I describe the festival of Purim to my non-Jewish friends as “Jewish Halloween”. From historical and ritual contexts, Purim and Halloween are almost nothing alike. Halloween originates from the Celtic tradition of Samhain where you dress in costume to ward off ghosts and spirits. Purim celebrates Queen Esther, a Jewish woman who married the King of Shushan (Persia / modern day Iran). The King’s advisor, Haman, planned to murder all the Jews in Shushan and Esther saved the Jewish people.
The similarity to Halloween? You dress in costume for Purim.
Growing up, Purim was always my favorite holiday because it gave me another day of the year when I could dress in costume. It meant I had an extra excuse to dress as Terra from the Teen Titans, or test pilot my next Halloween costume months in advance.
If you have ever had the opportunity to attend a Purim service and celebration, there can be no doubt this is a holiday of joy. But, to be honest, nearly every Jewish holiday mimics the structure of the history of Purim: they tried to kill us; we survived.
I didn’t know until this year why Purim was a day of revelry beyond all other Jewish holidays. Then my Rabbi explained that Purim is the day we turn the world upside down. The story of Purim (the full story, not the condensed version I provided above) paints a topsy-turvy world. Esther, a low-born Jew, marries the King. Haman plans to kill the Jews, Esther intervenes and the Jews rise up and kill Haman instead. We dress in costume for Purim to be who we ordinarily aren’t, to sit in what discomforts us and laugh about it. We acknowledge life’s oddities.
Nothing could remind me of speculative fiction more than a day to embrace the weirdness in which we live. Reading the story of Purim through the lens of revelry, the narrative is social and political commentary. It’s also a funny text.
I tend to disavow funny speculative fiction. I’m more of a dark fantasy, grimdark kind of girl. I unashamedly love my angst. But I went to a Purim party this past weekend and remembered that embracing joy does mean turning your back on the world’s problems. Laughing while the world burns, does not mean we are not also crying, does not mean we are not also putting out the flames.
When I watch V for Vendetta, I still laugh every time at the TV comedy scene. When I read The Doctrine of Labyrinths (my favorite dark fantasy), I am grinning and smiling and laughing, even when the action isn’t funny. I love the characters enough that I have found joy within those pages.
Like the best speculative fiction, Purim, embraces complexity and demands we revel. How else do we learn to cope, rally together and fight?