Many of our holidays deal with this same progression of events. Jews were confronted with an existential threat, we surmounted it, and now we indulge in symbolically relevant dishes. But what does this continued retelling and celebration of our near-brushes with death say about us as a people?
Purim is an especially morbid holiday if one pauses to really consider it. Threatened by Haman’s plot to exterminate all Jews in Persia, the Jews are narrowly saved when King Asaherus’s wife Esther reveals herself to be secretly Jewish and exposes Haman’s conspiracy. Having just escaped genocide, the Jews launch a preemptive war against anti-semites, supposedly killing 75,000.
This would not have been a happy moment in our history, and upon closer examination, the way we celebrate it seems questionable. Dressing up in costumes (including as Haman) and getting soused (a mitzvah, according to the rabbis) is a strange way to commemorate the near-extinction of our people, especially given our long history of tangible persecution. Imagine, for a moment, if we commemorated our peoples’ survival of the Holocaust by getting drunk and dressing up in various Nazi-themed uniforms. Imagine if, instead of eating tricornered hamantaschen pastries in the shape of Haman’s hat, it was traditional to bake edible swastikas once a year. See where I’m going?
An obvious rebuttal would be that the events of the Purim story took place in the 4th Century BC and are thus far removed from the modern day and that, moreover, all of those persecuted Persian Jews survived. But these traditions don’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s fair to ask whether trivializing an attempted genocide in antiquity is wholly appropriate in the post-Holocaust era.
Purim actually has a long history as a deeply-felt story of resilience, even during the Holocaust itself. According to one account, a from-memory recital of the Megillat Esther in Buchenwald “was accompanied by spontaneous singing and dancing.” Rabbi Irving Greenberg characterized it as “the holiday for the post-Holocaust world.” This interpretation holds that Purim is a celebration not of our losses, but of our enduring survival.
So, how should we approach the costumes, drinking, and apparent goofiness of the holiday’s traditions? My answer is to simply embrace it. Why should we not celebrate with all appropriate irreverence the repeated failures of those who have tried to annihilate us? In my mind, there is no greater disrespect possible than caricaturing the genocidal foes of our past.
But keep in mind that, while wearing tri-cornered hats under the influence may make for a great evening, there’s more to Purim than jello shots and wacky costumes.