The Purim of my youth was always a non-stop, pedal-to-the-metal kind of day. Dressing up in a costume, megillah reading at night, a Purim party, giving matanot la’evyonim (gifts to the poor), megillah reading in the morning, delivering mishloach manot (the exchanging reciprocal gifts of food and drink) all over town to friends and family, and wrapping it all up with the festive meal known as a se’udat Purim. For that whole day, kids did all the same mitzvot that the adults did, and a great time was had by all. As a whole, Purim was a very rich, layered experience, a meaningful, community-minded holiday with fun and spirituality mixed in.
Purim, and the mitzvah of mishloach manot in particular is based on Megillat Esther (9:19 and 22), which states that Purim was established as a day “of gladness and feasting, [a yom tov] and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.” One of the things I remember about my mishloach manot deliveries as a kid was the sameness of it all – most of our mishloach manot packages had a mini-bottle of grape juice, some hamentashen, a few candies or chocolates and maybe a tangerine or an apple. Not that I was complaining in the least – for a lot of us, that haul lasted us as snacks for school until Pesach.
In the ensuing years, something interesting began to happen to mishloach manot in particular and to Purim in general.
On the one hand, mishloach manot began to become more interesting, even daring. It was like the Food Network descended on the poor little hamentashen and gave it a makeover. Out went the poppy or prune filling or whatever your Bubby used to put in it. In went everything Guy Fieri could put into it (pulled BBQ brisket hamentashen anyone?). And the other food items in the mishloach manot packages (for those who still prepare and give out mishloach manot) became incredibly interesting and creative – right now, in my fridge at home, there is a full on layered salad, complete with salad dressing, that someone gave to us – how cool is that?
Yet Purim as a holiday also began to change, in keeping with broader demographic changes and trends in the Jewish community in North America. If people went to megillah reading, it went from twice on Purim to once on Purim, and often-times would be changed into a child-friendly reading, with less of the megillah read, or converted into a play format to tell the story of Esther, out of concern that kids won’t be able to sit through a whole megillah reading. These days, fewer people prepare and deliver mishloach manot. Matanot la’evyonim has become an afterthought to most. Less and less people make their own seudat Purim, opting instead to attend one at their synagogue. And yet, Purim parties and carnivals have become wildly popular, and are well-attended by many Jews who often do not choose to engage Jewishly at many other times of the year – indeed, Purim has become a major outreach tool, from proponents of public space Judaism, to Chabad, to most every synagogue of all denominations. And as a whole, while Purim may be increasing in general popularity (commercialized even), it also runs the risk of becoming less nuanced, less meaningful, diluted down to the carnival and costume.
So, given that I’m writing this while munching on a hamentashen, please indulge me in the following food analogy:
There’s a really important article “Death to the chicken finger” that was published in the National Post a few weeks back – it is such a fascinating and thought-provoking read, that I strongly encourage you to read it in it’s entirety, especially if you are a parent or an educator. Its author, Adam McDowell, explores children’s picky eating tendencies, “kids” food and “kids” menus, and the role of the food industry and parents themselves as he explores the question of “What stopped us from feeding normal adult foods to children?”
McDowell writes that:
“Knowledgeable fingers are frequently pointed at the gradual extinction of the family dinner, which in turn usually gets blamed on parents’ busy schedules, which in turn gets partially blamed on hockey practice and piano lessons… Regardless of the processed food industry’s role, putting children on their own restricted, bland diet would never have been possible had parents not gone along with the shift. Observe what happens when you try to challenge other people’s children by feeding them something unfamiliar. It’s often the parents themselves who will push back, giving up before a battle has even begun (“She won’t eat that”). A less challenging food like grilled cheese and fries offers a path of least resistance, guaranteed to succeed — if success is narrowly defined as getting the kid to actually eat it.”
“Advocates of healthy and diverse diets for children often find inspiration in France, a country where the food landscape for children retains a pre-1990s quaintness, and where the concept of a picky eater almost doesn’t exist. ‘At the core of the French approach is the belief that you teach your kids to eat just as you can teach them to read,’ says Karen Le Billon, author of the 2012 book French Kids Eat Everything. ‘You start young, it takes time, and some kids take more time than others… all kids can get there.'”
I thought about this article a lot yesterday during Purim at school. Our students raised money and collected food for matanot la’evyonim (which we delivered to the Jewish Food Bank on Purim). We packaged and gave out mishloach manot to all iCare and RJDS families. We had a fantastic carnival and we all dressed in costumes. And our students all sat quietly through a whole megillah reading (thank you so much to Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman of Chabad of Richmond!), and whooped and stomped whenever Haman’s name was read.
When the rabbi finished reading the whole megillah, I looked around the room, and breathed a sigh of relief. Not one student had passed out, died of boredom or converted to a different religion. We didn’t have to dilute the experience, or tell the story of Purim in a different, more kid-friendly way. As a school community we were able to provide our students a relatively complete Purim experience filled with Purim-related mitzvot, which is something I am inordinately proud of. We can do it. It can be authentic and fun, meaningful and rigorous.
And I think it speaks to a way forward in Jewish education and the transmission of Judaism in general. To use one final quote from the article (just substitute the word food for Judaism):
“A few pieces of advice come up over and over again. Some may sound familiar: Sit with children and serve them the same meal you get. Serve them challenging foods and encourage them to eat, but don’t force them. Fighting about it can create negative associations for that food. Listen to kids’ ideas about what they want to eat, but don’t turn the menu into a point of negotiation once dinner has been decided upon. Involving children in food preparation sharpens their appetites, so involve them whenever possible in grocery shopping and gardening, and let them watch you cook.”
Sounds hard to do? Our kids just might surprise us.