The Jews’ salvation in the Purim story comes to pass because Ahasuerus, the Persian monarch calling the shots, has a weakness for the ladies—which allows Esther to influence royal goings-on. In that sense, if no other, Ahasuerus resembles the biblical Solomon, whose sexual partners reputedly included princesses of various Middle Eastern nations plus the Queen of Sheba. Steven Weitzman doesn’t focus on the king’s libido in Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom (Yale, March), but rather on his “lust for knowledge,” yet he does devote a chapter to the question of how “the wisest man in the world, the pious builder of the Temple, could have sinned” by marrying Canaanite women and then building shrines to their idols.

***

The Forgotten Diaspora: Jewish Communities in West Africa and the Making of the Atlantic World

Ahasuerus is said to have ruled “from Hodu to Kush,” that is, from India to Ethiopia. With a foothold in Africa, his massive empire might have wielded influence even over Africa’s west coast, where, a couple thousand years later—in the early 17th century, in Senegal, to be precise—Jewish traders dealt in swords and other goods. Peter Mark and José da Silva Horta recover the unfamiliar history of these Jewish communities in The Forgotten Diaspora: Jewish Communities in West Africa and the Making of the Atlantic World (Cambridge, March), noting, among other fascinating aspects of their history, the reintegration of some Afro-Portuguese Jews into Amsterdam’s Sephardic community. (more…)

Unmasked

Has Purim replaced Passover as the best holiday vehicle for expressing individual Jewish identity?

Emily Nepon prepares to play Haman in Lower East Shushan on March 14, 2009. (Photo: Rachel Mattson. Backrgound photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the cosmology of Jewish holidays, Passover has traditionally been the celebration whose readings and rituals inspire worshippers to question the nature of their own Jewish values and beliefs. For decades, Jews of all persuasions have fashioned their own Seders, some adding a cup for the prophetess Miriam in celebration of Jewish women, others supplementing the Haggadah with a prayer for Darfur—all an affirmation of the celebrants’ core beliefs and of Hebrew heterodoxy.

In recent years, however, another holiday has started eclipsing Passover’s status as Jewish identity’s vastest playground. Sanctioning a host of transgressive behaviors—from drunkenness to masquerading in costume—and commemorating a tale of Jewish valor that culminates in the slaughter of 75,000 Persians more than 2,000 years ago, Purim is increasingly providing Jews of all backgrounds and ages with an opportunity to engage with whatever concerns them personally and politically.

In a way, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Book of Esther, Purim’s ur-text, is one of only two biblical books that omit any mention of God, focusing instead on individuals and the consequences of their actions. Purim is also a holiday traditionally observed not in the synagogue (Megillah readings aside) or even around the family table, but on the street and in nightclubs, surrounded by friends. Add to that the playful tradition of masquerading, and Purim comes as close as possible to that rarest bird, a Jewish holiday that transcends the communal and allow revelers to focus instead on the personal. (more…)

Top Hamantashen

After a painstaking survey, Tablet Magazine awards title for nation’s tastiest triangular treat

As Purim approaches, it’s time to pass judgment on one of the most pressing issues of the day: where to find good hamantashen.

Tablet Magazine investigated. A meticulous and hungry bunch, we ordered hamantashen from bakeries in six cities across five states, driven by recommendations of what different people claimed were the best hamantasheries in the country. The array of flavors and sizes that arrived boggled the mind: poppy, prune, apricot, cherry, and chocolate; crispy and chewy; compact and supersized. Dedicated to the cause, we tasted them all.

Our tasters graded each cookie on a scale of 1 to 5, higher being better, in five categories: appearance, filling-to-dough ratio, overall taste, texture and consistency, and how badly we wanted another. The judges’ scores were compiled, the individual scores were averaged, and we found a winner. (more…)

Purimpalooza

Esther marries indie rock royalty

Purim comic by Vanessa Davis, page 1

Power Suits

Dressing up is a crucial element of the Purim celebration—as well as a powerful piece of the Hunger Games trilogy of young-adult novels

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the forthcoming film adaptation of The Hunger Games. (Murray Close/Lionsgate)

Once upon a time, a young girl from an oppressed minority was summoned to the capital. The nation watched as she competed against her peers, and won. She could have done the thing that was expected of her and lived happily ever after. But instead she risked everything—not just her newly won riches and standing, but her life—to stand up for her people. And these people, with her as their heroine and figurehead, rose up violently. We would like to say that then they all lived happily ever after, but the text doesn’t quite permit us that luxury. Still, the war was epic, and the story became beloved, the bitterness of the ending often skipped over. Its legend is considered myth, fairy tale, or fantasy, even though the supernatural is notably absent.

