THE SOCIETY FOR HUMANISTIC JUDAISM:
WHAT IS PURIM?
As winter becomes spring, Jews celebrate Purim, originally one of several spring-welcoming festivals. First and foremost, Purim is fun: joyous, boisterous, madcap. But even hilarity must fit within a framework.
IN THE BEGINNING . . .
The megilla, or biblical Book of Esther, replaced Ishtar and Marduk with Jewish mortals (Esther and Mordecai); Haman became a Persian "devil." The holiday's name, "Purim," meaning "lots" or "dice," is meant to remind us of how the evil character Haman drew lots to determine the fate of the Jews of Persia. According to the Book of Esther, were it not for the goodness and intervention of Esther and her uncle Mordecai in the court of King Ahasuerus, the Jews certainly would have been exterminated by the king's vizier Haman. Purim became the joyous celebration of an epic Jewish victory over anti-Semitism and threatened annihilation an enactment of the fantasies of centuries of persecuted Jews.
At first, because of the Book of Esther's secular nature it is the only book in the Bible that does not mention God it was excluded from the sacred canon. It is likely that political conflict between the rabbis and the Maccabees brought the Book of Esther into the Bible and Purim into the official Jewish calendar. Uncomfortable with Purim but faced with a festival that the people would not abandon, the rabbinic leaders found a way to suit it to their purposes. On the thirteenth of Adar, the day before Purim, Jews celebrated Nicanor's Day, commemorating a major Maccabean victory over a Greek general named Nicanor. The rabbis, to minimize the influence of their rivals, the Maccabees, turned Nicanor's Day into the Fast of Esther, immediately preceding Purim, and gave the playful folk holiday their grudging blessing. Nicanor's Day disappeared and Purim grew more popular. Purim shpiels (plays) and satires allowed ordinary people to "sass" their "betters" and voice grievances that remained unuttered throughout the year. Purim balls and carnivals encouraged revelry and drunkenness.
Rabbinic Judaism continues to celebrate Purim with great festivity. In addition to reading the scroll of Esther aloud in the synagogue to a unique or original trop (cantillation), people dress in costumes depicting the major characters of the story. During the telling of the story, the heroes are cheered and the villain, Haman, is booed and his name is drowned out by the sound of noise-makers or gragers.
Abba Eban, well-known Israeli statesman, led the political struggle in the UN to hold on to the newly-occupied territories in 1967. He also was a member of the UN delegation that secured passage of the resolution establishing Israeli statehood.
Eliezer ben Yehuda, an early Russian Zionist, was convinced that the Jewish people had a historic land and language. He revived spoken Hebrew, writing a dictionary of modern Hebrew containing new Hebrew words for modern concepts and objects.
CHOOSING A HERO
In choosing a hero, you will want to consider six points:
Golda Meir was the fourth Prime Minister of Israel. Prior to being elected, she was active in the Labor movement in Israel and was instrumental in securing American support for Israel before it became a state. She also served as Israelšs minister to Moscow, minister of labor, and foreign minister.
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