A Once-Obscure Holiday, Purim's Popularity Soars

A Once-Obscure Holiday, Purim's Popularity Soars

Purim festivities in Houston

by Rivka Chaya Berman - Lubavitch HQ, NY

February 28, 2007

When Christopher Guest entitled the mock movie, at the heart of his new film, “Home for Purim,” he generated six million dollars’ worth of publicity for the relatively unknown Jewish holiday that is celebrated March 3-4. Chabad centers have found creative ways to spread Purim joy to Jewish people around the world.

Copenhagen’s swankest catering hall and spacious sports stadium beckoned, but Rabbi Yitzchok and Rochel Lowenthal passed them over in favor of a troupe acrobats in lollipop colored unitards as a feature of their Purim extravaganza this year. Their reasoning was simple. Purim falls out on Sunday this year. The kids are off, and their family-oriented community members are most likely to turn out for a kid-centered affair. This also explains why a pack of horses with kid-sized saddles will be at Chabad’s Purim celebration.

There’s no one method to deliver Purim’s powerful message of the wily ways of Divine Providence. Chabad centers from S. Cruz, CA, to Rodgers, Arkansas, to Table View, South Africa, plot their Purim celebrations to suit the needs of their communities. Distinctly Jewish twists on popular culture attract big crowds in some venues. Tradition reigns in others. Touring the world Chabad-style reveals the method to the madness.

First, it’s worthwhile to crunch numbers to get a grip on the scope of Chabad’s Purim programs. Last year in the former Soviet Union alone, there were more than 75 events scheduled in 29 cities. In 420 communities, over 150,000 Jews heard the reading of the megillah, Purim narrative, and 200,000 Mishlaoch Manot, holiday food packages, were distributed. This year, Chabad expects to reach even more.

For a sum of Chabad-generated Purim celebrations, the number of Chabad centers worldwide – now hovering around 4,000 – doesn’t come close to the total. The real number is many multiples times that much. At University of Calilfornia S. Cruz, the megillah will be read every hour on the hour of Chabad Student Center’s three-hour Purim bash. Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman of Chabad’s Jewish Prison Assistance Foundation will be part of a yearly effort that brings rabbis and Purim celebrations to 30 prisons in Illinois. Add in the Chabad rabbis and yeshiva students who bring the joy of Purim to patients in hospitals, residents of old age homes, backpackers in hostels, and it becomes clear why spokesmen at Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters are hesitant to put a firm number on the total of Purim events.

On a city-by-city basis, however, drawing Jewish people out of the woodwork to celebrate a holiday they’ve barely heard of requires savvy. Former Broadway producer Jill Brody crafted a 55-minute Purim production for the 600 people who will gather at Chabad of Boynton. Incorporating popular culture into the Purim celebration fits right into the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Weltanschauung, according to Chabad of Boynton’s Rabbi Sholom Ciment.  “Shluchim are salesmen. Our product is Judaism, our faith, and our heritage. Our packaging may change, but our product stays the same.” The packaging “brings people in and allows them to be enchanted by the product.”

On the west coast of South Africa, that kind of thinking brought about the “Purim in the USA” theme at The Shul, Chabad Centre for Jewish Life, of Table View. Hot dogs and all-American burgers will be gobbled. Broad American vowel sounds imitated. President Bush masks may appear.

Rolling with what attracts crowds in popular culture is shaping the Purim party at Chabad at Texas Medical Center. Patients attracted to the area’s world-renowned hospitals will join doctors and medical students for Chabad’s Go-Texan theme, chosen to rope in the civic spirit whipped up by the Houston Livestock and Rodeo. “Everyone has rodeo fever here,” said Chabad’s Rochel Lazaroff. Hayrides, BBQ, and a saloon are planned. Patients and their families staying at Chabad’s eight Aishel House apartments located at the center “appreciate the break from the world of treatments and stress.”

On college campuses, Purim parties draw huge crowds. Rabbi Shlomie and Devorah Leah Chein of University of California S. Cruz have successfully convinced the laid back Californian students that the holiday – where singing and eating and giving food gifts are requirements – actually exists. Anticipating a crowd of 150-plus students, Chabad teamed up with the Jewish AEPi fraternity to add another layer of Jewish involvement to the Israel-themed party. Before UCSC students can fill their pitas with falafel balls and hummus spreads, they’ll pass frat brothers standing at a mock El Al ticket counter and have a chance to sign up for Chabad’s birthright israel trip.

Across the country, the surprisingly large contingent of Jews at Georgia’s Emory University – about 35% of the campus’s 11,500 undergrads and grads are Jewish – will chill at Chabad’s jazz infused Purim meal. “It’s relaxing music that sets the tone,” said Chabad at Emory’s Rabbi Zalman Lipskier.

Unfortunately, due to airport snafus Chabad of Northwest Arkansas’s Dobi Greisman is anything but relaxed. A well-meaning visitor offered to bring sorbet and whipped topping, ingredients for the communal Purim meal dessert, from New York, but he forgot about the new carry-on luggage regulations. The sweets thawed into soup in the airplane hold.  By design, the Greismans haven’t locked themselves into a theme, so their dessert options are open. “Many people found out about Purim when we came here a year and a half ago. They’re still learning about what Purim is all about, so we’re sticking to traditional foods,” said Greisman.

Whether Chabad is serving up a “Sushi Purim,” “Mexican Purim,” “Persian Purim,” or classic Purim, more Jews than ever before are certain to discover one of Judaism’s most uproariously fun, spirited and – beneath the surface – spiritual holidays.

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