Sound familiar? This is the story of the Book of Esther—and of the Hunger Games, a trilogy of young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins with an eagerly anticipated movie adaptation coming out March 23. The Hunger Games and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay are set in the future totalitarian nation of Panem, in what used to be America, where America’s reality-television obsession and the growing gap between rich and poor have been taken to their dystopian extreme. Every year a boy and a girl from each of Panem’s 12 districts are sent to compete in the Hunger Games, a broadcast reality TV show in which 24 children fight to the death until only one survives. The annual show is both entertainment and commemoration of the crushing defeat by the Capitol—a city for the nation’s rich and powerful—of an uprising of the districts, decades before. The trilogy’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from District 12, a poor coal-mining district, and her background—half-orphaned and impoverished—is both asset and defect in the competition; on the one hand, she lacks the physical size and training of children from the wealthier districts, and on the other, she is tough and resourceful.

In the Book of Esther, the Jews of Persia are to be put to death, a plan devised by the evil Haman, a minister to the king. But Queen Esther foils Haman’s plan, revealing to the king that she is Jewish. The Jews triumph, and the gallows, built by Haman to hang the Jews, are instead used to hang Haman and his sons, among others. Every year on the 14th of Adar, the holiday of Purim celebrates this victory. The Book of Esther is read aloud twice, in a spoof of the king’s proclamations, on which the story hinges, and of the reverence of the usual Torah and Haftorah reading, and the story is reenacted with drunken celebration, masks, costumes, and pageants. Purim isn’t the only holiday in which we remember a story by reenacting—on Passover, we are taught that each of us has been taken out of Egypt—but it is the only one in which costume and disguise are central to the observance. (more…)

Home Away From Home

The Book of Esther, which chronicles the story of Purim, has special resonance for Jewish communities thriving in Diaspora

An early-19th-century Book of Esther on parchment, probably from Italy, with illustrated scenes from the story of Esther. (Sholem Asch Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The Book of Esther seems out of place in the Bible, even to serious Bible scholars. Although it tells of near-tragedy, it is written melodramatically, almost as a farce; it is very hard to read with a straight face. The story and its style are altogether out of keeping with the other texts canonized as the Bible. In fact, the Book of Esther—which tells how Queen Esther saved the Persian Jews from a genocidal plot designed by an evil minister named Haman—doesn’t even mention God.

Yet despite its unique story and tone, the Book of Esther—also known as the Megillah, which is chanted aloud every Purim (this year, on the evening of March 7)—does have its place in the Bible. It forms part of a section of the scriptures known as the “Five Scrolls,” the other scrolls being the Book of Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations. There appears to be a common denominator to these short books: Each of them has a special interest in Diaspora. And the Book of Esther has a unique perspective on the subject.

Diasporas pose the dilemma of relating to an often-hostile “host” society and, at the same time, to the collective memory of a homeland. The Five Scrolls—separately and together—are an invitation to consider that delicate balance. They offer four broad responses: Return, Revenge, Takeover, and Remain. We call these Diaspora Dreams. (more…)

Be Happy

We’re commanded to be happy on Purim, and it turns out the acts required for proper observance—from donning costumes to celebrating with others—provide useful tricks for brightening moods year round

Purim in Jerusalem. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

A lot has been recently written about happiness. Books like Stumbling on Happiness, The Politics of Happiness, and the best-selling The Happiness Project posit that happiness is something that can be attained, albeit with a bit of hard work, if we better understand our own mental processes. It seems that happiness is hip these days, as I could not help noticing when I began preparing for Purim.

“When the month of Adar enters, we increase in happiness,” the Talmud teaches. This slogan appears across Jerusalem, where I live, at this time of year, as many of the city’s storefronts are converted into costume bazaars (pirates, cowboys, fairies, and butterflies—the standard fare) and the stands in the shuk that sold dried fruit for Tu b’shvat now feature mini candy bars and Gummy Everything for inclusion in mishloach manot packages, the baskets of food that are traditionally exchanged on Purim. Walk into any of these shops and you hear the same recording of happy voices singing “Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’simchah,” (Once Adar begins, we increase in happiness) like the ubiquitous Jingle Bells of American Decembers. Happiness, you might conclude, is about plastic sunglasses and glitter and colorful wigs.

