“Which do you like better? Purim or Halloween?”
It always seemed an odd question. Costumes aside, it never occurred to me to compare the two. At my Jewish day school, a letter from the principal was sent to parents each October warning them that observance of Halloween was pagan and therefore destructive to the Jewish educational process. I also carried with me warnings from my parents that traditionally, Halloween was a night on which locals used to target Jews with pranks and anti-Semitic acts. I never experienced this myself, but the paranoia had already been instilled. As a result, while my school contemporaries demanded candy from strangers, I stayed home and watched “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”
The first time I trick-or-treated was in college. Some of my friends ventured to the nearby suburbs to go door to door. Instead of aping local urchins desperate for a sugar rush and threatening a trick if thwarted, we sang to the people who opened the door, usually classic tunes such as “I Get a Kick Out of You” or “New York, New York.”
I learned a lot from the experience: that I feel awkward in a costume, that I like to sing and that it’s fun to get candy from people. But there was no spiritual or religious component to my first Halloween. It could have happened any day of the year.
Purim is, quite literally, a different story entirely. The story is written in a scroll, the reading of which is one of the holiday’s most basic components. The dramatis personae are weak and palpably human figures. The story is about being in the right place at the right time and taking your fate into your own hands, while God barely even plays a role. Righteousness is rewarded with royalty and evil punished with death. It’s a perfect Hollywood tale, driven by named characters from opening titles to closing credits. Purim is good. Purim, for lack of a better word, works. We identify with the heroes of Purim and see them in our mind’s eye; we carry the story with us as we party into the night and feast during the day that follows.
But Purim partying is not without accountability. In addition to costumed revelry and the opportunity for drinking until confused between heroes and villains, other traditions of Purim, not always observed by costumed revelers, are sending packages of food to one’s neighbors (mishloach manot) and gifts to the poor (matanot la’evyonim). These traditions add a social service element to the celebration: We acknowledge the importance of enjoying life at a good party, but also recognize our responsibility to others.
Yes, both Halloween and Purim have costumes. But on Purim, these costumes have a meaning: They reflect the theme of hiddenness in the Megillah, the scroll that’s read aloud on Purim. Nearly everything established by the narrative experiences a reversal: Esther and Mordechai, once lowly and persecuted Jews, become the royally sanctioned architects of Jewish liberation; a reward that Haman suggests for himself is given instead to his arch-enemy Mordechai; a gallows that Haman prepares for Mordechai becomes the site of his own execution. The name “Esther” has as its Hebrew root “seter,” meaning hiddenness or secrecy, and the name of God appears nowhere in the text of the Megillah.
Costumes on Purim possess the power to change our circumstances, illuminate darker or hidden parts of ourselves, and can represent the idea that life turns on a dime — what you see today may not be here, or may look very different, tomorrow.
And then there is the traditional overindulgence in alcohol. The Purim wine is not just about getting a little high. Wine, and feasting in general, are signs of freedom, luxury and relative affluence, no matter our actual tax bracket. They are thematic elements throughout the Purim story, but even in this excess and revelry, there is an implied limit to our indulgence: We read the Megillah twice, once at night before the party, and again the following morning. The message is, “drink ’em if you got ’em, but remember to show up for services in the morning.”
This Purim, eat, drink, be merry, and if you want to, wear a costume — but also be a mensch, even when your identity is hidden behind a mask. Know the story behind the holiday and keep an eye on the less fortunate. And when you can’t tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats, it’s time to call it a night.
There will always be those who love Halloween, but for this Esther, Purim’s always the queen.
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer based in Los Angeles. Read more of her work at EstherK.com and MyUrbanKvetch.com. A version of this piece appeared at MyJewishLearning.com.