“Yom Kippur is the guilt release holiday,” my rabbi said. “Purim is the rage release holiday.” It was one of those statements you hear and instantly find so obviously true that you can’t believe you didn’t realize it on your own.
I’d always thought of Purim as Jewish Mardi Gras and more or less left it at that. A holiday about the time a teenage girl saved the Jews from genocide by winning a beauty contest wasn’t where I was looking for contemporary political relevance.
But boy oh boy, do I have a lot of rage to release. (To be fair, I feel like that condition has been pretty epidemic among women for the past few years.)
Holidays designed as a release valve for societal tensions — especially those between socioeconomic classes or other groups with acute power asymmetries — are nothing new. In addition to a cathartic loosening of the community’s usual norms and restrictions, feasting, and other forms of indulgence, they usually feature some sort of temporary reversal of the social hierarchy. A King of the Saturnalia was chosen by lot to preside over the Romans’ feasting. A Lord of Misrule was crowned for a day in English Christmastime celebrations. The lucky person who finds a tiny baby in their slice of Mardi Gras king cake is ruler for a day — a tradition that may be derived from the French custom of appointing whoever finds the fève in the galette des rois to rule the day for La Fête des Rois.
Purim is clearly a holiday in a similar vein: raucous, boozy, and unrestrained. And to a certain extent, any of these feasts that upend social norms and hierarchies are inherently political.
At the same time, Purim eclipses most — if not all — of them in its overt rebuke to the abuse of power. I hadn’t realized how much until I came across a reference to Eastern European Jews saying the names of contemporary rulers or oppressive political figures while twirling their graggers to blot out Haman’s name, linking them to the story’s villain and hoping they would succumb to a similar fate.
I was especially impressed with the custom of writing Haman’s name (and the names of other oppressors as well, apparently) on the soles of one’s shoes and then stomping or dancing — a clever melding of a defiant insistence on feeling joy even in the midst of persecution with a certain cathartic, artful pettiness.
Once, while trying to explain Purim to a non-Jewish friend, I began with, “It’s your typical Jewish holiday — they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat — with the added components of ‘also get really drunk,’ and ‘Remember that Haman guy? Screw that guy.’”
“You have,” she clarified with a bit of envy, “an entire holiday about throwing shade?”
“An entire holiday that’s about throwing shade at a guy we’ve survived by 2500 years,” I noted modestly. “We’ve basically elevated holding a grudge to the level of the sacred.”
“I’m a dirt-worshipping heathen,” she murmured, “but I would go to that.”
For a moment I had a vision of something much more rollicking and overtly political than my community’s relatively sedate, you-go-girl version of the Purim spiel. I imagined us reaching out to other communities that are facing the same fears and inviting them to come celebrate joy as defiance with us.
I thought about that touch of envy on my way home from visiting her. Most of my friends are very politically active, and burnout and exhaustion are a continuing challenge for us. I’ve become increasingly convinced that there are Jewish customs that hold the key to emotional survival for everyone trying to change the world for the better. When I determined that I wasn’t going to engage with politics and/or social media on Shabbat — not just to give myself a rest, but to give the world a rest from me — I found it to be an incredible sanity-saver that actually made me more effective the other six days of the week. I was pleasantly taken aback when a few non-Jewish friends confided to me that I’d inspired them to take a day off as well.
I’m convinced Purim can work that way, too. For so many people, our current environment and politics can feel overwhelming and exhausting, and the problems we’re trying to fix may seem Sisyphean. Anger is useful in getting things done, but when your internal monologue has become one sustained frustration-scream, you probably need to discharge some of it. And even sharing it with others can end up being more of a stressor than a relief if there’s no laughter in it, no sense, even just for a moment, that there’s a chance that things will turn out okay.
Jews in earlier eras weren’t always free to say what they thought in public, or to protest too openly. And they had no more guarantee than we do that there would be happy endings to the stories of their struggles. But linking those very real fears with a heady, unrestrained celebration and a story in which things actually do get better is a pragmatic emotional survival strategy.
I keep coming back to those in-your-face, unashamedly political customs linking ancient oppressors and contemporary ones. What if, instead of a few sly current event references, our Purim celebrations weren’t shy about calling out modern-day Hamans? (I know that some celebrations are unabashedly political, but now’s the time to double down.) What if, every time Haman’s name was read, we covered it not just with booing and spinning our graggers, but with the tinkling of coins dropping into donation jars to stop people intent on terrorizing vulnerable groups? What if we did dance with their names written on the soles of our shoes?
Everything old is new again: scapegoating the stranger dwelling in our midst, tearing families apart, concentration camps.
Those traditional, loud, political Purim customs were made for such a time as this.