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How Purim, Judaism’s Boozy Rejoinder to Halloween, Shook My Faith

On Purim, the Talmud says, “one is obligated to get so drunk that he doesn’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai.”

Mario Tama/Getty Images

I remember the first time I noticed something strange about the megillah, the biblical Book of Esther that is read aloud in synagogues worldwide today, on the Jewish holiday of Purim. It was ten years ago, in 2005, while listening to the reading in my hometown synagogue. I recall thinking: When did this story become so gruesome?

I was born and raised in the Hasidic community and was living then with my wife and five children in the all-Hasidic village of New Square, New York, home of the Skverers, one of the most insular Hasidic sects in the country. Many of its male residents cannot speak, read, or write in English—Yiddish is their exclusive language. It’s a place that absolutely forbids television, movies, and the Internet. The village is led by the rebbe, the sect’s supreme religious leader, and it functions as a quasi-theocracy.

Once a year, though, on Purim, the place transforms into a Hasidic combination of Halloween and Mardi Gras. The megillah tells us why. It’s the tale of fifth-century BCE Persian Jews, whom the king’s vizier Haman plotted to exterminate. It was around the time of King Xerxes I, and after a series of fortuitous events, the king’s Jewish queen, Esther, managed to intercede. Haman was hanged. The Jews were saved. Esther’s uncle Mordechai was named prime minister. And then they all partied.

Mordechai and Esther declared the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar to be the holiday of Purim for all generations. Purim is known to Jews of many stripes, of course, but it’s the Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox groups—whose ordinary lives are light on fun and games and heavy with Torah study, prayer, and myriad rituals—who celebrate Purim like no one else.

I was only half listening to the megillah that day, as the reader neared the end. My mind was on the hamantaschen I would eat later, and on the booze, which would be plentiful. The kids would be in their Purim costumes—police officers and queens and pirates with plastic swords and rubber eye patches—and we’d spend the day with the usual festivities. But as the reader got to that penultimate chapter, something about the story stood out for the first time.

As the megillah tells it, the day on which the Jews were originally to be exterminated arrived. Instead of being killed, the Jews got the king’s permission to rise up and do the killing. By day’s end, 500 men lay dead in the capital city of Shushan. Then Esther went before the king with a request.

“Anything you ask, dear,” the king said. “Up to half my kingdom.”

Esther didn’t need half the kingdom. She just wanted to know if the Jews could have another day of slaughter.

The next day, the Jews killed 300 more Shushanites. Reports soon arrived from other provinces around the enormous Persian Empire. In total, the megillah informs us, the Jews killed 75,000 people in a single day.

Today teachers, parents, and storytellers often describe this as an act of self-defense. The text, however, holds otherwise. The Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction. It was, literally, a reign of terror.

I looked around to see if anyone else looked troubled. I wanted to meet someone else’s gaze, to shake our heads together. Dude! Seventy-five thousand dead—that’s messed up!

But no one looked up. The megillah was read, the crowd went home, and a day of wild Purim festivities began.

On Purim, the Talmud says, “one is obligated to get so drunk that he doesn’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai.” The lines between good and bad are blurred. The theme of the holiday is ve-nahapoch hu. A topsy-turvy world. It’s one of the reasons for Purim costumes: the rabbi with the long beard might just be a teenaged kid—or a woman. The fellow dressed as the wicked Haman might be a pious scholar.

Like most Jewish holidays, there’s plenty of praying and lots of rituals, and special foods. Unlike most Jewish holidays, though, Purim is more a time for debauchery than solemnity. Devoutly religious Jews drink copious amounts of alcohol, tell bad jokes, put on cheesy skits, and turn into maudlin drunks hugging strangers on the street. Music blasts from rooftops, friends and neighbors exchange elaborate food and gift baskets, and everyone engages in a generally dizzying level of merrymaking. For one day a year, all those stern-faced rabbis and their very sober followers close their Talmud volumes, unbutton their coats, and say, “Today, we party.”

The Talmud says that on Purim, “all who extend a hand, are given.” No one is refused a handout, and so schools and organizations rally armies of children, teenagers, and some adults to collect money for various causes. Everyone gives something. Everyone gets something. The wealthy open their doors wide, and the schnorrers—the needy, as well as those representing institutions—line up, and the cash flows. There is open-heartedness. There is drunken weeping. There are steady streams of good wishes, men dancing on the street, children stuffing themselves with candy, and their parents smiling and offering more.

It’s a happy time. Not a day for worrying about issues of faith and dogma, and grappling with morally-dubious ancient tales. But I do remember walking home from the synagogue that day in a slight daze, thinking about the megillah. All the more troubling was knowing that a conversation on the subject was not possible, not for me, not with these people, not in this town—and this was the only town I really knew.

Purim that year passed otherwise uneventfully. Our family made the rounds with our gift baskets. Our kids ate lots of junk food. I had too many whiskeys. Later, like every year, we appraised the mountains of hamantaschen, and chocolate wafers, and home-baked pastries—all of which had to be consumed within two weeks, before the pre-Passover cleaning.

These days I don’t attend synagogue, don’t observe the Sabbath, don’t keep kosher. Several months after my Purim of reflection, I was summoned before our village’s rabbinical court. They had heard rumors, they said, that I was an apikorus—a heretic. Over several years, I’d engaged in a secret process of inquiry. I had been thinking, reading, pondering, and researching. I came to the conclusion that I could not accept our foundational dogmas—the divine authorship of the Torah, the historicity of the Biblical narrative, the infallibility of our sages.

And so they ordered me out.

I knew enough not to challenge the rabbis. Within two years I had left the Hasidim altogether, to make a new life in the secular world.

But when Purim comes around, I feel a twang of nostalgia, a yearning not for the rituals and prayers, but for the inescapable merriment: the sight of grave men acting silly, of children with their coin boxes pestering passerby for donations, of cars blaring the latest kosher music, festooned with balloons and stuffed clowns.

Last year, on Purim, after being away for more than half a decade, I put on a black yarmulke and a conservative jacket. I made my way to Borough Park, Brooklyn, the largest Hasidic community in America, and wandered into a Hasidic synagogue. The sanctuary was filled with dancing men wearing all sorts of strange and colorful hats, their beards and sidecurls sprayed green and pink and yellow. Two men stood up on a large table and began a comedy duet, and laughter rang. I stood out, of course, with my shaved beard and my tiny yarmulke and no hat. But it was Purim, and on Purim the Hasidim are happy and embracing. Wine flowed, laughs were cheap, and coins jangled in every pocket.

I thought about the words of the megillah that once had so troubled me and wondered, what had I wanted then? Certainly not for the Hasidim to stop celebrating Purim—if it were up to me, I’d give the Hasidim more than one Purim a year.

I suppose what bothered me was not that Hasidim cherish ancient texts and hold fast by old traditions. It was that they narrow discourse until terrible truths go unseen. What I wanted was a world in which ancient texts are valued, even cherished, but also grappled with. I wanted a world in which seventy-five thousand dead makes one shudder, if ever so slightly, before enjoying hamantaschen and whiskey.

Now, however, I am out. I can reflect on the troublesome passages, consider the deaths, and still, when an ancient celebration beckons, return. It may not quite be the best of both worlds—it’s still the Hasidim I go back to for a real flavor of the holiday. But Purim is there for all who extend a hand: whether it’s a child with a coin box or an outcast returning for a couple hours.