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Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Why I Won’t (Yet) Deconstruct Purim for my Kids

Celebrating Purim/ Photo Courtesy: Flavio

We recently celebrated Purim, a holiday that commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from near annihilation in ancient Persia.  According to the story, King Ahashverosh of Persia selects a Jew named Esther to be his new queen.  Soon after, the king appoints a new chief advisor named Haman.  Haman is enraged when a Jew named Mordehai (who is Esther’s uncle) won’t bow down to him.  As punishment, he arranges for the destruction of all the Jews in the realm.  When Mordehai learns of this plan, he informs Esther that she must intervene.  Overcoming her fear of approaching the king uninvited, Esther invites the king and Haman to a feast. At the feast, she tells King Ahashverosh that Haman intends to kill her and all her fellow Jews.  Outraged, the king cancels the decree against the Jews and hangs Haman and his sons on the very gallows that Haman intended to use for Mordehai.  The Jews are saved and the king appoints Mordehai as his new chief advisor.

As you might expect from such a story, Purim is celebrated with great revelry.  Children dress up in costumes (it is pretty much the Jewish Halloween), and adults are encouraged to drink.  A festive service combines a reading of the Purim story with food (including delicious three-cornered cookies, called Hamentashen), music and dancing.  Everyone—my kids definitely included—has a great time.

While occasions for rejoicing and optimism are important, I struggle with the best way to teach Purim to my children.  Though Purim is generally presented as a light-hearted, festive tale, the holiday has a darker, more somber essence.  It carries a cautionary message about the speed at which our fate can change, the precariousness of life and the importance of remaining vigilant against hatred.  But what is the appropriate age to introduce this to my kids?  How long can I let them revel in the celebration before I deconstruct its graver underpinnings?  How long should we, as responsible parents, let kids just be kids?

I don’t yet have a clear answer.  But when I see the smiles on their faces and the glee with which they sing and dance, I think the answer for me is ‘not yet.’

Children need to absorb positive, upbeat myths as part of their religious identity formation.  There will be plenty of time for a more critical approach to Purim when they grow older and anti-establishment or subversive ideologies start to speak to them (hopefully not too soon).  Rather than introducing the serious underpinnings of Purim now and risk alienating or frightening them at such a vulnerable age, saving the grim parts for later is a way to maintain Purim’s significance throughout their lives.

Is this the right approach? Please let me know what you think, as I welcome any suggestions.

© 2012, Josh Ratner. All rights reserved.

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Originally hailing from San Diego, Joshua, his spouse and their three children currently live in Connecticut, where Joshua is a rabbi. Joshua worked as an attorney for five years prior to starting rabbinical school and becoming a rabbi. They are raising their children as observant, progressive Jews.

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsHavva   |  Monday, 02 July 2012 at 12:09 pm

    I don’t really see the need to deconstruct Purim. I got the darker side of the story, on my own, at some point. I don’t really remember when that happened. It just was apparent to me. I always heard the story and it was right there in the story. But I have never let the dark side interfere with the joy of Purim. With so many holidays summed up by the joke “we suffered, we survived, let’s eat” why not enjoy the one where the suffering was simply one woman’s fear before she took courage and proceed to be a hero.

    I grew up knowing about the holocaust, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, acts of discrimination against my own family. Later I even had encounters with religious intolerance in my own life. These all serve as adequate lessons in the other side, the dark side of what could have happened instead of Purim. So I don’t ever intend to deconstruct Purim for my kid, unless she wants to talk about it. I trust her to understand when she is old enough, and ask if she has questions.

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