Jewish congregation celebrates Purim in a New York style

By Andy Matarrese, Columbian Breaking News Reporter

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Costumed congregation members crowded the Chabad Jewish Center on Sunday to feast and be merry in celebration of the Jewish holiday Purim.

“The kids love it, adults love it, it’s the happiest day in the Jewish calendar,” Rabbi Shmulik Greenberg said.

It’s like Jewish Halloween, joked Eden Stokey, who, along with her son, wore a track suit with a gold chain and carried a boom box.

“The idea is that it’s sort of a masquerade, and there’s a whole hidden aspect of revealing who you are,” said Emily Weiss, another member of the congregation.

Costumes and masks are a centuries-old part of the celebration, Greenberg explained, adding that it’s always commemorated in four ways: exchanging gifts of food and drink, donating to charity, a feast and a reading of the Megillah, or Book of Esther, which explains Purim’s story.

“Every time when we celebrate our holiday, or celebrate something from the past, it’s not just about the story that happened, it’s about what we could learn from this in our time,” he said.

The holiday celebrates how the Jewish people were saved from the designs of Haman, an adviser to the Persian king who wanted to kill all the Jews in the empire.

Around 400 B.C., so the story goes, the Persian king threw a party to commemorate his third year on the throne. His wife refused his request to parade her beauty around at the party and was banished. When the king got lonely, his advisors sought a replacement.

They brought Esther — niece of Mordecai, the leader of the era’s Jews — as a candidate. She hid her identity, per her uncle’s advice, and was made queen. Later, Mordecai learned of a plot to kill the king, and he told Esther, who informed the king.

The king later appointed Haman to be a leading adviser. Mordecai refused to bow to Haman, and Haman, enraged by this, vowed to kill him and all Persia’s Jews, and he got the king’s OK to do it.

(During Greenberg’s reading from the scroll, the congregation spun graggers and sounded other noisemakers to blot out mentions of Haman’s name.)

Haman cast lots to pick a date, the 13th of Adar in the Jewish calendar, to carry out his plan.

Esther caught wind of this, and even though approaching the king without a summons could lead to a death sentence, she managed to get an audience. She then invited him to a feast, and Haman joined them.

After the meal, Haman again encountered Mordecai, who again would not bow, so he sentenced Mordecai to be hanged.

That night, the king couldn’t sleep, so he had the court’s daily record read to him as a sleep aid. There, he learned of the assassination plot Mordecai helped foil.

The king, to Haman’s dismay, had the adviser render great honors unto Mordecai. To add injury to insult, Esther then revealed she’s Jewish and that Haman planned to purge her people, which enraged the king and earned Haman a trip to the gallows.

Mordechai was named the king’s new adviser, the king issued an edict empowering the Jews to resist any who would try to harm them, and the 14th and 15th of Adar were made holidays, now Purim (which stated at sundown Saturday this year).

It’s a complicated, long story that takes place over years, Greenberg said, but that’s part of the point.

Why’d the drunken king get the notion to show off his wife? What put Mordecai in the right place and time to hear the regicide plot?

It looks like everything “just happened,” Greenberg said, but the point is there is no such thing as coincidence.

Esther’s story, he said, “is to basically teach us things happen in our lives, but it’s not by accident, it’s actually the hands of God that lead us.”

“God’s hand is hiding behind our normal stories,” he said. “There is no name of God in the Megillah, in the entire Megillah. Why is that? It’s basically the same concept, the same thing with the masks. It’s the idea of hiding.”

The same goes for the hamantash, the tasty triangular pastries with sweet filling made for Purim celebrations, said Tzivie Greenberg, Rabbi Greenberg’s wife.

“The pastry also hides the filling,” she said. “The idea is nothing is as it seems, because in the Purim story you had God’s hand playing all along, but you didn’t notice.”

Purim and Hanukkah are the fun holidays when you’re a little kid, Wiess said; kids love it.

Sunday saw some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a handful of Elsas.

The party planners gave the Chabad Center a New York City theme, and decorated all the tables with street signs from the Big Apple. The caterer provided a deli buffet with a New York feel — hot dogs and cold cuts — and the center brought in a busking duo to provide music.

Weiss grew up celebrating Purim, she said.

“As an adult, it just takes me back to my childhood, but I’ve always loved all the Jewish stories,” she said. “It’s just part of our tradition and our heritage, and it’s important to keep it going.”

Stokey said she didn’t celebrate Purim as a kid, and she credited Chabad’s efforts to provide opportunities for Jewish people to get in touch with their traditions.

“I’m just always happy to be with this community,” she said, adding it’s especially comforting these days, as incidents of anti-Semitism around the country seem to be on the rise.

Again, Shmulik Greenberg said, there’s a lesson to draw from Purim and God’s subtle presence through the story.

“We always have to remember that God will protect the good people at the end of the day,” the rabbi said. “So yes, there is these challenges, but we need to know if we keep doing the right thing, it will be OK.”