It’s not often a troupe of Star Wars characters enters Germantown Jewish Centre’s (GJC) Charry Sanctuary. But when it does happen, there’s likely only one reason: Purim. The congregation, located at 400 W. Ellet St. in Mt. Airy, celebrated this colorful holiday last week with an evening of costumes, food, holy readings and humorous skits.
Purim is rooted in the biblical Book of Esther. Included in the book is the story of Haman, an adviser to the Persian king who plotted to kill all Jewish people in the empire. When word of the plot reached Queen Esther by way of her relative, Mordecai, she told her husband of her Jewish heritage and informed him of the plan. In the end, the king demanded Haman be hanged and he armed the Persian Jews, enabling their defense against Haman’s planned genocide.
Citing the victory of the Persian Jews over Haman’s attack, GJC’s Rabbi Adam Zeff said Purim is one of the religion’s happiest and most festive holidays.
“Jewish history is full of endless stories of Jews being threatened by an enemy,” he said. “And, usually, the Jews were destroyed. But, here, the story ends with them not being destroyed, so we have a big party.”
Purim usually includes four basic mitzvah, or commandments: giving to the poor, reading the megillah, or story, holding feasts, and exchanging special foods.
Helping the poor continues to be an extremely important element of the Purim celebration, Zeff said. He explained that a thousand-year-old tradition dictates one should give more to the poor than they give to their neighbors or friends. To better embody that tradition, the center created what Zeff referred to as a “collective of giving.” Members of the synagogue donated money, most of which subsequently went to a number of area charities. A small portion of the donation went to the creation of boxes of treats given to all of the families attending the night’s celebration. This was the first year the synagogue offered the program to the center’s community as a whole and Zeff said he was enthusiastic about the results.
“Every time there’s a feast, the poor ought to be able to feast, too,” he said.
Discussing what he said is the most important of Purim’s mitzvah, Zeff said hearing the story of Esther read in its entirety makes Purim a very community-focused holiday.
“Traditionally, the commandment is to hear every word of the megillah and to hear the story and to hear every word of the story chanted,” he said.
However, given the story’s length, Zeff said the reading can be difficult to sit through for children. To ensure the fulfillment of that specific commandment for followers of all ages, the Centre held two readings for the holiday, one featuring skits and readings geared toward younger audiences and a second featuring a traditional reading.
For individual families outside the synagogue, Zeff said the commandment pertaining to feasting is vital. Additionally, he feels the tradition of wearing costumes can be important for families with children because it allows them to bond over the holiday.
“They spend time thinking up the costume ideas, gathering of the materials and making the costume. It’s an important element of the at-home celebration,” he noted.
Rabbi Kevin Bernstein, GJC’s education director, said he thinks parental involvement in putting their children’s costumes together was an opportunity to teach them about the holiday while preparing them for the celebration itself.
The custom originated from what Zeff called “Purim plays,” retellings of the story of Esther. As the visibility of the tradition grew, its appeal spread until masquerading was accepted as a means of celebration in itself.
Zeff suggested that the costumes allow the faithful to “break out.”
“There’s a traditional saying that goes, ‘On Purim, everything is permitted,” he said. “It lets you shed your inhibitions…it’s the origin of the Rabbi dressing as Tigger,” he said, noting his own costume.
For Bernstein, the enjoyment of the Purim celebration and its customs is important in its ability to encourage an enjoyment of faith and religion at a young age.
“We like to build that enjoyment into their memories so they’ll remember it fondly,” he said. “Then, as they learn more about the holiday and they understand more about what it is, we hope that there’s an educational or intellectual thing that goes along with the emotional desire to do this because they know more about it.”
Bernstein said it is “all about engagement” and Purim is a unique opportunity to engage children in a way that more stringent holidays may not allow.
The Purim holiday usually falls in February or March. It begins at sundown and continues through the following day.
Becky Kerner and Kris Kitts are reporters with Philadelphia Neighborhoods/Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, a content partner of NewsWorks