TAMPA — If holidays had human feelings, this one might have an inferiority complex.
Whether you’re Jewish or not, you’ve heard of Hanukkah, Passover and Rosh Hashana.
But what about Purim, which begins at sundown today and ends at sunset Sunday? The holiday that commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia just doesn’t get the same respect.
“It should,” says Rabbi Mendel Rubashkin of the Jewish Discovery Center in Valrico. “This is a holiday of happiness and miracles. It’s about taking pride in our faith. So why not celebrate it in a fun way?”
And nobody does that better than Chabad, a Brooklyn-based Hasidic movement that adheres to the Orthodox practice of Judaism. This sect — which makes a point to reach out to unaffiliated Jews through religious, cultural and educational activities — puts Purim in the public sphere in a memorable way.
Take Rubashkin’s community, for example. The Jewish Discovery Center is sponsoring a festive party at 4 p.m. Sunday called Purim in the Shtetl, a takeoff on the popular “Fiddler on the Roof.” It will feature an old-world village theme, with children in costumes, a three-piece klezmer band, a bird show and a kosher meal.
Chabad of South Tampa is aiming for sports fans at its Purim at the Stadium, running 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Ceviche Tapas Bar, 2500 W. Azeele St.
It will feature a tailgate-style dinner by kosher caterer Dina’s Kitchen, a costume contest to win tickets to a Tampa Bay Rays, Buccaneers or Lightning game, and a session on decorating candle holders and Kipas (a skullcap worn by Orthodox Jewish males all the time and by others during prayer) with a favorite team logo.
“People are passionate about sports,” says Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski, “so we’re trying to connect that passion with something deeper.”
And at the Chabad of Greater St. Petersburg, the Purim Family Bash at 11:30 a.m. Sunday will feature a carnival, food and The Waltens Acrobatic and Performing Dog Show. Earlier in the day, about 35 students in costumes from the community’s Hebrew school will deliver food baskets to senior citizens.
“It’s all about sharing the joy,” says Rabbi Alter Korf. “This is a holiday with such an upbeat message of survival. I don’t understand why it isn’t promoted like the other ones.”
Chabad’s creativity is showing up across the country. In Satellite Beach, there’s a Purim in the Palace party with Persian cuisine and a street bazaar. A Purim in the Islands event in Milwaukee will have a tropical smoothie bar, hair braiding and island cuisine. And a Purim in Morocco in Thornhill, Ontario, will feature a Grand Masquerade dinner.
One common bond the festivals share: public readings or multimedia presentations of the Megillah, or Scroll of Esther, to recount the story of the Purim miracle. Jews also are encouraged to commemorate the holiday by sending food gifts to friends and money to the poor, and enjoying a festive meal.
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Purim’s story is definitely a colorful one.
In fourth-century Persia, King Ahasuerus executed his wife, Queen Vashti, for failing to follow his orders. After staging a beauty pageant to find a new spouse, he chose the comely Esther, a Jewish girl who kept her nationality a secret.
Then along came the anti-Semitic Haman, who was appointed prime minister of the empire. When Mordechai, the leader of the Jews (and Esther’s cousin) refused to bow to him, the angry Haman ordered the extermination of all Jews on the 13th of Adar, a date chosen by his own lottery.
Instead of renouncing their heritage and assimilating into the Persian culture, Mordechai organized a movement to get all the Jews to repent, fast and pray. And then it was Esther who saved the day. She arranged a feast with the king and Haman, where she revealed her Jewish identity. Haman was hanged, Mordechai was appointed prime minister and a new decree was issued granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
(The story takes a dark twist when the Jews mobilized on the 13th of Adar and killed many of their enemies, then celebrated the next day. But they were understandably upset by their close call with extermination.)
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So why do Chabad groups recognize the holiday with such a vast array of themes, many which have no obvious connection to the Purim story?
“It’s all about using modern methods to connect people to a timeless tradition,” says Dubrowski. “Chabad is always looking for ways to be culturally relevant. If you intimidate people, they won’t feel comfortable. And the faith message can easily get lost.”
As for Purim’s message, the rabbi says it applies to all people, regardless of their religion.
“It’s a lesson of tolerance and acceptance,” he says. “And standing together when it seems there is no hope, no chance of a miracle. You can find the divine at the most unexpected times.”