You wouldn’t be entirely wrong: Happiness is indeed about costumes and mishloach manot. Because if Purim is about being happy, then the mitzvot we are obliged to perform on the holiday help teach us how we might stumble upon happiness. (more…)

Seriously Groggy

The Purim tradition of drowning out Haman’s name with noise dates back to medieval times. But in our increasingly cacophonous lives, an illustrator wonders: Does the grogger need to be reinvented?

Sarah Lararovic

Boy, Interrupted

Purim calls for costumes, and we’re fine with seeing little girls dressed up as boys. But a boy dressed as a girl makes us uncomfortable, thanks to stubborn ideas about gender roles. It shouldn’t.

(ohsohappytogether/Flickr)

My favorite Purim costume was Pharaoh. (Don’t fence me in with your narrow isolationist notions of confining oneself to villains of the Persian Empire.) My uncle Michael had given my mom a gorgeous gold-and-turquoise robe with navy embroidery around the neckline; it became my default dress-up outfit. Occasionally, I was Haman, because I enjoyed drawing a twirly mustache on my upper lip with an eyeliner pencil.

While most little girls see the megillah reading as an opportunity to bust out the Disney Princess garb, there are always a handful who get a kick out of being Haman, the way I did. But on Purim this year, which arrives Saturday night, there are likely to be very few, if any, little boys dressed as Esther.

Why? Because when little girls dress “boyishly,” everyone thinks it’s cute. I adored putting baby Josie and baby Maxie in Osh-Kosh engineer overalls and teensy black Converse high tops. If I’d had sons, would I have put them in pink onesies and glittery parachute pants?

Yet many parents do have what Sarah Hoffman, a Jewish writer who blogs pseudonymously, calls “Pink Boys.” (It’s the title of her forthcoming book). Whether a kid is growing up in Berkeleyest Berkeley, Calif., or in Hasidic Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the urge to be fabulous isn’t something entirely within the parents’ control. “Gender identity isn’t something we just impose on kids and expect them to suck it up, like eating vegetables or going to school,” Hoffman writes. “It’s part of who they are, whether that satisfies us as parents or not.” Sometimes, little boys who love dresses grow up to be gay. Sometimes they’re transgender. And sometimes a pretty dress is just a pretty dress. Parents needn’t jump to any assumptions about what a little boy’s love of tulle means, but they should listen to and respect the individual child’s desires. (more…)

Dressed Up

With Purim approaching and a costume in order, seeking sartorial inspiration from the Book of Esther, European paintings, Elizabeth Taylor, and several style gurus, one of whom recommends an edible hat

(Sharon G./Flickr)

For Purim this year, which arrives on Saturday night, I wanted a costume inspired by the events and characters of the story itself.

But there’s not much textual guidance. The Book of Esther opens with a description of a feast. It tells of white cotton and royal-blue wool wall hangings embroidered with cords of fine linen and purple wool, suspended over silver rods and marble pillars. There are gold and silver couches on platforms of green, white, shell, and onyx marble. When Queen Vashti, King Ahasuerus’ first wife, refuses to come to the banquet when summoned, Ahasuerus banishes her. After that, the Purim story is all plot, no scenery. With the exception of the royal finery that Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, will don for his parade—a line about blue and purple robes and a large gold crown—there is no visual information to go on.

Looking for inspiration, I rang Susan Handler, co-owner of Manhattan’s Creative Costume, which rents costumes for theater and film and to the general public. “No, we don’t really have Purim,” Handler said. “Nobody asks for Purim. People come in for Purim and want in general what everybody wants.” What in general do people want? “Today I just did a Purim couple: a mermaid and king Neptune.” Frankie Steinz, the owner of the eponymous costume shop in Manhattan, concurred: “Nobody wants Purim—we do things like fruit bowls and refrigerators and movie stars,” she said, adding that typically Purim is a time for theme parties, just not 6th-century-BCE Shushan-theme parties. (more…)

On the Bookshelf

From Hodu to Kush: anticipating Purim with books on Persian food, lust-filled kings, and biblical heroines

Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride: And Other Kosher Sephardic Recipes You Will Love

What better way to celebrate Purim—the holiday, which begins on the evening of  March 19, that commemorates a narrowly avoided genocide of Jews by Persians a few centuries before the common era—than by cooking up a feast of Persian food? Actually, this seems like a ridiculously counter-intuitive idea: Does anybody eat Wienerschnitzel on Yom Hashoah or horiatiki on Hanukkah? But counter-intuitivity is very much the guiding spirit of Purim celebration. So Reyna Simnegar’s Persian Food From the Non-Persian Bride: And Other Kosher Sephardic Recipes You Will Love offers up various tidbits of Purim lore, like the suggestion that the name of Haman’s wife, Zeresh, might be “derived from the Persian name for … zereshk,” which are “tiny dried berries” that “give a tart flavor to many Persian dishes.” A Venezuelan UCLA alumna who learned Persian cuisine from her Iranian Jewish mother-in-law, Simnegar offers only kosher recipes, despite her Catholic childhood: Having discovered her family’s converso roots as a child, she converted to Orthodoxy as an adult and now takes pride in cooking “marrano dishes.” “There is nothing better,” she has remarked, “than seeing my children with tzitzit and kippot, indulging in marzipan!”

