Purim seems simple. Haman tried to kill us, Esther and Mordechai saved us, let’s eat hamantaschen. When I look back, however, my Purim experience says a lot about each phase of my life.
My childhood Purim was predictable. I made hamantaschen with my mom, wore funny costumes, heard the megillah and played carnival games. I also recall at Sunday School getting a cellophane wrapped package containing a hamantaschen, a few chocolate chips and a penny. The only instruction was to give the penny to tzedakah. No one explained this package to us.
During graduate school I learned about the Purim four mitzvot (commandments): hearing the megillah (the story of Purim), giving mishloach manot (gifts of ready to eat foods) to friends, matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) and a seudah (feast). Now I finally understood the childhood package. Although I learned about these mitzvot, they were mostly academic. The only one I practiced was hearing the megillah.
After graduate school, I served as director of a school in Chattanooga. I put together mishloach manot and gave them to each teacher. I loved the tradition; it became a part of my Purim. I experienced two of the four mitzvot.
When I became a mom, Purim changed: the focus was my children experiencing joy. We found a synagogue where kids were central, sitting in front of the rabbi hearing the megillah. My family helped me package and deliver mishloach manot. My synagogue collected matanot l’evyonim (gifts for the poor); I was observing 3 out of 4 mitzvot.
My first Purim seudah was held at the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. Kids ran and played with teens overseeing them. Adults ate, drank and danced until late. As with mishloach manot, once I experienced a Purim feast I never looked back. I was now observing all four Purim mitzvot.
My Purim experiences matured. My two older kids became teens and studied the megillah in depth. There was vast megillah commentary I had never encountered. My children became my teachers. My daughter started observing the Fast of Esther (daylight fast the day before Purim), so I joined her. When my children graduated from day school and began public high school, I was not sure if they would continue distributing mishloach manot. After some hesitation, they did and their peers loved the unexpected treats; they continued annually.
Purim crystallized for me in March 2017 on a trip to Israel with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation staff. It was the first time I was away for Purim. I observed the Fast of Esther on top of Masada, gave matanot l’evyonim in Jerusalem, heard the megillah in Tel Aviv, distributed mishloach manot (assembled with treats from Machaneh Yehudah market) to everyone on my trip, and feasted with everyone on Purim day. While I had a wonderful time with my colleagues, it was not fully Purim without my family.
My Purim experience will continue changing. It will be lonely someday celebrating as an empty nester. It will be amazing one day, God willing, to celebrate Purim with grandchildren. For now, I enjoy my Purim one year at a time.
Tzipi Altman-Shafer is the Jewish education community planner of the Coalition for Jewish Learning of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
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The Purim four mitzvot (commandments):
- Hearing the megillah (the story of Purim)
- Giving mishloach manot (gifts of ready-to-eat foods) to friends
- Matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor)
- A seudah (feast)