Purim. which begins tomorrow evening at sundown, is supposed to be a happy Jewish holiday, in contrast to, say, the High Holidays, which are primarily spent begging for your life.
Purim, depicted in the biblical Book of Esther – which is also a scroll, which is unscrolled and read on Purim – tells the story of how a plucky Jewish woman named Esther who had won marriage to the Persian King Ahasuerus in a contest where she was accordied “Prettiest in the Land” honors, reveals her religious affiliation to her husband, thus averting a massacring of the Jews, engineered by the King’s second-in-command, Haman, whose odiosity is perpetuated through eternity by Jews on Purim eating fruit-filled pastries molded in the shape of his hat.
A “good news” story – the Jewish people rescued from destruction. A perennial “Best Seller” in Hebraic circles. And yet, for me, the holiday of Purim has a bittersweet component, based on two troubling events from my personal experience.
In no particular order, an order required, because you cannot tell two stories at the same time:
When I was in college at the University of Toronto, determined not to take any courses that could even remotely lead to career, I selected, during my graduating year, to study Near Eastern Literature, which was the Bible, not as “You better believe this, or you can count on big trouble in the Afterlife”, but as historical literature.
I am reminded that, as a much-needed break from studying for my college “finals”, my friend Alan and I escaped, spending a weekend in New York, where, between visits to the theater and sampling escargot, I studied for my Near Eastern Literature exam by reading the Gideon Bible generously provided for us in our hotel room. I remember the first page of it saying, “Leave this Bible in the open; the next person might need it.” I did, in fact, need it – to bone up for my Near Eastern Literature exam – so when we left, I packed it in my “carry-on”, and I studied it on the plane ride home.
I also saw The Gospel According To St. Matthew, so it was not an entirely frivolous trip.
Among other eye-openers – and indeed the eye-openingest eye-opener of them all – was I was apprised that the Story of Esther – a young woman saving her people from destruction – was, in fact, not real. Or, at least, not original to the Jews. Our professor explained that strikingly similar stories appear in other people’s holy writings as well. Esther was simply the Jewish incarnation of a multi-cultural myth.
Now, remember, in my formative years, I was educated at the Orthodox Toronto Hebrew Day School, where you received a month’s detention for eating a non-kosher hamburger. (If it had cheese on it, I think they killed you.)
We were instructed to believe that the Bible actually happened. As written. I remember being reprimanded for mumbling dismissively when we learned that, when the Ten Commandments were delivered from Sinai, the blind could suddenly see, and the deaf could suddenly hear. I somehow found that difficult to believe. Although, with my eye problems, that could have just been a sour grapes response for missing out on that healing opportunity.
My Near Eastern Literature professor explained that it was not uncommon to appropriate mythological tales from other religions, citing that the biblical story of “The Flood” was predated by the Mesopotamian “Epic of Gilgamesh”, which originated “The Flood’s” deluginary narrative.
My drummed-into-my-head beliefs were dropping like flies. Esther apparently didn’t happen, and “The Flood” had happened before. It’s a good thing my college professor hadn’t gone to my school. Peddling that nonsense, he’d have gotten detention for Life! And possibly stoning.
Purim, for me, had been mortally wounded. And on top of that, there was this:
I was thirteen years old. I had just had my Bar Mitzvah. It was my last year attending the Toronto Hebrew Day School, and, at an assembly, the graduating students were putting on a Purim play. Reenacting the historic events I would later learn had never taken place.
I did not have a big part. In fact, I was an “extra.” A palace soldier, or something. (Not only did that school try to indoctrinate my brain, they did not know I had talent.)
The soldier’s costume, I was instructed – since the location was Persia – involved a turban and a robe. My turban would be a bath towel, my robe, the exquisite Scotch plaid flannel bathrobe I had recently received for my Bar Mitzvah, and adored.
I looked good in the play.
Afterwards, it was back to class, where I removed my wardrobe, folding my bath towel into my school bag, and hanging my treasured bathrobe in the cloakroom.
That night, I left for home, forgetting the bathrobe in the cloakroom. When I returned the next day, it was no longer there. I was totally devastated.
An orthodox Jewish child had made off with my bathrobe.
Such, for me, are my tarnishing memories of Purim Past. To this day, I am not certain which loss was more significant – the debunking of a longstanding belief, or the pilfering of my bathrobe.
I believe it was the bathrobe.