Purim – how sweet it is!


April is here, which means Pesach is close upon us.

In the midst of making out the long to-do lists and to-buy lists and getting everything ready for the sederim, my daughter Vivian asked why I have never written about her favorite holiday, Purim. 

My dear friend Eleanor Horvitz has written articles about the Purim balls and parties that were once quite common in March, but not I. If I mentioned Purim at all, it would have been in connection with the appearance of Jaffa oranges and clementines from Israel at this season.

But since I have written about all the other Jewish holidays at one time or another, it is only fair for me to pause in the midst of my Pesach planning for a look back at the joys of Purim.

Anticipation of the coming holiday and its revelry always began when my mother, Chaya Segal, added two items to her shopping list: dried apricots and prunes. This signaled that she was about to prepare her delicious filling for hamantaschen (we were a Never Poppy Seed family).

These prunes were not the ubiquitous, anemic, prepackaged or pitted kind. They were huge, with a flavor all their own, and available only in specialty markets. Packed in wooden boxes, they were carefully doled out by a purveyor with a scoop.

My mother did not use a recipe, but added “this and that” to the basic mixture of prunes, apricots and her secret ingredient.

A few days before Purim, four pairs of little hands pinched edges together and turned circles of dough into sealed equilateral triangles – more or less. 

And what would Purim be without costumes? Out of the box at the back of a closet came the long necklaces of “genuine faux” pearls and rubies and diamonds to adorn the would-be Queen Esthers at our house. Party dresses were transformed into royal robes, and cardboard tiaras, covered in satin (cut from old slips or found remnants), sparkled with “gems.”  Much less ornate was the costume of the king – but it was still kingly.

At temple, we joined all the other queens and kings and Mordecais parading in their finery.

Then there were the carnivals, the handiwork of Jewish youth groups. The Purim spiel added to the fun, as did the energetic spinning of groggers when Haman’s name was mentioned during the reading of the megillah.

As a line in the song “Chag Purim” tells us, Purim is a great holiday for young children, and for children of all ages. When I was a child, it was a wonderful antidote to the cold, difficult winters.

Much has changed since those days. Super heroes and Disney characters have displaced most of the queens and kings of yore. Hamantaschen have strayed far from the traditional fillings of lekvar, apricots, poppy seeds or cherry jam.  One congregation, I am told, has even done away with groggers. Congregants are asked to bring boxes of pasta to the megillah reading and to shake them to blot out Haman’s name. Then, the pasta is donated to a food bank.

Each generation puts its own spin on tradition. But a French philosopher long ago noted that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Some things have changed, at least outwardly, in our celebration of Purim, but its core – the fun, the megillah and its lessons – remains constant.  

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.

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