Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Purim - Did It Happen?

The question is raised about the story of Purim, and also about every story we tell our students:  "Is it true?  Did it really happen?"
Recently I read an interesting book:  A Voyage Long and Strange, by Tony Horwitz.  Horwitz (who happens to be married to Geraldine Brooks, the author of People of the Book, a wonderful historical novel about the Sarajevo Haggadah) took it upon himself to investigate European settlements in the Americas before the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
What he discovered contradicted much of what he remembered learning as a child.  In fact, at the end of his travels he came to believe that much of what we learn about early American history is not accurate.  And still most of us celebrate Thanksgiving the way we always did, ignoring the inconsistencies.

I believe that his conclusions are pertinent as well to how we understand our own history as Jews, and our Jewish texts.
Here is what he says at the end of his book:

Myth is more important than history.  History is arbitrary, a collection of facts.  Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate.
The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth.  It's like religion - beyond facts.  Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.
Perhaps that is why the Texas Board of Education is working so hard to influence the social studies textbooks that are published in that state and used all over the country, as described in this article in the NY Times Magazine on February 14:  How Christian were the Founders?
As Frances FitzGerald showed in her groundbreaking 1979 book “America Revised,” if there is one thing to be said about American-history textbooks through the ages it is that the narrative of the past is consistently reshaped by present-day forces. Maybe the most striking thing about current history textbooks is that they have lost a controlling narrative. America is no longer portrayed as one thing, one people, but rather a hodgepodge of issues and minorities, forces and struggles. If it were possible to cast the concerns of the Christian conservatives into secular terms, it might be said that they find this lack of a through line and purpose to be disturbing and dangerous.
 I think these two issues are related, in the following ways:

  • How we tell a story determines its meaning
  • Deciding how to tell a story tells more about the teller than about the actual story
  • As educators we need to think carefully about how we construct stories - considering how they affect the listeners
  • What we learn from a story may or may not reflect historical accuracy, but it certainly will reflect and create attitudes in powerful ways.

Purim Today

There are those who believe the story related in Megillat Esther happened as described.
Others believe the story is fantasy.
I think it doesn't really matter who is right.
According to The Jewish Study Bible
...The setting of the Persian court is authentic, but the events are fictional. 
It goes on to say
The book does have a serious side, and an important function as a Diaspora story, a story written about and for (and perhaps by) Jews of the Diaspora.  As such, it promotes Jewish identity, solidarity within the Jewish community, and a strong connection with Jewish (biblical) tradition.
It addresses the inherent problems of a minority people, their vulnerability to political forces and government edicts, their lack of autonomy, and their dependence on royal favor and on the sagacity of their own leaders.
The book succeeds in putting a serious message in a comic form. 
So what might that mean for our students?

Big Ideas: 

  • As Jews we are part of a group with at least some shared experiences
  • As members of a group we have responsibilities to the other members of the group
  • Appearances do not always reflect reality
Important Questions to Ask and Answer:
  • What groups are you part of?
  • What threats exist to those groups?
  • What are our responsibilities toward the other members of these groups?
Learning Activities:
  • Reading Megillat Esther in language the learners can understand should be a core part of the learning activities
  • Brainstorm the different groups students are part of and the threats facing each.  Threats can be physical, but need not be.  For example, disappearance of the group can be a threat.
  • Discuss ways to address these threats (or challenges, if you prefer)
  • Prepare an action plan to address challenges that have been identified

NOTE:  Linking to popular culture is a wonderful way to engage learners
  • In the movie Avatar, what group(s) does Jake belong to?
  • Which of these groups is threatened?
  • How does Jake decide which group to support?
  • How was his choice personally threatening?
  • Compare and contrast Jake (in Avatar) and Esther (in the Purim story)
  • What Jewish values are expressed in the movie?


Monday, February 22, 2010


Big Ideas:

  • How we perceive people is often affected by their appearance.
  • Certain peoples' behavior may honor or dishonor the group they belong to.

Important Questions:

  • How do you decide when to wear certain clothes?
  • When you see someone 'dressed up' what do you think?
  • Why do you think people wear uniforms?
  • What responsibilities do public figures have to their 'public'?

Learning Activities:

  • Watch this video about the uniforms worn at the Olympics in Vancouver - 
  •  G-dcast posted a video last year about this parasha that explained the uniform of the High Priest in an interesting way
  • has an article which explains why, when, and which head coverings are traditionally worn by Jews 
  • Do you think a person wearing a certain uniform has an obligation to behave in a particular way?  Explain why or why not.
  • In what way do the actions of a person dressed in a way that identifies him or her as a member of a certain group (e.g. Catholic priest, soldier in uniform, Jew wearing a kippah) reflect on the group?  Is this fair?  Explain why or why not.
  • Public figures often behave in ways that bring criticism not only on themselves but on the institutions and individuals they represent (e.g. politicians, athletes, religious leaders).  Choose two people you believe fall in this category and recommend what you think they should do.
NOTE:  Take a look at the other post that refers to Tetzaveh by clicking on that label in the list of labels