Jon Stewart has occasionally joked about the inferiority of Jewish holidays when compared with our Christian counterparts. He’s lamented the cardboard taste of matzah, expressed his jealousy at the yummy chocolates given out on Easter, and generally represented the sentiments of many Jewish Americans that our calendar of holidays is not quite so fun.
Well, guess what, Jon Stewart. Purim is coming up. And it’s not quite as easy to knock as our other holidays.
Think about the main traditions of Purim: We dress up in ridiculous costumes (including some cross-dressing if that’s your thing), we make obnoxious noises with our groggers, and we eat yummy baked goods. If there were a tournament where all of the Jewish holidays competed against each other in a fun-off, it’s safe to say Purim would be the major league favorite. Sure, you have to give a little bit to charity and even find gifts for friends, but that’s a small price to pay for the mayhem we get to be a part of.
Purim on college campuses can get a little tricky, though. It’s not generally that students living off-campus shake their groggers too loud and annoy the neighbors (although I’m sure this happens) — and it’s not usually because reenactments of the megillah reading get too spirited. Instead, programmers on college campuses have to wrestle with the fact that, like in many Jewish communities, Purim is often seen primarily as a holiday for getting drunk and acting belligerent as opposed to an occasion for spiritual growth and generous giving.
I want to continue by saying that these communities are not quite wrong. A major observance of Purim is to drink until you cannot tell the difference between “Blessed be Mordecai” (a hero of the Book of Esther) and “Cursed be Haman” (the book’s villain). I am not here to lament binge drinking as the scourge of our universe; I think that the consumption of alcohol can bring people together in ways that other types of parties do not. At the same time, though, the fact that Jewish groups on many college campuses look at Purim primarily as a chance to observe this particular Talmudic recommendation, while forgetting about the rest, seems like a waste of a wonderful opportunity. Because parties with alcohol exist on college campuses just about every weekend night of the year, treating Purim as just another chance to scarf down shots of Karkov strips the day of the distinctiveness that makes it meaningful.
So here’s what I’m advocating: College students, you have no need to fear. I still think that alcohol can and should be a meaningful part of your Purim experience. All I ask is that the drinking is done with some sort of end-goal or intention in mind. In the traditional world, the consumption of alcohol is meant to get past the merely intellectual and get a little bit more emotional. Where Yom Kippur, often seen as a sort of inverse to Purim, is devoted to physical deprivation through fasting and intellectual stimulation through teshuvah, Purim flips things around by hindering one’s intellectual abilities in order to build up the more sensual and spiritual. If you want, you can make this your goal. You can look at your drunken state as a chance to distance yourself from the day-to-day stresses and enjoy some of the world’s beauty. Hippie stuff, I know. But maybe that’s your thing.
Here’s another idea. Purim lacks the structure or order present in many other holidays, and as a result is seen as a day where things are flipped upside-down. Ridiculous costumes trump traditional garb, garbled parodies replace the more typical forms of Talmud study — and the main observance of the day, hearing the reading of the the Book of Esther, lacks any reference to God, who is generally the centerpiece of any synagogue service. In keeping with this topsy-turvy spirit, here’s what I’ll be doing this Purim: I’m going to take a stereotypical aspect of drunkenness and flip it on its end. Whereas alcohol often is associated with rude behavior, Purim could be a chance to utilize your drunken state to bring yourself closer to the people you care about. For instance, one might use drunk dialing, which is often looked at as an unfortunate result of a crazy night, to capitalize on an altered mental state, remove the filters of everyday conversation and simply tell someone that you care.
My proposed drunkenly spiritual practice ties into two lesser known traditions associated with Purim: mishloach manot – giving small gifts to friends and family — and matanot l’evyonim – contributing to the poor. Why not use the drinking of Purim to contribute to this spirit of giving gifts and letting people know that you care?
This year, once I have achieved the requisite Mordecai-Haman confusion, I will be setting an alarm on my phone reminding me to call friends I haven’t spoken to in a while. I may not be as intelligible as normal, but I trust myself enough to know that I’ll have the ability to tell people that they are important to me. Purim, in so many ways, is about expressing gratitude. We thank ancestors, such as Esther and Mordecai, who ensured our collective survival as a people. And, ultimately, we thank God for making sure that each of us, individually, is alive. That’s a pretty big deal. Through gifts to charity, we recognize that we have been given blessings not available to many others in the world.
But I’m asking you to take it one step further by preparing a few drunk dials. It might just fill your holiday with the kind of meaning that your Jägerbomb can’t quite achieve.