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By JOANNE SEIFF In my mid-twenties, I taught high school. Often, I offered a teaser about what we’d study next in the English portion of the Grade 10 World Civilizations class. “You’ll like Candide!” I called out as they were leaving class. “It’s filled with sex and violence!”


Needless to say, I got anxious phone calls from overprotective parents immediately afterward. When I told them what we were reading, I had to remind them that it was famous French satire, more than 200 years old. Most parents were mollified and I was able to joke with the students about what we were getting away with while we read Candide. I think of this most every year when Purim comes along.

So, hey, how about that commandment to hear the Book of Esther on Purim? Of course, the Book of Esther is thousands of years old, but it’s still fairly heavy on the sex and violence. What is surprising is how few people actually notice that. Purim has been recast as a children’s holiday; great for dress up and carnivals and hamantaschen - which are all good things, don’t get me wrong.
Yet, the way we hear the Megillah read can really hoodwink people. When I was a kid, our Rabbi would read the Megillah to us, but he didn’t chant it. He would read a sentence or two and then stop to translate it. The way he told the story from the bimah felt as though the Megillah were a beautiful children’s book he read to the congregation - but it lacked pictures.
As an adult who has been to a lot of different congregations now, I realize that this style is uncommon. Few people can do this sort of off-the-cuff translation. My childhood rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, was raised speaking Hungarian and Yiddish, likely learned Hebrew as his third language. English was probably his sixth, after German and Swedish.
Anyhow, when Rabbi Berkowits (also called Uncle Larry in our house) did this, he conveniently rushed over the parts about Vashti and Esther that were a little off-color. On no account did he read the end of the Book of Esther. The way he told it, the story ended with, “And Haman was hanged and the Jews were saved and we all lived happily ever after! Amen.”

Fast forward to when I was a university student teaching 3rd and 4th graders at religious school. We often read Jewish stories in class. “K’tonton” was a huge favorite. In preparing for Purim, I thought I’d just read a modified version of the Megillah. I brought the JPS translation with me and didn’t read it in advance. Luckily, as I read aloud, my eyes skipped ahead and I realized what was wrong. I did end up reading more than I meant to, though. Did you know that the Book of Esther ends very violently, with the Jews defending themselves? Graphic violence is by no means a new thing.
That was the last time I read the Megillah for a while. For a few years, I was entirely content to sit through a spiel or a more traditional delivery of the Megillah, where someone chanted aloud and people cheered and jeered but nobody actually seemed to listen to the story. Then, I was travelling by plane to see a good friend and knew I’d miss all of Purim. That seemed sad, as I like observing the holiday. I had an old copy of the Book of Esther in translation, so I stuck it in my carry-on to read on the way. I sat down on the floor at an overcrowded airport during a snow storm to wait for my delayed flight and started reading. Oh, right - it was still very violent.
I am not one to give away a good story, so this serves as your teaser. Go ahead. Read the WHOLE Megillah.

Too often, I think it’s easy to rely on our childhood understanding of Judaism. We go through the motions of the Jewish year, reciting a couple of sentences to friends or family about why we do what we do. In fact, I find that it is hard to remember why we do this stuff. As adults, we learn lots of new things every day in our work lives and to keep up with technology. We hear the news analysis, we read novels, and we try to master new exercise routines. Yet, how often do we try to remind ourselves about Jewish holidays or practice by trying to approach it from the same adult vantage point?
If you ask me, this year, I’d say Purim is a great holiday to discuss timely issues like anti-Semitism, hate, violence, misogyny and the value and importance of interfaith marriages in the Jewish community. What do you think the Book of Esther is really about? Is it time to read it?
Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and the mom of twin preschoolers. See more of her work on her blog: www.joanneseiff.blogspot.com or at http://www.ravelry.com/designers/joanne-seiff.

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