Monday, September 5, 2011

Meeting Judaism: Purim in Brooklyn

Purim 2009 was a special one for my 4 year old son, Jacob. The year before we introduced him to Purim, but he had only a vague idea of it. Though he did develop a slight fear of the holiday because he remembered it as the one who had the "bad person" as part of it (I guess he remembered Hamen who advised the Persian King to kill all the Jews). Since 2009, thanks to a diversity of Jews in our neighborhood, Jacob now has a much better sense of the holiday.

Purim is one of the semi-historical Jewish holidays. The story goes, very roughly, that the adviser to the Persian King (which Persian King is somewhat ambiguous) tries to get him to kill all the Jews. The Persian King's wife, who is herself Jewish, and her cousin save the Jews and the adviser is killed with many of his followers. It is viewed as the happiest of Jewish holidays and, uniquely in Jewish practice, drunkenness is encouraged.

I find no historical basis for this holiday despite the trappings of being historical. In general the Persians of the time were generally very tolerant of all religions and the persecution of the Jews described has no historical basis as far as I am aware until the Persians were replaced by the Greeks after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Perhaps the story, I would guess, was written during Hellenistic times as a fable of hope during Greek persecution of Jews but was projected back to Persian times to avoid pissing off the Greek authorities.

Regardless, it is one of the Jewish holidays I describe as "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat!" kind of holidays.

As I was on my way to pick Jacob up from his day care center on Purim 2009, I ran into a neighbor named Jesse. Jesse was just coming from synagogue and he had a fruit leather treat he had been given there as a Purim gift. He knew I had a (then) 4 year old son, so he asked if he could give the fruit leather to Jacob, in the spirit of giving on Purim. Of course I said yes and put the fruit leather in my pocket for Jacob.

Jesse is as secular as I am. Neither of us wear kippehs (yarmulkes) regularly. But he went to synagogue on Purim while I was simply rushing from a long day at work to pick up my son from childcare.

When I entered his classroom, as usual and, wonderfully as always, Jacob came running up to me to give me a big hug. "Daddy!" he called. I hugged him then dressed him for the still-winter cold.

As we left I took out the fruit leather and offered it to him, explaining that today was Purim and our neighbor, Jesse, had given it to me to give to him for Purim. Jacob was curious and tried it. He loved it. He then wanted me to find them and buy them for him...which has led to them becoming his usual lunch dessert, thanks to Jesse.

As we walked home, my son and I ran into some Chabad Jews (Lubavitchers). I have to admit that sometimes I avoid the Lubavitchers. I am a their ideal target: a secular Jew who knows the history and details of the religion and who values our traditions even if I seldom practice them. And I have found they know I am their perfect target, so I sometimes avoid them. But since my son was born, I am more interested in talking with them and performing a mitzveh or two with them. Why?

I am secular in most ways, but I have always, since birth, considered myself Jewish. The Lubavitchers meet me on my own terms. They know on sight I am Jewish. On the rare occasions I have told them I am not because I am in a hurry, they look at me with a knowing and chastising look (at which I definitely find myself bowing my head in some guilt as I rush past!). They KNOW I am Jewish and my denials don't fool them. When I say I am Jewish and I participate in a mitzveh or two with them, I do so with a full understanding of what it means, and they recognize that. And they appreciate it. We come from very different branches of Judaism. I strongly suspect that even in the old country my family were Mitnagdim, and we followed the path of the Haskalah. When we came to America we followed the path of assimilation. So when I meet a Lubavitcher, there is a long history of difference between us dating back as far as the Vilna Gaon's opposition to Hasidism. And yet I am drawn to them, particularly when I am with my son. They are the keepers of tradition for me and, when they offer, I like to share that tradition with them even though the meaning of that sharing is different for us.

My son and I approached the Lubavitcher and he saw immediately we were Jewish and moved to meet us. In the spirit of Purim he gave us great gifts including the biggest Hamentashen I have ever seen. It was the size of my head! And in the spirit of Purim I agreed to doing the tefillin, a religious ceremony I have seldom done. And in the spirit of Purim the Luvavitchers gave me some booze to drink. Others were given a small taste of wine, but the Lubavitchers liked me and Jacob enough they gave me a generous portion of the hard stuff they were themselves drinking. Jacob and I spent about half an hour with them, and we all enjoyed it and we said many a "Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu..."

Chabad reaches out to all Jews. I do not agree with all they believe in, and I am sure they look at me with some indulgence, as they might look on a child. But I appreciate their preservation of tradition and their sharing of Jewish tradition with all Jews, religious or not, who want to share in it. For them it is a mitvot to share these traditions. For me it helps me, secular Jew that I am, share our traditions with Jacob. Together we continue a long-standing contradiction: both a conflict between assimilation and uniqueness, and a shared tradition we can all cherish. This contradiction dates back to biblical times and may well be a defining feature of Judaism.

The Hamentashen they gave us was more than enough for my family. It had a prune filling, which I normally don't like (preferring the traditional poppy seed filling). But in this case not only was it huge, but it was delicious. My family shared it and loved it. Since I have always hoped to get another from them on Purim, but so far have not made the right connections. I'd eagerly do tefillin for another one of those Hamentashen!

Jacob expressed our sentiments very well as he drank some grape juice and ate some chocolate the Lubavitchers gave us: "Thank you Lubavitchers!" He seemed to love saying the word "Lubavitchers," repeating it several times with gusto.

When Jews meet on the street anywhere in the world, no matter how different they are, there is a shared tradition and understanding that even a child can recognize. No matter that their respective branches of Judaism may share a grudge going back to the 18th century. They know they share as much or more than they dispute. My son was also drawn to the Abayudaya (of Uganda) children singing when I introduced him to their CD. Within our diversity we still share a commonality that is important to us all. We cannot always agree what it means to be a Jew. But somehow when we meet on a street anywhere in the world, we share more than we differ.

About three weeks later, out of the blue, Jacob asked me, "Did Jesse give you anything for me tonight." He now remembers our neighbor Jesse.

This last Purim, Jacob was touched by the wider Jewish world.

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