Hebrew Camp!


    OMG is it Halloween?  A Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco?  Animal House Live?  No, it's Church!

    Actually, it's Synagogue.  What I'm talking about is the festival of Purim, which, as these several photos of this year's celebration (which happened just a few days ago) testify, is something quite wild and wacky, far beyond what most proper "church folks" can fathom as the least bit sacred.  Christianity accepts kids donning halos or dressing as sheep at Christmas and wide-eyed grown-ups in Bible gear running up the aisles of the sanctuary exclaiming "He is risen!" at Easter, but that's pretty much as heterodox, and comedically dramatized, as things seem to get. 

    However, in the Jewish community, Purim is all about taking the text and giving it the ultimate burlesque.  In particular, the Book of Esther.

    This is the story of the Jews of the diaspora, living in a land far from home (in this case, Persia) where they are subject to hatred, humiliation and extermination.  Esther is a beautiful young Jewish woman who becomes Queen of Persia and manages, through courage and cleverness, to save her people, with the help of her wise and faithful uncle Mordechai.  
    On Purim, the whole scroll of Esther is read, and re-enacted a la Rocky Horror Picture Show.   Folks show up to the synagogue costumed, often to the hilt, in get-ups that somehow connects with the biblical story.  Every time Mordechai's name is mentioned in the text, everyone wildly cheers (WILDLY CHEEEERRRSSSS!) and every time his nemesis, the evil Hamon, is mentioned, you're supposed to WILDLY BOOOOOOO! and stomp your feet.  In the middle of everything there is a parade of queens (which makes this story an especially conducive reach-out to the drag community, yes?).  In addition, everyone (the adults at least) are encouraged to get so drunk by the end of the evening they can no longer tell if they're cheering Mordechai or booing Haman, hence leaving things wholly in God's hands.  What a remarkable way for expressing trust in the Almighty, dontcha think??

    If ever there were an example of biblical humor and play (and, stretched to the most outrageous of lengths) it is the festival of Purim and its embrace of book of Esther.    Clearly there are at least some descendants of Isaac who relish the primacy of laughter in the faith journey and as communicated in the Judeo-Christian Bible.... 

     I invite you to read the book of Esther     (which isn't long) and enjoy the goings-on as a great, all-engrossing story once told around the fire by our forebears after a long, boring and heartbreaking day in the fields, on the road, in the ghetto, or all of the above.  In Esther, God's people are savvy, good fortune and God's grace are plentiful, and everyone in the "mighty" Persian court is pretty much a dufus.  In fact, the names of those serving in the Persian King's court - including "Mehuman," "Biztha," "Harbona" and "Bigtha" - suggest meanings such as "panic," "plunder," "drought" and "leaker."  The rest of the names have no meaning and are just fun to say:  try lifting your spirits by saying aloud "Shaashgaz" (2:14) or "Memucan" (1:14) or "Parshandatha" (9:7-9) and you're well on your way to coming into the spirit and purposes of Esther, which, it would seem, are all about reminding the faithful that giddy silliness and revelry are proper responses to God's overwhelmingly wonderful yet unpredictable gifts of salvation and new leases on life even and especially in the direst of circumstances.

Hamantaschen ("Haman's Ludicrously Giant Ears") are Purim's traditional treat....

Hamantaschen ("Haman's Ludicrously Giant Ears") are Purim's traditional treat....

     I do include a caveat here: the biblical account of Esther ends with the victorious Queen and her people permitted to slaughter everyone who has ever sought their ruin.  The text goes on to describe who therefore was killed and how many (75,000).  This does not feel festive, even if it's farce.   There's something terribly unfunny about the oppressed suddenly becoming the oppressor, the very thing from which they desperately just sought escape.  It is very interesting, and heartening, to read how many Jewish thinkers wrestle with the ending of this otherwise wonderful story and find in the process new hope.  For example, Rabbi Jill Jacobs in her online essay A Violent Ending, notes that because we are created in the image of God, filled with God's great mercy and kindness and love of peace, we do not need to succumb to the temptation to kill as did those first Purim revelers.  We can stay focused on feathers, false eyelashes, and fruit-filled ears and honor our Bible just fine.