***

Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom

The Jews’ salvation in the Purim story comes to pass because Ahasuerus, the Persian monarch calling the shots, has a weakness for the ladies—which allows Esther to influence royal goings-on. In that sense, if no other, Ahasuerus resembles the biblical Solomon, whose sexual partners reputedly included princesses of various Middle Eastern nations plus the Queen of Sheba. Steven Weitzman doesn’t focus on the king’s libido in Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom (Yale, March), but rather on his “lust for knowledge,” yet he does devote a chapter to the question of how “the wisest man in the world, the pious builder of the Temple, could have sinned” by marrying Canaanite women and then building shrines to their idols.

***

The Forgotten Diaspora: Jewish Communities in West Africa and the Making of the Atlantic World

Ahasuerus is said to have ruled “from Hodu to Kush,” that is, from India to Ethiopia. With a foothold in Africa, his massive empire might have wielded influence even over Africa’s west coast, where, a couple thousand years later—in the early 17th century, in Senegal, to be precise—Jewish traders dealt in swords and other goods. Peter Mark and José da Silva Horta recover the unfamiliar history of these Jewish communities in The Forgotten Diaspora: Jewish Communities in West Africa and the Making of the Atlantic World (Cambridge, March), noting, among other fascinating aspects of their history, the reintegration of some Afro-Portuguese Jews into Amsterdam’s Sephardic community. (more…)

Unmasked

Has Purim replaced Passover as the best holiday vehicle for expressing individual Jewish identity?

Emily Nepon prepares to play Haman in Lower East Shushan on March 14, 2009. (Photo: Rachel Mattson. Backrgound photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the cosmology of Jewish holidays, Passover has traditionally been the celebration whose readings and rituals inspire worshippers to question the nature of their own Jewish values and beliefs. For decades, Jews of all persuasions have fashioned their own Seders, some adding a cup for the prophetess Miriam in celebration of Jewish women, others supplementing the Haggadah with a prayer for Darfur—all an affirmation of the celebrants’ core beliefs and of Hebrew heterodoxy.

In recent years, however, another holiday has started eclipsing Passover’s status as Jewish identity’s vastest playground. Sanctioning a host of transgressive behaviors—from drunkenness to masquerading in costume—and commemorating a tale of Jewish valor that culminates in the slaughter of 75,000 Persians more than 2,000 years ago, Purim is increasingly providing Jews of all backgrounds and ages with an opportunity to engage with whatever concerns them personally and politically.

In a way, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Book of Esther, Purim’s ur-text, is one of only two biblical books that omit any mention of God, focusing instead on individuals and the consequences of their actions. Purim is also a holiday traditionally observed not in the synagogue (Megillah readings aside) or even around the family table, but on the street and in nightclubs, surrounded by friends. Add to that the playful tradition of masquerading, and Purim comes as close as possible to that rarest bird, a Jewish holiday that transcends the communal and allow revelers to focus instead on the personal. (more…)

Top Hamantashen

After a painstaking survey, Tablet Magazine awards title for nation’s tastiest triangular treat

As Purim approaches, it’s time to pass judgment on one of the most pressing issues of the day: where to find good hamantashen.

Tablet Magazine investigated. A meticulous and hungry bunch, we ordered hamantashen from bakeries in six cities across five states, driven by recommendations of what different people claimed were the best hamantasheries in the country. The array of flavors and sizes that arrived boggled the mind: poppy, prune, apricot, cherry, and chocolate; crispy and chewy; compact and supersized. Dedicated to the cause, we tasted them all.

Our tasters graded each cookie on a scale of 1 to 5, higher being better, in five categories: appearance, filling-to-dough ratio, overall taste, texture and consistency, and how badly we wanted another. The judges’ scores were compiled, the individual scores were averaged, and we found a winner. (more…)

Purimpalooza

Esther marries indie rock royalty

Purim comic by Vanessa Davis, page 1
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