Raise your glass to food, drink, celebration and the survival of the Jewish people—this is the holiday known as Purim. This past Saturday, Feb. 24, I attended Muhlenberg Hillel’s Purim Carnival. Very reminiscent of how my own Temple celebrated the festival, brightly colored decorations decked the Hillel house like ivy, music blared and echoed throughout the halls and bowls and bowls of food lay displayed and open for all to enjoy. It was a carnival—but why? Various Jewish holidays throughout the year celebrate through the act of gorging food and guzzling drink, but why does Purim in particular stand above them?
Purim, to describe it frankly, is a kind of Jewish Halloween, though the only commonality between the two is dressing up in costumes. Beyond that, the holidays are very different.
Annie Cannon ‘21, the Religious Chair of the Student Executive Board, describes Purim as a time of celebration and change, a point at which we celebrate the reverse of what is expected:
“Purim is a celebration of the Jewish people defying, and reversing, their fate. We were destined for death—yet we prevailed. In turn, we dress up as our ‘opposites’—celebrating that change.”
Opposites, meaning to dress as something you’re not; a costume that represents an antithesis to your own character. This was the original concept; of course, nowadays most just dress as whatever they want.
Purim itself occurs on the fourteenth of Adar in the Jewish calendar, marking a point of late winter and early spring. The celebrations specifically surround a story that is often re-enacted and parodied by temples and synagogues around the world.
“It’s the story of Queen Esther performed in the form of a ‘Purim Spiel’…we celebrate how she freed the Jews.” Mimi Salters ‘21, who helped organize the Purim carnival, briefly explained while arranging a few decorations.
As previously described by Cannon, it is a tale of the Jewish people surviving what should have been a politically charged massacre. The main characters are Mordechai, our hero, Esther, our heroine, and Haman, our antagonist.
Esther’s story, derived from the Megillah, begins with the king of Shushan drunkenly summoning for his queen to dance for him and his peers. This dance included the withdrawing of clothing. Queen Vashti saw herself as above such things and outwardly refused, after which the king condemned her to banishment. With a lack of a queen, a contest was created for all the women of Shushan to attend—whoever the king chose would be queen. One of these women was Esther, who kept her Jewish identity a secret from all except her uncle Mordechai. Of course, Esther was chosen to be queen, and all appeared well. However, the king’s royal vizier, Haman, self-sworn enemy to the Jewish people, plotted the Jews’ complete annihilation. A series of events soon revealed that Esther had to either risk execution by appearing before the king unannounced or allowing her people to perish. Of course, Esther chose to save the Jewish people. It is her brave act that Purim celebrates to this day.
However, the holiday seems to go far beyond the retelling of this tale.
“Purim is a time for celebration, for people coming together. Having the event at Hillel embodies the holiday,” describes Justin Greenbaum ‘19 as he hangs a few streamers.
So, what is Purim? A story retold, a festival performed, and a lesson embodied, Purim is a holiday transcending the Jewish lens. Regardless of your religious affiliation, this bright and joyous holiday, full of theatricality and more than its fair share of noise-making, has something valuable to give: in a time when bravery and unity can be hard to find within ourselves, the story of Purim reminds us that we can all be Queen Esther if we so choose.