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Purim: When You Can Throw a Sponge at the Rabbi’s Face

As a Christian dad helping to raise a Jewish family, I’ve always been fascinated by the holiday of Purim. With everyone dressing up in costumes, the holiday has seemed to me to be a kind of springtime Halloween. However, instead of honoring ghosts, goblins, and other such things, Purim celebrates the Jewish people’s ability to live on during a time when they could have been wiped out. My wife and I feel that this is an accessible, kid-friendly holiday that our whole family can enjoy. Plus, with all of the costumes, goodies to eat, and the carnival atmosphere, what’s not to like?

Molly Keen throwing a sponge at Rabbi Levy’s face…and just missing!

Purim is considered a relatively minor Jewish holiday, but you’d never know it from the celebration at our synagogue. All of the kids, many adults, and even Rabbi Levy dress up in costume. It is traditional to look like a character from the Scroll (megillah) of Esther, which contains the Purim story. But many people stray from this custom, and it is not uncommon to see congregants dressed as bees, Martians, or Disney princesses. In the past, Rabbi Levy has read the megillah dressed as a cowboy, leprechaun, and other wild characters. Once, when he and I both showed up as pirates, he immediately challenged me to a swordfight.

With everyone in crazy costumes, you can imagine how long it takes for the crowd to settle down to hear the reading of the Purim story. My daughters Gabby and Molly, who are both in elementary school, are giddy with excitement. Even though they’ve heard the megillah many times before, we feel that they can learn something new each year. Not only does the megillah tell a tale of good triumphing over evil, but it’s also a story of an interfaith couple: the Persian king, Ahashuerus, and his Jewish wife, Esther. In this case, the king and queen avoid the whole “how will we raise the kids?” issue for a while as Esther doesn’t reveal that she is Jewish until she needs to risk doing so to save her people. When she finally does tell the king that she is Jewish, it’s in the nick of time. The prime minister, Haman, had a plan to kill all of the Jews. But when he learns that his own wife is Jewish, Ahashuerus squelches the plan and instead does away with Haman.

While Purim sends positive messages to our children, we also like it because it is a perfect holiday for my Christian side of the family to see that there is more to Judaism than Hanukkah. Since it is a temple-based holiday, it’s a great opportunity for our daughters to show their Christian grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins where they go to religious school and Hebrew school. Every Christmas, my daughters see their cousins perform their pageant at church, so I know that they are excited to showcase one of their own holidays on their own turf.

With the carnival that follows the megillah reading, Purim is a nice time for our whole family to mingle with other congregants and the rabbi in a festive atmosphere. My mom loves this holiday because she enjoys seeing Gabby and Molly so involved in the reading of the Purim story. She also likes the novelty of it all. “At church, we have get-togethers for some things, but Purim is unique,” she tells me. “Bible stories rarely get told with such enthusiasm. Telling the story in this manner helps me remember it,” she says laughing. In addition, my mom gets a kick out of wondering what Rabbi Levy will dress up as every year. “He’s such a fun person to be around.”

At the carnival in the social hall Gabby, Molly, and their Christian cousins play games. One of the kids’ favorites is throwing wet sponges at the rabbi, who peers his face through a cutout drawing of evil Haman. After soaking Rabbi Levy, it’s off to fish for Tootsie Rolls and lollipops.

As if this celebration didn’t have enough sugar, we blissfully nosh (snack) on the traditional pastries called hamantashen. These triangular-shaped treats have a filling of sweet poppy seeds, apricots, or prunes. I’m sure that they are not an integral part of any diet plan. However, someone always twists my arm, and I end up eating about fifteen of them. My nieces have their fair share, too.

By the end of the evening, the kids and I are enjoying a grand sugar buzz, soon to be followed by a carb coma. The sacrifice is worth it, though–even if I did lose the swordfight. Just wait until next year; I’ll be first in line with my wet sponge. Yes, Purim is a favorite with our entire family.

Jim Keen

Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.


Author: Jim Keen