Special Purim in a New American Reality

This piece was written by Joshua Langer, one of the 2016-2017 Bridge Fellows.

Throughout Jewish history, there are at least 100 known examples from a category of holidays called Special Purim. These Special Purim were established by local Jewish communities to commemorate and celebrate their survival of an existential threat, whether in the form of a tyrannical ruler, a natural disaster, or some related circumstance.

These communities came to understand their experience through the lens of the biblical Purim narrative, the classic model of a Jewish community’s deliverance from potential destruction. In many cases, these local holidays incorporated most of the characteristics of the universal Purim holiday: a communal fast day preceding a day of wild celebration; a communal gathering to tell the survival story; special support for the poor; and the exchange of gifts. Even the scrolls composed to tell the story were modeled closely after The Book of Esther, eschewing the contemporary vernacular for Biblical Hebrew, and occasionally copying exact phrasing from the biblical story, likely as a way to mark the sacred significance of the event in the community. Special Purim have engendered real and consistent observance –- a Special Purim established in Egypt in the 1520s was commemorated annually by that Jewish community until the community dissolved in the 1950s.

For me, these Special Purim serve as a critical reminder of the timeless relevance of our sacred texts, of the powerful ways in which communal memory shapes our contemporary communal experience, and of our capacity to own and innovate our tradition as we build new layers into our historical narrative. I also believe this model of Special Purim will (sadly) become a useful resource as we navigate our current American reality.

We can draw comfort, strength, and practical tools from this model of Special Purim as we continue to experience the Trump presidency, and especially the escalation of threats and vandalism targeting Jews. Comfort from knowing we have seen this before and persevered; strength from knowing that the stories end not just with survival, but with triumph; practical tools in the form of rituals that will sustain community, guiding and connecting us as we struggle together and as we determine how to appropriately reflect on this trying moment once it is past.

We’re only a few weeks into the Trump administration. We don’t know how our story will unfold from here. But, for the first time in my life, I’m willing to even remotely consider the possibility that our American Jewish story will reflect some of the more tragic episodes in Jewish history. It’s the first time that I find myself wondering if we’ll require a Mordechai or an Esther, and who those heroes might be.

I am always aggravated by purveyors of what historian Salo Baron called “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” the idea that the Jewish experience since the destruction of the Second Temple is simply a series of horrible tragedies punctuated by brief periods of relative stability and tolerance from surrounding powers. It’s a narrative that positions Jews as passive objects in our own experience. I have always preferred a perspective that positions Jews as (the most) active participants in our story, accountable for our choices, and empowered to shape the Jewish future. This perspective focuses on the remarkable ingenuity and adaptability that have enabled Jews to impact the world in profoundly positive ways, and the resilience to persevere through many challenges – remarkably, even those genocidal in nature.

In my reluctance to provide space for a tragic caricature of Jewish history, I have always felt the need to push back whenever I hear a new alarm cautioning Jews about our next existential threat. I don’t want decisions about shaping the Jewish future to be driven by fear, by the self-understanding of Jews as perpetual victims.

But now, really for the first time, I feel that fear. The school where I work just conducted special staff meetings to clarify and reinforce our plans in case we receive a bomb threat, an event that appears to be a matter of when, not if.  If nothing else, it’s a powerful reminder of how easily visceral fear can override the intellectual comfort one can draw from historical examples that suggest we can and will overcome.

As I take an important step back and consider an even broader context, I realize that part of the reason I feel on edge about what is at stake for American Jews is because I see the very real and extreme ways in which other minority populations are being targeted. It is not at all lost on me that American Muslims are actually the more compelling contemporary American parallel to Shushan’s Jews. I am feeling very acutely this need to move beyond a particularly Jewish concern, and not simply from a Niemollerian sense of self-preservation, but because my own tradition helps animate for me – and helps me empathize with – the daily reality of American Muslims.

Being in this American moment and approaching this Jewish holiday brings me back to a place of wondering how this particularly Jewish concept of Special Purim can have a more universal spiritual or communal application as we struggle through such a heartbreaking, yet catalyzing historical moment.

As we progress across the narrow bridge of this moment and arrive together in a place that I hope is full of shared safety, justice, affirmation, and interdependence, how can we come together to reflect on and mark this experience? How can we set our story as a new chapter our collective narrative? How can we draw from the deep wells of rituals to create opportunities for connection, for celebration, and for a renewed articulation of, and commitment to, our shared values?

I’ll conclude with a series of ideas and aspirations from the tradition of Special Purim that might guide our journey ahead:

  • May we find ways to balance solemn tragedy and joyful triumph
  • May we prioritize support for the most vulnerable in our community
  • May we find moments of gratitude in opportunities to celebrate and serve others
  • May we continue to come together to tell this story so that we will recall its lessons

May Purim’s reminder of our capacity to thrive in the face of adversity will fill us with strength and spirit to overcome the Hamans in our midst.

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