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Is the Purim Boozing Model Good for the Jews?

Vivian Eden
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Drunken revelry on Purim.
Drunken revelry on Purim.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Vivian Eden

Purim thoughts

Karen Alkalay-Gut

What if even one of the sons of Haman was not evil –
didn’t even carry the evil gene, and might have been
so much of a reaction to the evil he had seen
his only thoughts were of love.
What if he had been the one
to father the peacemaker of Persia
in our time

how can I celebrate as if do not know
the difference?

There’s no denying the appeal of dressing up in costume, playacting in funny skits, sending platefuls of baked goods to friends and neighbors, acting rowdy in synagogues and observing the Talmudic injunction to imbibe alcohol until you can’t distinguish between “blessed be Mordecai” (the Jewish hero of the Purim story) and “cursed be Haman” (the Persian villain).

But some take a dissenting view of the holiday. In his book “Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence”, Bar-Ilan University historian Elliot Horowitz cites philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergman’s observation that Purim celebrations are indicative of “the deep decay of our people.” And some feminists, including religious feminists, valorize Vashti, the rebellious queen, rather than Esther, the biddable, beautiful nice Jewish girl.

Here, retired Tel Aviv University professor of English, poet and rock lyricist Karen Alkalay-Gut questions a specific incident in the Megillah - the Book of Esther that read in synagogues on the holiday, to the accompaniment of jeers and noisemaking instruments whenever Haman’s name is mentioned. Esther 9:7-10 recounts that among those the Jews “smote” were Haman’s 10 sons.  After hearing this, in response to the besotted king’s offer to grant her any wish Esther asks prettily in 9:13: “If it please the king let Haman’s 10 sons be hanged upon the gallows” – even though they were already dead. And so it was.

The poet demurs: What if even one of the sons was not wicked and guilty? She goes on to wonder who that son’s progeny might have been and what good things one of the evil-doer’s descendants might have done.

Karen Alkalay-Gut. Credit: Ezra Gut

Today, Israeli policy is determined to visit the sins of the fathers – and the sons, daughters and mothers – upon families – by demolishing their homes (unless a terrorist happens to be Jewish) and deportation, thwarting opportunity for goodness.

The inability to distinguish between an evil person and a good (or at least potentially good) person is not a desirable model for post-Holocaust citizens of a “Jewish and democratic” state, nor is it a good model for Jewish Americans who might be tempted to support Donald Trump’s abhorrent anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican positions.  

*Musing: With encouragement from Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, some Israeli police, soldiers and civilians have been killing assailants – or perceived assailants -- who have been rendered harmless (“neutralized”). Why would anyone, including Queen Esther, want to do that?

*Bonus: A Yiddish drinking song, performed by Mappamundi and Cabaret Warsaw

A Yiddish drinking song, performed by Mappamundi and Cabaret WarsawCredit: YouTube