PURIM—Send in the clowns

Idie Benjamin and Dale Cooperman

Dale Sides Cooperman and Idie BenjaminWe are writing this on the last day of Hanukkah, and only a few days after the unspeakable tragedy in Connecticut. We had planned to write about Purim, but now we are approaching Purim with a different perspective and with a different clarity. We are thinking about the clowns—clowns that are sent into the circus rings when there has been an accident during a performance. They are there to distract the crowd while the injured are removed from the arena.

Purim has, as we know, a frightening story. Once again the Jews face a serious threat from a man in power who has great hatred towards them. Megilat Esther, the Book of Esther, tells in great detail about this hate and Haman’s plans to kill the entire Jewish community of Persia. They are saved through the action of a great hero, Queen Esther, who risks her own life to save them.

But wait: Purim is not serious. Of all the Jewish holidays, Purim is the holiday that is the most fun for everyone, especially children. It is dressing in costumes and having carnivals. Its celebrations are loud and fun and its foods are all desserts. It is one of the two times where being noisy in synagogue is encouraged (Simhat Torah is the other). And all this comes from a story straight from the Arabian Nights.

It is a great strength that a community can unite in order to take a horrible event and reframe it. We do not dwell on the evil but on the survival. Just as someone under extreme stress can begin to laugh for no reason, in the face of the Purim story and the possibility of death and destruction of innocent lives, we laugh and laugh and laugh. We take the story and turn it on its head. Purim is topsy-turvy. Everything is backwards and upside down. Other Jewish holidays are home centered. Purim is, with deliberate intention, celebrated with the community, a loud, colorful community. There are costumes and masks. These costumes help us to change our reality, and perhaps the masks serve to hide what we do not want to see. We do not like this reality, so we change it by changing what we see and what we wear.

Purim is perfect for children. There is a king and a queen, a villain with a funny hat, a brave uncle, and a castle. What more could a child want? Its story and costumes are not meant to frighten but to entertain. It is Aladdin with a Jewish twist. Dressing up in costumes is a way for the child to be a part of the story. Children innately understand that they can change their reality by being princesses and kings and heroes, something that adults must consciously bring to Purim.

But as we think of Purim, we are reminded that like other stories of our holidays, it is a story of hatred and violence. As educators we walk a tight rope, continually exploring a way to tell our stories, but in a way that still protects and shelters children. How do we tell the story? Can it be Purim without the story?

It is our natural inclination to want to protect children. In response to the terrible event of a few days ago, many of us have carefully crafted letters to our families urging them to be mindful of how young children need to be cared for and sheltered from information they cannot process or understand.

As adults, we are aware of Jewish history and how difficult it has often been for Jews to live in harmony with their non-Jewish neighbors. Our world is very different now. We do not want young children to feel that it is not safe to be Jewish. Many of our children have a parent and/or relatives who are not Jewish. We do not want them to be uneasy about those relationships.

Idie once had a three-year-old in her program who climbed into her non-Jewish father’s lap and asked “Daddy, do you like Jewish people? Haman didn’t like Jewish people.” Children whose parents are divorced or separated may also be troubled by the Vashti story, one woman being sent away and another taking her place.

On the other hand, just recently Dale was approached by a congregant after a Family Shabbat celebration called “Stuffed Animal Shabbat.” For parshah Noah, the Rabbi told a unique and lighthearted version of the story of Noah’s Ark, one that engaged the children, their stuffed animals, and most of the congregation. This congregant was concerned that the children weren’t being told the “real” story. Dale felt that the Rabbi’s story contained the essence of the “real” story, but was crafted in a way that was developmentally appropriate for his target audience.

Are we “sugar coating” the stories? If “sugar coating” means a watered down version, then no. If it means making the learning sweet and meaningful for young children, then yes. As early childhood educators, we know that there will be a time in the future when children are developmentally ready to hear and understand a more detailed telling of these stories. How much do young children need to know?

We feel that without the essence of the story, Purim loses an opportunity to connect children to our community. A gentle telling of the story tailored to children’s ages and stages is appropriate. When we wrote Torah Aura’s Purim Drops of Honey, we told the story in a way that focused on the characters and what could be learned from them.

We want to shelter children from harsh truths of life and of the detail in some stories of the Jewish people. But what is it that we DO want them to know? We want children to know that:

  • Esther was a hero. Yes, girls can be heroes – even girls in frilly dresses. . The whole book is named after Esther, our hero. She is a model of courage and grace, intelligence, resourcefulness, and modesty. Esther teaches even in the most difficult of times, we can do the right thing.
  • Holidays can be joyous and that together – as a community – we are stronger and can vanquish evil.
  • Good triumphs over bad. In this story, Haman is the vehicle that helps us. He tried to hurt with cruel words and lies but did not win. This is a comforting lesson today and one that can give children some security.

A thoughtful approach to Purim allows us to protect our children and ourselves. We all have difficult days. Purim tells us it is okay to be happy. Fun, laughter, and imagination are important and to be celebrated. The winter is ending and spring will come. Purim celebrates life. More than ever, tragedy serves as a reminder of bad and good, of sorrow and of joy… and even more importantly, that as a community, we share it all.

So, send in the clowns!

Drops of Honey: Purim

The Story of Purim—A Jewish Big Book