Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happy Purim!

Purim was a secular as well as a religious holiday in the Shtetls of Eastern Europe. Men got drunk, and women competed to send the best food platters and baskets to their friends and relatives. Yes, these customs have a religious origin: but I say they became secular – and fun.

Sholom Aleichem wrote a story that illustrates this point. “Two Shalachmones or A Purim Scandal” tells of two ill-treated maids in his imaginary town, Kasrilevka. On Purim, the two of them meet, each carrying a basket of sweets to the other’s employers.

The smaller of their platters contained a hamantash and other pastries. The second platter contained: “a fine slice of strudel, two big sugar cookies, a large honey teigl, two cushion cakes stamped with a fish on both sides and filled with tiny sweet farfel, and two large slabs of a poppy seed confection, black and glistening, mixed with ground nuts and glazed with honey. Besides all this, there lay on the plate, smiling up at them, a round, golden sweet-smelling orange that wafted its delicious odor right into their nostrils.”

Tempted by the foods on their platters, and resentful of their employers, the two messengers stopped to chat while they ate up most of the items that they were supposed to deliver: beginning with the hamantash. The two families took offense at the disgraceful state of the platters that they therefore received. Their former friendship dissolved in quarrels and resentment until they realized what had occurred.

Bringing gifts of food to friends is a custom still observed among religious Jews. I don't do much for Purim myself, but I think people still manage to have fun. I'm fascinated by another way that Jewish Purim customs were secularized: some of the pre-Lent revelry in Renaissance Venice was influenced by the costumed and masked Purim celebrations in the Ghetto.

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