As winter becomes spring, Jews celebrate Purim, originally one of several spring-welcoming festivals. First and foremost, Purim is fun: joyous, boisterous, madcap. But even hilarity must fit within a framework.
The megilla (the biblical Book of Esther) lists four ways to celebrate Purim: reading the megilla, giving charity, giving gifts of food, and the festive meal. The hamantashen, the three-cornered filled cookie, remains the food of choice for Purim. People dress in costumes depicting the major characters of the story. During the telling of the story, the heroes are cheered and the villain, Haman, is booed and his name is drowned out by the sound of noise-makers called groggers.
In the megilla, Haman became a Persian “devil.” The holiday’s name, “Purim,” meaning “lots” or “dice,” is meant to remind us of how the evil character Haman drew lots to determine the fate of the Jews of Persia. According to the Book of Esther, were it not for the goodness and intervention of Esther and her uncle Mordecai in the court of King Ahasuerus, the Jews certainly would have been exterminated by the king’s vizier, Haman. Purim became the joyous celebration of an epic Jewish victory over anti-Semitism and threatened annihilation.
For Humanistic Jews, Purim is a celebration of the heroic in Jewish history, a tribute to human ethical role models. Human courage and ingenuity are at the center of a story about the triumph of good over evil. Humanistic Jews celebrate the heroes and chastise the villains of the world through modern Purim shpiels. Reading the megilla — accompanied by gragers, cheers, and boos — provides a starting point from which to move beyond the framework of the biblical story. The masks of Purim become the faces of Jewish men and women worthy of emulation, from Mordecai to Theodore Herzl and Albert Einstein, and from Esther to Henrietta Szold and Golda Meir. Humanistic Purim celebrations often feature children’s costume parades and carnivals. These lighthearted activities have a serious side, recalling the heroism of individuals and the organized resistance to oppression of the Jewish people.