Beach Jewish community celebrates a happy holiday

Long before Queen Vashti got the boot and young Esther won the crown of Persia, six year-old Arik was ready to party.

Six year-old Arik laughs as his grandmother Ruth Blanch, right, joins in spinning noisy ‘graggers’ every time someone reading Esther’s story says the name ‘Haman.’ PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Six year-old Arik laughs as his grandmother Ruth Blanch, right, joins in spinning noisy ‘graggers’ every time someone reading Esther’s story says the name ‘Haman.’
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Arik was among the many kids who celebrated Purim last Wednesday night at the Beach Hebrew Institute.

For him, Purim was a chance to go to synagogue in costume, make all kinds of noise, and come home full of homemade hamantaschen.

“It’s a happy holiday,” said Ruth Blanch, watching her grandson make his own noisemaker at a craft table in the synagogue rec room.

Wearing a Thor suit with plush muscles and a bright red cape, Arik was working beside one girl in a banana outfit and another dressed as Anne of Green Gables.

Disguises are part of Purim’s fun, and not only for kids.

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Moshe Sadon, the cantor at Beach Hebrew, greeted everyone with a Vulcan salute – his bright blue Starfleet uniform and pointy eyebrows a timely tribute to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

The tradition of wearing costumes or masks has roots in the story of Esther, Purim’s brave young heroine, whose name is similar to the Hebrew word for “hidden.”

As told in the Book of Esther, she hides her Jewish identity after winning a beauty contest to replace Queen Vashti as the new favourite of Xerxes, King of Persia.

But later, Esther’s older cousin Mordecai warns her of an evil plot launched by Haman, the King’s second-in-command, to kill all the Jews in the empire.

Esther then risks her life by telling King Xerxes her true identity.

By that point, the king had already given out Haman’s genocidal order, commanding Jews in all 127 Persian provinces to be killed. And at that time, the king had no phone to call it off.

But, moved by Esther’s appeal, Xerxes follows it with a second order that allows Jews to defend themselves. In the end, Esther and her people are saved.

“I’ve heard it all my life – 70 years,” said Ruth Blanch, smiling.

“It’s not only for me. I know the story, I believe the story. It’s seeing the wonderment the kids get.”

Reading a 10-chapter story written on some 2,500 year-old scroll, or megillah, might not sound like a six year-old’s idea for a fun night.

But Purim readings are different, something like a pantomime. Every time the cantor says ‘Haman,’ people in the congregation shout, boo, and spin ratcheting noisemakers called ‘graggers’ to drown out the name.

Even in his Thor cape, Arik was stuck on the edge of his seat, listening for the next ‘Haman.’

Susan Litchen, who teaches Hebrew school at the Beach synagogue, says for adults, celebrating Purim often includes a lot of drinking.

According to the Talmud, on Purim a person should drink until they can’t tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai,” though exactly how drunk that is seems a little blurry.

“This community doesn’t go crazy like that, but some of the younger communities do,” Litchen said, noting that north Bathurst Street has an especially merry reputation.

Here in the Beach, Purim closed with small gifts and a round of poppy seed and fruit-filled hamantaschen – pastries made in the shape of Haman’s triangular, Napoleon-like hat.

For all the silliness and fun, there is a serious side to the Purim story, and not only in its all-too common themes of racism, and genocide.

For Ruth Blanch, there is a simple lesson in the happy victory of Esther and Mordecai.

“It shows how honesty and hard work win over dishonesty and meanness,” she said.

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