Leah Bieler

Loathing Purim, but proud to be from Shushan

A key and overlooked message of Purim is that Jews in the Diaspora don't run from danger, they stay and fight

I dread Purim. There. I’ve said it. I’m aware this is an unpopular opinion. But hear me out. I have empirical evidence.

The holiday always seems to sneak up on me, as I scramble to shop for mishloach manot bags and costume accessories, hamantasch fillings and face paint to replace last years’ dried out mess.

In our egalitarian household, somehow all this preparation falls on me, as the kids demand that only Ima can properly bake the cookies with them and put together the Purim ensembles.

Once all the preparation is complete, the lead up to the holiday is a sunup to sundown fast, which seems invariably to fall on my birthday. As evening approaches, the fasting headache is cemented by a shul filled with a hundred screaming children hyped up on candy and brandishing foam swords.

Two hours later, having heard the Megillah and broken my fast on a Hershey’s Kiss, 3 marshmallows and a lone clementine from the amassed bags and boxes and plates of junk food, I start to calculate. How much of this is sufficiently packaged that I can give it directly to a food pantry? How much of the rest of it can we eat before the last hametz needs to be out of the house in only three short weeks? I’m the mother who sends her kids to school with snacks of roasted seaweed and kale chips, but in these few weeks the topsy-turvy nature of the holiday extends beyond its boundaries, as I gently suggest that my daughter reconsider her choice of an apple for a snack.

“Wouldn’t you rather have some Twizzlers?”

And then there’s the story. As a feminist, I bristle at the tale of a woman forced to use her sex as her only source of power. At the thousands of little Jewish girls re-appropriating their Princess Elsa costumes and remembering the salient fact about Esther to be her beauty, and not her bravery.

And the carnage at the end of the Megilah is troubling, to say the least.

The one piece that in my Jewish education seemed to get short shrift, though, was that Esther is a diaspora story. Its lesson is not that diaspora Jewry is a project doomed to failure. The message of Purim is that Jews have the capacity and courage to assert their power, a message even more salient in a democratic, open society.

Recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been passionately repeating that the answer to European antisemitism is to get out and get out fast. But this is decidedly not what the tale of Purim demands. Mordecai and Esther do not gather up as many Jews as they can and slink off into the night, Persian Von Trapps escaping over the hills with just the clothes on their backs.

They fight. Esther is fearless in the face of danger. She does not run, nor does she encourage others to do so. If the Jewish response to danger is to flee whenever there’s a threat, then why did I stay and run to the bomb shelter this summer in Jerusalem? Why not just get on a plane and escape to a place where Jews can be “safe?”

The story of Jews outside of the land is not so one-sided as Bibi would have us believe. It is also a story of phenomenal success, of outsized influence, of religious freedom, of intellectual flowering. Israel will continue to be the center of the Jewish world. But it will be enriched, for a long time, by the perspective that is achieved from Jews living all over the globe.

We modern Jews are incomparably blessed by the presence of Israel as a haven for the oppressed. But when I make aliyah, it will be out of love, and excitement, and the conviction that, for me, the future of our People lies there.

In the meantime, despite my experience, I will learn from Esther, and be brave in the face of the mounting piles of crap on my kitchen table. I will take a few ibuprofen. And I will drink, in honor of the day, until I can’t tell the difference between Purim and a regular Thursday.

Now who’s coming over for a snack?

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.
Related Topics
Related Posts