There’s a certain feeling of joyous abandon in Israel at Purim, the happiest, most lighthearted holiday on the Jewish calendar, which begins Thursday evening. Tricks are permissible and treats essential. There’s a playful naughtiness unrestricted to age, sex or ethnic background. You might even call it the Jewish April Fool’s Day, with an entire country in cahoots.
One year, the national television station’s evening news was broadcast upside down, and the station’s solemn sign-off, the national anthem, was replaced by a rousing version of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” Another year a popular radio station announced that massive quantities of crude oil had been found under central Tel Aviv. And yet another year the Jerusalem Post published a fake front page.
Purim commemorates events occurring some 24 centuries ago in Persia. Persuaded by his evil advisor Haman to eliminate the entire Jewish population in his realm, King Ahasuerus drew lots (purim) to set the date for mass execution. His new young wife, Esther, who was renowned for her beauty (and who, unbeknownst to the king, was Jewish), learned of the dastardly plot from her uncle Mordechai and risked her life to outwit Haman and persuade the king to revoke the edict. In the end it was Haman who met his maker on that very same day-the 14th of the Hebrew month Adar-strung up on the gallows by the king. Generations after, Purim is still a joyous celebration of that escape from persecution.
For children, the holiday is also akin to Halloween, a dress-up time with costumes that once reflected the heroes of the Purim story and today include Pokemon characters, Ricky Martin and space aliens. Excitement begins weeks before the holiday, as youngsters plan their costumes and begin the process of daily persuasion to ensure that their parents will make or buy exactly the costume they want. Purim is a school holiday in Israel, and the streets are filled with children dressed up in costume finery, teenagers in silly outfits with painted hair and an occasional adult with rabbit ears. Carnivals, parties, masked balls, special performances for children, practical jokes, mishloah manot (gifts of food) and feasting are the order of the day.
In the evening, those who attend synagogue will hear the chanting of Megillat Esther, a scroll recounting the Purim story, and will help drown out Haman’s name with noisemakers every time it is mentioned. Long before the invention of cars, it was also considered a mitzvah or good deed to imbibe enough wine “so as not to be able to distinguish between the names of Haman and Mordechai.”
And yet, in recent years the advent of Purim also sends a twinge of fear through many parents, particularly in Tel Aviv. In 1996, a bomb exploded outside a crowded Tel Aviv shopping center on Purim, leaving 13 dead, including children in their Purim costumes. The next year, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded Tel Aviv cafe, killing four women sitting with their children.
“Although the last few years have been quiet, I still take safety measures,” one mother said. “I won’t allow the kids to go on buses during the holiday, and we try to stay out of crowded public places.”
Though scores of ethnic groups exist in Israel, each with its own customs and concepts of holiday fare, certain culinary common denominators do exist.
The quintessential Purim delight is the three-cornered filled cookie (looking like George Washington’s hat) called hamantaschen in Yiddish and ozen haman in Hebrew. Developed by Eastern European Jews centuries ago, hamantaschen are made from either cookie dough or yeast dough and usually are stuffed with poppy seed or fruit fillings. They are variously considered symbolic of Haman’s pocket, Haman’s hat and Haman’s ear.
In Sephardic homes, grandmothers will also make orejas de Aman: crisp, deep-fried twists of dough dipped in sugar syrup or dusted with powdered sugar.
Poppy seeds have special significance during Purim, because tradition holds that Queen Esther chose a vegetarian diet of beans, nuts and various seeds, including poppy seeds, rather than eat non-kosher food in the king’s palace. Actually, it wasn’t such a bad idea, because poppy seeds are a good source of calories and calcium, zinc, manganese, copper, phosphorus, potassium and a wealth of B vitamins. Smart cookie.