Offbeat celebrations pepper the Purim landscape

Throughout the Bay Area’s Jewish community this week and next, folks will be readying their costumes, getting out their groggers, and baking hamantaschen in preparation for what could be called the wackiest of Jewish holidays — at least, that’s how we’ve come to celebrate it.

At Santa Rosa’s Congregation Beth Ami, there are sure to be some John, Paul, George and Ringo look-alikes turning up on March 11 for “The Megillah According to the Beatles.” At Chabad of Contra Costa, there will be a traditional Megillah reading on Wednesday, March 7 — followed the next evening by an Old West–themed party, complete with barbecue, pony rides and a mechanical bull.

How, exactly, did the story of how Esther saved the Persian Jews from evil Haman come to be celebrated with such fanfare?


“It goes back a very long way: Purim is supposed to give us the opportunity to laugh at ourselves, to be less inhibited, to have moments of silliness and humor,” said Rabbi Carla Fenves, of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. “There’s a spirit of turning everything on its head. Technically, rabbinic tradition says that by the end of the night you’re not supposed to be able to tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai.”

At Emanu-El, congregants will celebrate with a Purim carnival, a Megillah reading and a “triangle feast” (why stop at hamantaschen when you can have pizza, too?). And on March 17, the Emanu-El party will continue with the Purim Follies, a PG-13 rated sketch comedy show, followed by PurimPalooza for young adults at a nearby club.

In Berkeley, the renewal congregation Aquarian Minyan will throw a party titled “Occupy Purim” at the Ashkenaz dance club, with a “contemporary political Purim-Shpiel satire” plus dancing to music by Adama.

Promo for a Purim event at Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa Two local Chabad centers are celebrating Purim with Western and comic-book themes

Temple Isaiah in Lafayette will be taking it back 50 years or so for its shpiel, with a rollicking performance of the “Motown Megillah” on Wednesday, March 7.

At Chabad of Monterey, congregants will be showing up in red, white and blue for “Purim USA,” a patriotic festival featuring a Megillah reading with Uncle Sam, a photo booth and more.

At Berkeley’s Afikomen Judaica on March 8, shop owner Nell Mahgel-Friedman will lead a reading of a Megillat Ester that has been in her family for generations.

The Kitchen, a do-it-yourself Jewish community based in San Francisco’s Mission District, is holding a “glitter-free” Purim, a term Rabbi Noa Kushner says is simply “us making fun of ourselves.” The celebration will include a Megillah reading with “our totally off-the-wall improv ‘storahtelling’ team, and mariachi and klezmer bands,” with dinner and a party to follow. (Costumes, she emphasizes, are not at all optional.)

Nell Mahgel-Friedman, owner of Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley, dresses up as a pirate Queen Esther as she reads from a Megillah.

Taking things in another direction, organizers are asking people to bring macaroni and cheese boxes to San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom for the Purim celebration. First they’ll be used as groggers, and then collected as donations to Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ food pantry.

At the JCC of the East Bay, a 21-and-over Purim Mardi Gras celebration scheduled for Monday, March 5 will include “a stimulating evening of cocktails, crafts, comedy and conversation” according to promotional materials. It will kick off at 7 p.m. with a humorous (and brief) telling of the Purim story by a comedian, Joshua Walters.

Gesher at Stanford, a program for Hillel grads and young professionals, will have people reading the Megillah in Chinese, Latin, Spanish and, of course, Hebrew — “because we are supposed to hear it read in our native tongue,” according to a listing for the Wednesday, March 7 event.

Many of the offbeat Purim festivals emanate from Chabad centers. That’s the case in Berkeley, where Chabad of the East Bay is having a Moroccan Purim inside of a what Rebbetzin Miriam Ferris is calling “our casbah” — a tent in the backyard.

Ferris originally wanted to include camel rides at the Thursday, March 8 event, but finding any of the beasts in Northern California proved to be too difficult. So she settled on a variety of Moroccan foods, wine and spirits, henna painting and “a magic carpet,” which she refused to divulge any information about. “You really have to come and see it,” she said. Also, while the Megillah is being read, a video slideshow will be playing showing someone drawing the Purim story in sand.

At North Beach Chabad in San Francisco, an event dubbed “Purim-Con” (a takeoff of Comic-Con) will include Chassidic hip-hop star Nosson Zand. Guests are encouraged to dress up as their favorite villain or hero, presumably from the comic books.

Elsewhere, Chabad of Tri-Valley is hosting “Purim in Italy” in Pleasanton on Thursday, March 8. A day earlier, at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Chabad of the Greater South Bay is having “Cirque du Purim.”

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz, of Modern Orthodox Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco, said Purim provides opportunities for fun that wouldn’t quite be appropriate in some of the more somber Jewish holidays.

“In modern times, Purim has become a chance for Jewish communities to let loose, be a little creative,” he said, noting that his congregation is having a two-day celebration that includes a kid-friendly comedian/hypnotist visiting on March 8.

Two local Chabad centers are celebrating Purim with Western and comic-book themes.

“Obviously I think it’s necessary to connect [the celebration] back to the actual holiday in some way … but truly, so many of our holidays are so serious, especially the holidays Jews tend to get involved in, like the High Holy Days and Passover,” he added.

“Unfortunately I think many Jews tend to look toward secular holidays as the opportunities to get together and have fun. And if Purim can get more Jews involved, bring people together and give them the chance to laugh at themselves, then that’s incredibly important too.”

Purim begins the evening of Wednesday, March 7. For times and costs of events, please visit the website of the sponsoring organization or synagogue.

cover illustration/cathleen maclearie

Emma Silvers