Tie one on on Purim, but be a mensch
by Esther D. Kustanowitz

Perhaps because my name is Esther, I believe that Purim beats Halloween any day.

When I was growing up, Halloween was not celebrated in my Jewish day school. Each October, the principal sent a letter to parents warning them that observance of Halloween was pagan and therefore destructive to the Jewish educational process. While my public school contemporaries demanded candy from strangers, I stayed home and watched It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

The first time I trick-or-treated was in college, when my Jewish education was set and solid. Some of my friends lured me to the nearby suburbs to go door-to-door. Instead of threatening a trick if thwarted, we offered a service in return for sweets. We sang, usually classic tunes like "I Get a Kick Out of You" or "New York, New York," bringing joy to homeowners and moving one step closer to our ultimate goal -- tooth decay.

In our version of trick or treat, everyone won. I learned that I feel awkward in a costume, that I like to sing and that it is fun to get candy from people. But life lessons aside, there was no spiritual component to that Halloween for me, trick or treating for the first time, or for any of my friends. It could have happened any day of the year.

Because Halloween, in its current incarnation, lacks meaning, I try not to celebrate it. I also find the costumes on the street, even on the usually innocuous and heavily Jewish Upper West Side of Manhattan, to be creepy and somewhat threatening. People dress up like bloodthirsty monsters, dripping fake blood on the sidewalk and down their chins. "Accident victims" eat cheese fries and weight-conscious "vampires" suck down pumpkin-flavored Tasti-D-Lite. A sight slightly ludicrous, seemingly harmless, but nonetheless unnerving.

Few Americans would be able to identify Halloween as Celtic/Druid in origin. They may know the holiday features ghosts, ghouls and goblins, but couldn't tell you why, or how, it was adopted and altered by the Catholic church.

Purim is a different story. It centers on a tale of persecution and redemption, of royalty and peoplehood. The story is written in a scroll, the reading of which is one of the holiday's most basic components.

The dramatis personae are weak and relatable, like most biblical characters, palpably human. The story is about being in the right place at the right time, and God barely plays an on-stage role. Righteousness is rewarded with royalty and evil punished: a perfect Hollywood tale, driven by named characters from opening titles to closing credits. We identify with the heroes of Purim and carry our reading of the story with us as we party into the night and feast the day that follows.

Other Purim traditions, not always observed by all costumed revelers, are sending packages of food to one's neighbors (mishloach manot) and gifts to the poor (matanot l'evyonim).

The only thing that Halloween and Purim share is a tendency for celebrants to dress up in costume. But on Purim, the costumes have a meaning: They reflect the theme of hiddenness in the Megillah, the scroll read aloud on Purim.

As any high school student can tell you, appearance vs. reality is a key literary theme; in the Purim story, nothing is what it seems to be. Queen Esther conceals her true identity from her husband. Bad guy Haman recommends to the king a reward he thinks he will receive and that, instead, is given to his arch enemy and all-around good guy Mordechai, Esther's cousin. A gallows that Haman prepares for Mordechai becomes the site of his own execution. The name Esther has as its Hebrew root seter, hiddenness or secrecy. Even the name of God is hidden; in the Megillah, no direct reference to God or divine power appears.

When Purim falls on a week night, as it does this year, fewer folks are willing to imbibe, even in honor of a holiday on which we are encouraged to revel in our drinking until we can't differentiate between the heroes (Mordechai and Esther) and villains (Haman and his wife, Zeresh).

But even in our revelry, there is an implied limit to our indulgence: we read the Megillah twice, once at night before the party and again the following morning. The implicit message is, "drink 'em if you got 'em, but remember that you have to show up for services in the morning."

The Purim wine is not just about getting a little high. Wine and feasting are signs of freedom, luxury and affluence. This Purim, eat, drink, be merry and, if you want, wear a costume -- but also be a mensch. Know the story behind the holiday and keep an eye on the less fortunate. Don't choke on the pretzels. And when you can't tell the difference between Enron and K-mart, maybe it's time to call it a night.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a director of publications at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan. An earlier version of this article originally appeared on GenerationJ.com.

 

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