Purim, or the Feast of Lots, is a joyous holiday that recounts Queen Esther saving the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period (539-330 BCE).
*Photo: "The 19th Amendment", taken by Stephanie Fink
“It’s a gift,” she said as she handed me a basket. “Everything inside means something.”
I looked down and saw wheat, an apple, sugar, a painted egg, and more . . .
“We give gifts . . . it’s for Nowruz.” “It’s a new year’s celebration!”
“A spring new year’s celebration with gift-giving. Huh. From where?” I asked. “A Muslim holiday?”
“Oh, no, not really. It’s Persian. It’s been celebrated for about 3,000 years.”
Fascinating. Jews began settling in that area about 2,700 years ago.
Last year, I had the incredible good fortune to co-teach class of Muslim and Jewish teens with my Ismaili Muslim friend and colleague, Muniza Lalani Ahmed. I’ll have you know, when she handed me that basket, it was just about time for Purim. You know, the holiday when we are commanded to give one another gifts. The holiday during which we fulfill the mitzvah of hearing a story set in . . . Persia.
With the approach of Purim this year, I did a little reading and learned that Nowruz is Pre-Islamic, rooted in Zoroastrian rituals, and celebrates the beginning of Spring. It was first celebrated in the geographic area of Persia, but is now observed in many places, including Iran, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Canada, the U.S., and in Israel. It crosses religious and national boundaries and is celebrated by Persian Jews, Christians, Baha’is and Muslims with many symbols and rituals that certainly resonate with Jewish holidays.
Purim, of course, also originated in ancient Persia. Many narrative features of the story reveal different aspects of Persian culture, and gift giving is an example of a valued Persian custom and method of diplomacy that found its way into the four mitzvot of this holiday. In fact, on bas-relief images carved into the walls of Persepolis, a line of diplomats walk holding gifts. Today, there are still between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews living in Iran. Jews of Iran feel deeply connected to the Jewish history of Persia and preserve many ancient pilgrimage sites, including the graves of Mordecai and Esther.
They probably represent the oldest continuous Jewish community in the world.
Muniza and I were unaware of the happy relationships between these holidays, and also unaware of the challenges between them.
Rabbi Brant Rosen can see no way around the decidedly darker aspects of the Purim story – “particularly the infamous ninth chapter in which we read that the Jews of Persia slew 75,000 Persians then celebrated the day after with a festival of “feasting and merry making.” He has called for a fundamentally different version of the Purim story to share with our children – one that “celebrates the venerable Persian-Jewish experience’ rather than cynically telling a Persian version of “when push comes to shove, all the world really just wants the Jews dead.” Indeed, in the text, even when the new edict was sent out, and people could have chosen to let the Jews be, neighbors still hated them so much they chose to attack anyway, and arguably in self-defense, the Jews slaughtered thousands.
Read from an outsider’s perspective, the same text has motivated some Nowruz celebrants to say their celebrations of Nowruz are partly in response to the massacre depicted in the megillah and discussed in the Talmud, and to accuse Jews of continuing to celebrate that massacre to this day. Purim is sometimes an excuse for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish fervor.
On the other hand, in Israel in recent years there has been increased Jewish violence toward Palestinians during and just after Purim celebrations inspired by the violence in the story.
Until last Purim, I had no idea. To be honest, I barely know anything now, having only scratched the surface of the relationship between Purim and Nowruz, and having just begun to explore the overlapping story we have inherited of Judaism and the Persian empire.
I have long been troubled by the way we usually share Megillat Esther in our communities – telling an abridged version of the story enough of us feel is appropriate for children. This is no children’s story. This is a story about kidnapping, sex slavery, misogyny, abuse of power, anti-Semitism, and war. Yes, that story is woven into a farcical tale of a ridiculous king, a reversal of fortune, and a cathartic revenge fantasy of a people so often the target of violent hate. No matter how silly we make it, there is no getting around how complicated the text is.
Rabbi Brant Rosen called for a fundamentally different version of this story, but he hasn’t as far as I can find given any suggestions about what that would look like.
I love Purim. I love the balance of the year. A quiet day of deep introspection – Yom Kippur – on the one side of the year and Purim - a day of raucousness and revelry - at the other. I love the contrast of hiddenness and revelation. I love the costumes, and the spiels, and the playfulness. I even love the carnivals. Frankly, I love that we have this text that is just waiting for us to unpack it.
I certainly have more thinking to do, but, thanks to this same megillah, as I think I also have a place I can start.
If we read, as they say, the whole megillah, we will find that within that story, there is a mitzvah, a commandment, to give mishloach manot. It’s spelled out in the Book of Esther, which requires the Jewish people to observe the days of Purim "as days of feasting and gladness," and also by "sending portions of food to one another, and gifts to people experiencing poverty." (9:22) This sending of gifts is meant to ensure that everyone has enough food for the Purim feast, to increase love and friendship among Jews, and to extend the love and friendship between Jews and our neighbors. These gifts are about diplomacy.
How very Persian.
This year, informed by Nowruz and in observance of Purim, let’s think about how we might reach out diplomatically with the intention to increase love and friendship between ourselves and others. We still have some time to make our lists. Who will be on yours?