Purim, the Jewish popularity contest

As a child I recall sitting on the steps in my house, mouth agape at the scene in front of me: I could not see the living room floor. We had just received too many Mishloach Manot (Purim baskets) to count, and the floor and tables were filled with assorted bags, baskets, boxes – not to mention the colours; I was floored by the bright patterns, tissue paper, and various candies.

I was jubilant: we were liked. We were popular.

Some years I meticulously counted – as I’ve seen other children do – my favourite candies…the number of miniature sparkling grape juice bottles we received… those amazing chocolates in the shape of masks…

I would sit in my ballerina outfit, surrounded by food and somehow it made me feel special, it made me feel loved. The amount of food we had, dictated feeling adored.
The more we received, the more I felt cared for; the food became a symbol.

In many ways, the way Purim is celebrated presents itself as a superficial holiday; we focus on our exteriors or the costume that we so choose to wear. It becomes a game, almost a competition – the Miss America Pageant of Jewish holidays – it is no longer about the root of the day and why we dress up, but instead a contest to who has the most creative costume. We have a day to explore another side to ourselves, to escape from our everyday woes and take on another persona or character, dissolving in an outfit.

I remember feeling so excited to go to Party City as a youngster and choose my costume, (I’ve always dreamed of dressing as Queen Amidala – it’ll happen someday!) simply appreciating the fun nature. But as I got older it became threatening and stressful, I almost didn’t want to dress up because of the competitive nature it evoked.

We exchange Mishloach Manot; people often spend months planning the theme, working on sweet poems and stocking up on the best snacks. Many times this is done from a place of warmth and good-nature, but at times it is done to proudly display the “best” Purim basket.

As I got older, less Mishloach Manot came in. The holiday became sour. I no longer wanted to count candies because there weren’t many to count. What’s 7 ring pops when I used to get 13? (But who cares/no big deal/I want more)

My value of the day depended on food – a foreshadowing of my future years ahead when my self-worth was placed on calories and food intake – my life with Anorexia.
I could not keep in mind the meaning behind the holiday, or why we celebrate in the first place, because I was too focused on counting chocolates and feeling liked.

Commandments were made and customs passed down, regarding the holiday with meaningful intent: we are to come together to celebrate the success of our nation. We were saved and the decree to be killed in ancient Persia was turned on its head. We are to celebrate and have fun and be somewhat silly.
And yet this meaning is oftentimes lost.

My anecdote depicts me as an immature child. And yet I know many adults who get lost in these customs, focusing too heavily on the superficiality, and not the true message of the day: appreciation and joy. Just as it was lost on me, it is too often lost on others.

I’m done counting food or focusing on my appearance for the day. But this does not mean I sit back from Purim; I believe and revel in the customs of Purim, but have learned to appreciate them for the fun, the feeling of community, remembering the story, and giving back by donating to those less fortunate. Purim isn’t about being the best or being liked, it’s about helping others smile and recognizing our resilience.

No longer will food determine my joy.
Purim and what it signifies – survival – have become my happiness.



About the Author
Temimah Zucker, LMSW is a primary therapist at Monte Nido Manhattan and also works in private practice in the fields of eating disorders, self-esteem, and mental health. Temimah writes and publicly speaking on these subjects and is also an adjunct professor in NYC teaching on the subject of the treatment of eating disorders. For information or inquiries please see her website.
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