Purim is the festival of all that is surprising. Recorded Purim songs break out on to the streets of Jerusalem from Rabbi Nachman vehicles and face painted waiters serve at Caffit. Yesterday in yoga, the session ended with a Chag Sameach from the teacher and a festive plate of poppyseed hamentaschen passed around, homemade by one of the students.
Purim begins in Jerusalem a month before the actual festival. With hamentashen being sold in all bakeries the moment TuBishvat is over. And from Rosh Chodesh Adar the children begin dressing up, going to kindergarten and school in pyjamas one day, funny hats the next and fully dressed up in every imagined costume; from dashing, European Princes, to little Red Riding Hood and a hoard of Avengers. I can’t help but smile when I glance into a pram being wheeled down the street and a little, painted, clown face stares back at me.
It’s my third Purim here and I’ve just become comfortable with the Hebrew word ‘to dress up’. I know by now to buy costumes and goodies for Mishloach Manot early and avoid the manic, last minute rush. One and a half weeks early was too late. A size large Batman costume was left and all black eye masks were sold out. That was the beginning of experiencing the shadow side of Purim. The dark underbelly of stress and frustration that underlies all the busyness.
A friend of mine says Purim is a punishment for mothers. It’s stressful organising food gifts, worrying if it’s good enough, original enough, if you’re spending too much money or too little. Another friend of mine has left to Eilat for the Purim weekend. It works out cheaper and more enjoyable than putting together her super, beautiful Mishloach Manot and hosting her gastronomic seudah which came at a massive cost physically not to mention financially.
For many years I myself have given up trying to be original or cool. For years I’ve been searching how to do Purim meaningfully. One year I donated money and sent cards out announcing that instead of giving food gifts I donated money to those in need. Last year I bought gifts from an organisation that supported autism. This year I convinced my shul to start a chessed fund with members of the shul all receiving one food gift from everyone. Meaning that you gave to everyone in your community and raised money for those in need at the same time.
Meanwhile I’ve had my major Purim bloopers. I didn’t arrange a big enough Mishloach Manot for my son to take to school. How was I to realise that Israeli kids take it super seriously and it’s more cool to put big packets of everything and not an array of, what I thought was, fun junk food but on the smaller packet side. I forgot the 21st Century rule, Big is Better. An Oleh mistake. I quizzed my boys about the packets they received so I would learn what’s ‘cool’ for next year. My eldest said, ‘I didn’t get anything, the person who was meant to give me was an American.’
The question that nags me in all this frenzied Purim preparation is, ‘Where is the joy?’ The most joyous festival of all and there is an overwhelming pressure and a hum of meaninglessness floating just below the surface. Just this morning I overheard a bearded, middle aged man talking into the phone at the fruit shop repeating over and over again, ‘I’m not excited about Purim.’
I think back to last Purim and the truth is I had a joyous Purim, even if I probably also gave the children too small packets for their school Mishloach Manot swap. I decided not to pressurise myself. I remember sitting at an empty cafe for lunch with my husband (our seudah at friends was called for much later in the day) and having a meaningful chat with the proprietor’s Moroccan mother. I hadn’t bought into any of the hype, if people gave me Mishloach Manot I tried to jumble something together once I had run out of my prepared ones. I focused on the connection that was intended in the giving, not on what was actually given. No one needs another packet of chips, another packet of sweets and no, not even a bottle of wine.
I focused on the kids. The fun is in the connection. The fun is in the meaning. The big, frantic Purim parties don’t give this to me, the fancy Mishloach Manot don’t do it for me either, the big Purim Seudahs leave me cold. I want that small chat in a small space with a person where I smile and they smile and we feel joy. I want to give my food gifts in those places where they don’t receive much and it will bring love and joy.
I think that’s what Purim is trying to teach us, to do things with joy, and if the joy isn’t there, have a good rethink and ask why? And maybe, just maybe give ourselves permission to enjoy Purim (an apt metaphor for our lives) on our own terms.