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The Pantomimes of Purim March 20th-21st

Jewish Year 5768: sunset March 20, 2008 - nightfall March 21, 2008.

The important Jewish festival of Purim takes place on on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, according to the Jewish calendar; it usually falls in March and this year coincides with Good Friday. Sometimes called the Jewish Mardi Gras because of its joyous, carnival-like festivities, Purim commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination by the bravery of a young woman, Esther. Plays and parodies are performed in remembrance of this salvation and there are readings from the Book of Esther, which is known as the Megillah (scroll).

Purim begins at sundown and readings are given that evening and the following morning. They are not a dry affair but involve dressing up and pantomime-like audience participation. Families crowd into the synagogue for the readings, wearing their best Sabbath clothes or dressing up in colourful Purim-themed costumes and masks. Children, in particular, enjoy dressing up as characters from the story of Esther, such as King Xerxes, Vashti, Queen Esther, Mordecai and Haman. Haman is the villain of the story, a despicable character, and whenever his name is mentioned in the readings the listeners boo, hiss, stamp their feet, clash symbols and rattle graggers — purpose-made noisemakers, traditionally constructed from wood. This is to blot out the villain's name and originally involved the audience shouting "Cursed be Haman" or "May the name of the wicked rot!". 

Esther was a beautiful and wise young Jewish woman, raised by her good cousin Mordecai. She became part of the King Ahasuerus's harem and then, because he loved her best, his queen. He did not know, however, that she was a Jew. Haman was one of the king's advisors, an egotistical man who became enraged with Mordecai because he would not bow down to him when he passed. Knowing that Mordecai was a Jew, Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people and persuaded the king to hand their fate over to him. “Their laws are different from those of every other people's,” he said, “and they do not observe the king's laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them."

Learning of his vile plot, Esther braved speaking to the king unheeded. The law stated that anyone who entered the king's presence without being summoned could be put to death and Esther fasted for three days to prepare herself to meet whatever fate she was granted. Her husband welcomed her into his audience and she told him of Haman's plot to kill the Jews and revealed that she would herself be counted among those to be exterminated. The king could not take back what had been decreed but he ordered Haman to be hanged and let it be known to the Jews that they were to be attacked and that they should defend themselves, and so they were saved. See here for the full biblical account of the story, which can be found in the Old Testament of a Christian Bible, between the books of Nehemiah and Job, or between Ecclesiastes and Daniel in The Writings in a Jewish Bible.

In addition to the readings, Purim celebrations involve exchanges of gifts between friends, the giving of charity to the poor and, of course, feasting. A traditional treat at this time is hamentaschen cookies (Haman's pockets), which are said to resemble Haman's triangular hat and are filled with fruit. 

In the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on its thirteenth day... on the day that the enemies of the Jews were expected to prevail over them, it was turned about: the Jews prevailed over their adversaries... And they gained relief on the fourteenth, making it a day of feasting and gladness...[Mordecai instructed them] to observe them as days of feasting and gladness, and sending delicacies to one another, and gifts to the poor.”  Esther 9:1-22

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