Why Purim Matters

Years ago, while serving Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington, TX, I got a phone call from Bill. He told me he was from Minnesota, and planning to relocate.  He said that he was seriously considering converting to Judaism. I don’t remember the reasons he came to this decision, but whatever they were, they had to be serious, because Bill was serious.

I didn’t have time to meet with him while he was in town to prepare for his move. But, I told him that the following night was Purim, and he was cordially invited to join us. He graciously accepted and told me how much he looked forward to our meeting. I think I warned him about what it could be like: people in costume, maybe some whiskey being consumed, noisy Jews…

Bill was and probably still is, right out of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon. He is quiet, dignified, and self-effacing. Nothing in Minnesota could possibly prepare him for what he witnessed. I didn’t fully realize the import of my invitation until he walked in. I saw fear and concern in his eyes. A lapsed Lutheran, a sect not known for parties, Bill looked at a room filled kids and adults in costumes, including a couple of drag queens and a convincing Angel of Death. I’m sure he wondered, “Are these Jews? Will I have to do this, too, walking around in some relatively embarrassing adult costume? Making noise?? Lots of noise???” As Garrison Keillor would tell you, Lutherans are not famous for making lots of noise.

I felt bad for him. It reminded me of the time my mother of blessed memory invited her beau, Sid, to meet her children. We were a motley crew in those days, nothing a bachelor in his 50s would dare get too close to. At the end of a raucous dinner, Sid confided to my mother, “Shirley, I don’t know if I can do this.” My mom said, “I get it. But you don’t get me without them. It’s a package deal.”

Sid walked away. For about a week, as I recall (my sisters will no doubt fill in more details after they read this…). However, my mom was irresistible. Her children? Not so much. But as she said, it was a package deal. They got married and lived a very loving life together.

Bill and I tried to have a serious conversation that night (after I removed my Carnac the Great Crown). But we were endlessly interrupted, like Tom Cruise’s Princeton interview in Risky Business. “It’s not usually like this,” I said, not really apologizing so much as reassuring. “It’s a package deal.”

Under our veneer of civility, we Jews have a real passion for singing and shouting and dancing. We love strong flavors. We love laughter. As a people with a deep and enduring culture, we can’t get enough of life. We welcome yin and yang. The yetzer tov and the yetzer   ha-ra — the good impulse and the evil impulse.We mourn with compassion, and we celebrate with gusto. We try not to hold too much back. We’re all in.

Celebrating Purim, this crazy antinomian Jewish holiday that never uses God’s name reminds us to lighten up and cheer for fairy tales and happy endings. Bill went through with it and became Jewish. He’s endured great hardships in his life since that moment, and I pray his decision to become a part of the Jewish family helped him get by with a little more joy than oy. It’s a package deal.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Purim Sameach!


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