Purim, How You've Changed
by Ted Roberts
Purim, we hardly know you anymore! When I was a gregor-twirling Purim celebrant long, long ago (only a few years after the collapse of the Persian Empire) Purim was a modest little holiday. Yes, there was a costume ball. But girls' costumes were old tablecloths and cardboard crowns. Boys wore sheets - simulating the royal robes of King Achasvueros. Or khaki pants. (My mother swore - although it wasn't in the book of Esther - that Mordechai always wore khaki pants. Who argued with their mother in 1940?)
Though none of us were drama critics, we intuitively understood the flaw in this 4th Century BC drama. Not enough characters for 300 contestants at the Purim Costume Ball! (And don't bring up Vashti and Haman - what would you wear? A hangman's noose?) It would take fifty years before we were cynical enough to figure out that Purim was really a masquerade ball, not a religious celebration. Now you can come as a can of Campbell's mushroom soup, Michael Jordan, or the Spice Girls - all five of them.
But who wanted to go to a costume ball with a hundred kings, a hundred Esthers and a hundred Mordechais. Besides that, Mordechai was a real challenge. Only my mama defended the khaki pants concept. So, usually his outfit was a wide, white paper belt that said "Mordechai". "Oh, that kid in the big grocery bag, that's Mordechai - says so on his belt."
Female crossdressers were rare or closeted in the forties. They never showed up at the Baron Hirsch Synagogue Purim Ball. So girls were severely limited. All Esthers. The only question was - what kind of a tablecloth would the future queen of the Persian Empire of 300 BC have worn? Mothers pondered for days over this question: oilcloth, cotton, plastic?
But even wrapped in paper or soiled tablecloths, we loved the Purim Ball because kids got free Coca Colas. At least that's the way it worked at our shul.
This annual masquerade - as I look back on it - was one of those cultural conundrums like why my old man loved Schmaltz Herrings. "Ted, you take a small bite of salt herring chased by a loaf of rye bread." (Schmaltz Herrings by the way - like the unicorn - are extinct except for the New York City environs where occasionally one is yanked out of the East River. He's dipped in salt - hacked in eight pieces - laid out in the window of the Stage Deli where each piece is swapped for a 3,000 square foot 5th Avenue condo. A schmaltz herring - to Jews over the age of 60 - is considered a delicacy that ranks with congealed fish juice!)
OK, the cokes were nice, but what else gilded the festivities. There was no music. So a few hundred kids mulled around the assembly hall of the shul and drank cokes and slid on the waxed hardwood floor. It was a simpler time. We thought sliding on the waxed wooden floor was a heckuva game - especially when some clumsy kid slid into the refreshment table.
Oh yeah, there was Hamentaschen, as edible as the cardboard coasters on the table. If Haman's in Hell, he's on a 100% diet of Hamentaschen. It was only good for food fights.
Sometimes there was a "dramatic presentation". That set our little libidinous hearts - two years behind the libidinous hearts of our feminine classmates - on fire because we'd read the Purim story. Maybe we'd get the voluptuous Vashti dance scene that the Book of Esther had exorcised. It was not to be. Instead, we got the classic Purim play:
Haman: "Kill the Jews."
Esther: (with a big, boomy smile and a wink) "Kill Haman."
A powerful scenario that taught an adult lesson to the juvenile audience; the King of Persians and Medes, whose empire stretched from India to Ethiopia, had all the power of a stewed chicken drumstick in the hands of this Semitic Seductress.
Come to think of it, that's the pragmatic lesson of the Book of Esther (that not once mentions HE - the ruler of all - who made emperors and courtesans). A man is only a gumdrop in the palm of an artful woman. The splendor of Esther saves her people. The ancestors of Jacob, in this case, don't rely on divine intercession, or military might, or even their wisdom - but on the smile and grace of a pretty girl.
Pass me a gregor and a Coca Cola - I'll drink to that.
Ted is a syndicted columnist whose work appears widely in the Jewish
press and newspapers around the country. He will be glad to reply to
fulsome praise or nitpicking criticism. Email him at
from the March 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine