Purim is a time when we play with identities, dress in disguises and revel in deceptions. There is an aspect of great fun to this holiday, and there are lessons that are deeply serious.
One of the timeless aspects of the Jewish calendar is that, while the dates and texts may remain the same – Purim again will start the night of 13 Adar and the Megillah will not have changed – we, the readers, are different than we were last year and the circumstances of the world we live in have changed since our last reading.
As with many Jewish holidays, Purim includes a lesson about the importance of continuity and survival against existential enemies. This is, sadly, an enduring reality.
Just this week, at the annual conference on international security policy, in Munich, Germany, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reiterated the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program and warned that regime not to underestimate Israel’s resolve in confronting it.
There are other threats, as well, in the form of growing antisemitism among far-right parties in Europe and in the British Labour Party, online and in the number of antisemitic incidents reported in North America and elsewhere.
We are still trying to uncover whether antisemitism played a role in the mass murder of 17 students and teachers at a Parkland, Fla., school last week. The tragedy led a white supremacist group to claim the perpetrator was one of theirs, but, despite being widely reported, this claim has been debunked.
Five of the 17 victims were Jewish – the high school is in an area with a significant Jewish population – and the murderer’s online rantings were teeming with hatred of African-Americans and Jews. In one online chat, he claimed that his birth mother was Jewish and that he was glad he never met her. Per usual, we are engaged in debating what motivated the perpetrator – easy access to guns, mental illness, pure evil or various combinations of these. As usual, we will engage in a nearly identical cycle of shock, grief, argument and ultimate apathy the next time this occurs, and the next time.
Threats of another kind are also top news right now, with charges recently laid against a number of Russian individuals and groups who are alleged to have interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The deception appears to have involved creating and stealing social media identities, as well as starting fake political pages intended to divide Americans. A rally against Islam, in Houston, Tex., in May 2016, was met with a counter-rally against Islamophobia. Both rallies, it now appears, were incited by Russian troublemakers.
More seriously still, the allegation is that deceptive and outright false statements were made in online posts and advertisements, which had the apparent impact of suppressing support for Hillary Clinton in key swing states, thus electing Donald Trump president. As each new allegation and example of proof has arisen, Trump has misrepresented reality, deflecting charges that his campaign (including members of his family) was engaged in collusion with the Russians, and claiming vindication at every turn.
A better president would pledge to get to the bottom of whatever is (or isn’t) real in the matter. Instead, this president plays partisan games and, unlike King Ahasuerus, does not take wise counsel willingly.
So, identity, disguises and deception are not only central to our Purimspiels, but woven through our news cycles and sensibilities every day, demonstrating again the eternal relevance of our narratives. Each year, on this holiday as on other days, we recognize and gird ourselves against the threats to our identity and existence. But we also celebrate our survival and rejoice in our not insignificant good fortune.
I might have been a Jewish Martha Stewart if fate had been kinder to me. I used to watch with envy as she placed her rose-scented candles on the needlepoint tablecloth in the centre of which were the exquisite paper flowers she crafted. In my fantasy, I imagine my own dinner table now ready for the chopped liver, with braised lamb shanks, kasha pilaf and apple kugel, which would be served on my designer Star of David ceramic plates. Blossoms of fresh orchids from my greenhouse would fill the room. And it would be a good thing.
It is to my chagrin, however, that domestic tasks have never been my forte. Instead, I learned to deflect sizzling hockey pucks from four older brothers as they practised their shots on goal on the frozen North End streets of Winnipeg. I couldn’t whip up a chocolate brownie, but I could power a strike ball for the boys baseball team. I would likely have made a slam-dunk career in basketball if not for my growth spurt maxing out at five feet at an early age.
But, as I became an adult, stopping a puck, throwing a baseball or shooting baskets were no longer in demand. Domestic tasks became the necessity of life and I had few skills. I did manage to accumulate some basic cooking skills, however, and, to date, none of my family has succumbed to starvation.
Now, the task of sewing is a different ball of yarn. What little I learned, I picked up in school. I still remember the pained look on the face of my Grade 7 teacher as I zigzagged the hemline on the proverbial apron running it through the sewing machine. Nonetheless, my lack of proficiency with domestic skills had not interfered greatly in my life – that is, until I became a mother. Then it all came to a flashpoint!
My then-5-year-old daughter, who was attending Peretz School at the time, needed a costume for their annual Purim carnival. She, the little princess, wanted to be a queen – Queen Esther, no less. Oh sure, I’ll just whip up a queen’s costume as soon as I finish the cheese soufflé, the salmon mousse, chocolate-coated orange peels and homemade halvah. What to do? Well, creativity helps where skills fail. I pondered that maybe I could pick up a large piece of fancy material, cut a hole in the middle, and then throw the whole thing over her head, like a poncho.
So, for the first time in my life I found myself in a fabric store like a rookie at a textiles Superbowl. I looked and felt and touched, feigning expertise. Eventually, I settled on a rich red satin. I cut out a round hole in the centre using a “dummy” circle for an approximate size of her head. If I was looking for a “dummy,” I could well have used my own head. The hole had to be adjusted several times to make it big enough to actually get her head through it. The biggest problem, however, was the edges. They were frayed all around and still needed something more to dress it up.
After another search, I discovered long strands of sequins sold by the yard. Exactly what I needed! I chose gold. Very royal, I thought. Much to my surprise, I still remembered the basic back and hemstitch from my sewing class – not a total loss. With needle and thread, I painstakingly stitched on the sequins around the neck and all the edges (I knew enough not to have her head in it at the time). After numerous hours, with bleary, red, irritated eyes, stitch by stitch, it was done.
“What will I wear for a crown?” whined my unappreciative daughter. Once again, I called on some inner resources for inspiration. I found an expandable holder used for tying hair back in a knot or bun. It was gold-coloured metal dotted with decorative “pearls.” When it was fully extended, it sat on the top of her little head like a crown. She loved it! Perfect!
We were ready. Her long, blonde hair flowed softly over her simple red satin poncho gilded with gold sequins, and her greenish-blue eyes sparkled like the “crown” on her head. She was a queen! A blonde Queen Esther!
The party was already in full swing when we arrived, with blue-and-white streamers and balloons lining the walls and ceiling. Chattering children were milling about in all kinds of wonderful outfits. Although her costume was not as elaborate as many, she blended with the others and joined in the games, sang Purim songs and ate hamantashen. At the end of the afternoon, everyone was told to gather around because the judges were ready to announce the winners of the contest.
But before I could answer my own question, I heard them announce, “The winner for the best girls costume is Queen Esther.”
“Who?” I whispered under my breath in disbelief.
“Queen Esther!” they called again, as if responding to me personally.
With astonishment, I watched, tears welling in my eyes, as my daughter scrambled onto the stage of the school auditorium for her special moment. I was delighted for her, but bursting with pride for me. It had not been my goal but turned out to be my slam-dunk. This small victory was my personal triumph. I was a Martha Stewart after all. Well, a Jewish Martha Stewart, or maybe substitute Miriam Silver? Regardless, it was a good thing.
Libby Simon, MSW, worked in child welfare services prior to joining the Child Guidance Clinic in Winnipeg as a school social worker and parent educator for 20 years. Also a freelance writer, her writing has appeared in Canada, the United States, and internationally, in such outlets as Canadian Living, CBC, Winnipeg Free Press, PsychCentral and Cardus, a Canadian research and educational public policy think tank.
In my North American Ashkenazi house growing up, my mother always cooked arbis at Purim time. The dish is associated with Queen Esther, for whom this was supposedly a mainstay. Why? Because, some Jewish sources say, Queen Esther kept kosher in the court of her non-Jewish husband, King Ahasuerus. Eating this dish nowadays is one way in which Jews remember Queen Esther’s fortitude.
As I recall, this basic and healthy dish of cooked chickpeas took forever to cook, but it was worth it. It had a chewy, nutty kind of taste.
Arbis, like other Jewish foods, has been quite the globetrotter. For example, some Yiddish speakers refer to the dish as nahit, which, according to L.J.G. Van Der Maesen in a 1987 article, is close to the name used in Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Iran, Afghanistan and other adjacent former Soviet bloc countries, with arbis actually referring to another legume, peas. However, H. Gams’s 1924 legume study claims that the ancient Greek words for chickpea were orobos and erebinthos, and that these two words are related to the old German word arawiz and sound similar to erbse, the new German word for chickpea.
Besides eating arbis on Purim, traditional Ashkenazi Jews serve this dish at the Shalom Zachar, an after-dinner gathering on the first Friday night following the birth of a baby boy. There is a mourning aspect to this event, as the newborn’s soul, which had once dwelt in the heavenly realm, must now reside inside the earthly, physical body. Hence, arbis is served at this gathering as a food symbolic of the circle of life.
But a different explanation involving a play on Hebrew-Yiddish words goes like this: arbis, the Yiddish word for chickpeas, helps us remember the promise G-d made to Avraham. “I shall multiply [in Hebrew, arbeh] your seed like the stars of the Heavens.” (Genesis 22:17)
There is a Sephardi version of chickpeas, also served on Purim. Iraqi Jews call it sambusak el tawa, or chickpea turnovers. While most recipes call for adding salt and pepper to arbis, nahit or chickpeas, author Claudia Roden, in her book The Book of Jewish Food, suggests serving them as a sweet side dish with sugar or honey. Editors Anne London and Bertha Kahn Bishov also offer a sweet nahit casserole – in their Complete American-Jewish Cookbook recipe, brown sugar is added. Meanwhile, in the Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook, authors Roberta Kalechofsy and Rosa Rasiel recommend eating arbis as a Yom Kippur break-the-fast entree containing salt, cumin, green pepper and tomato sauce.
As we read every year, Megillat Esther opens with an assessment of the vastness of King Ahasuerus’s kingdom – it covered areas from India to Ethiopia.
Indian chickpea history goes way back: the earliest occurrence of chickpeas in India dates from 2000 BCE, at Atranjikhera in Uttar Pradesh, according to Van Der Maesen. Moreover, archeologists have discovered Bronze Age (2500–2000 BCE) chickpeas, peas, green gram and black gram inside storage jars at the Harappan site of Farmana, located in the Indian state of Haryana.
The Archeology of Africa: Food, Metal and Towns, edited by Thurstan Shaw, notes that, in the Natchabiet and Laliblea cave excavations near Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, there was evidence of chickpeas, barley and legumes. Significantly, shiro, which is made from powdered chickpeas, is a staple in Ethiopia.
In his book Ancient Canaan and Israel: New Perspectives, Jonathan Michael Golden reports that, during the Early Bronze Age, at Halif Terrace (located in Israel’s northeastern Negev), people were eating chickpeas, possibly with olive oil. Israeli archeobotanists say there was an agricultural revolution during the Neolithic period. Although not the easiest legume to cultivate – the crop can be wiped out by ascochyta blight and needs good drainage in sunny, dry, warm conditions – chickpeas became one of the early domesticated plants. Zohar Kerem, Simcha Lev-Yadun, Avi Gopher, Pnina Weinberg and Shahal Abbo offer an explanation. In a 2007 article, they claim that the cultivators of that period sensed the nutritional benefits of chickpeas. Today, scientists know that chickpeas are rich in tryptophan, an essential amino acid. They can bring about higher ovulation rates, improved infant development, a feeling of satiety, better performance in stressful situations and a lessening of depressive moods.
Indicative of how important chickpeas are to the Mediterranean diet, an international Hummus Day was inaugurated almost six years ago, on May 13. But let’s give arbis the last word: what goes around, comes around. Here’s a recipe.
1 pound uncooked, dry chickpeas
Cold water to cover chickpeas
Salt to taste (added during the cooking process)
Soak the chickpeas 12 to 24 hours in a pot. Drain the water and rinse the chickpeas to get rid of possible lectin, phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. Return the chickpeas to the pot, adding enough water to cover them, plus another two inches. Total cooking time will be about two hours, but could be up to four hours, depending on what you consider tender or soft. Cook with the pot covered. Skim off the white froth, which early in the cooking might form at the top. Keep the flame low and add water as needed. After 45 minutes, add salt to taste and go back to cooking the chickpeas. When soft enough to eat, drain and spread out on a paper towel to dry. Sprinkle with salt. May be served hot or cold.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Purim is coming the evening of Feb. 28, and if your schedule doesn’t allow time for making hamantashen, try poppy seed cookies. The Yiddish word for poppy seed is mohn, which some say sounds like Haman. Another story says Esther kept kosher and ate as a vegetarian; her diet including seeds, nuts, legumes and poppy seeds, so many Jews serve these foods on Purim. Another tradition says Esther subsisted on poppy seeds during her three-day fast. Whatever the reason, here are a few recipes.
1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup sugar
1 tbsp water
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/4 to 1/3 cup poppy seeds
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a cookie sheet with vegetable spray.
- In a bowl, cream margarine and sugar. Beat in egg, water, vanilla and almond extract.
- Mix in poppy seeds.
- Add flour and baking powder and mix well.
- Drop by teaspoon onto cookie sheet and flatten with a fork. Bake for 15 minutes.
POPPY SEED COOKIES #1
1 cup poppy seeds
1/2 cup hot milk
1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup chocolate chips (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a cookie sheet with vegetable spray.
- Soak poppy seeds in milk.
- In a mixing bowl, cream margarine and sugar.
- Add flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, raisins and, if using, chocolate. Add milk and poppy seeds and mix.
- Drop by teaspoon onto greased cookie sheet. Bake for 20 minutes.
POPPY SEED COOKIES #2
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup unsalted butter or margarine
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup poppy seeds
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Spray a cookie sheet with vegetable spray.
- In a bowl, combine oil, butter or margarine, sugar and eggs. Mix well. Add vanilla and cinnamon.
- Add flour and baking powder. Then add poppy seeds. If dough is pasty, add more flour until dough is easy to form into small balls.
- Place balls on cookie sheet and flatten. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until lightly browned.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
The Okanagan Jewish Community Association’s Purim party featured a variety of costumes. (photo from OJCA)
So far this year, the Okanagan Jewish Community Association has held several events, including Shabbat services on more than one weekend, as well as gatherings for Purim and Passover, and the first Ladies Group Meeting.
At the Purim party on March 13, children from all across the community enjoyed making their own batches of hamentashen – Nutella was the overall favourite filling, but strawberry was also popular – and unique groggers. They had a “Hamen-tossin’” battle (Haman-shaped beanbag toss) and put the groggers to good use twice: while OJC members Natalie Spevakow and Steven Finkleman showed them the Megillah and told them the story of Esther, and during the costume parade. There was an eclectic and creative selection of costumes – even the grown-ups dressed up. And there was a mishloach manot basket exchange, with the kids eager to devour the treats they received, as well as a light sushi buffet and a variety of hamentashen that people brought to share. Mark Golbey and Abbey Westbury organized the party.
More than 100 people attended OJCA’s Passover seder at the Harvest Golf Club on April 10. This was the first year it was held there and the chefs created, with the help of her expertise, many recipes that OJCA member Barb Finkleman shared with them. The seder was led by OJCA members Philippe Richer LaFleche and Barb Pullan, with parts of the ritual in English and parts in Hebrew.
On March 4, services were led by OJCA member Evan Orloff with a dairy potluck following. On April 21 and 22, services were led by Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Calgary, who has been coming out on a regular basis; there was a community potluck Shabbat dinner and luncheon. On May 5 and 6, services were led by Cantor Russell Jayne from Calgary, also with a Shabbat dinner and lunch.
On May 11, the first Ladies Group Meeting was attended by approximately 25 women. OJCA members Lillian Goodman, Cindy Segal and Barb Pullan organized the get-together at which attendees enjoyed refreshments and the screening of the documentary entitled The Lady in Number 6. There was a discussion period following and it is hoped that the meetings will continue on a monthly basis.
For information on more OJCA events, including a June 24 BBQ, visit ojcc.ca.
The Bayit joined forces with Chabad of Richmond in an emoji-themed Purim celebration held at Richmond’s City Centre Community Centre March 12. Pictured here, left to right, are Chabad of Richmond’s Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, Bayit president Mike Sachs, Yoav Rokach-Penn and the Bayit’s Rabbi Levi Varnai. (photo by Lauren Kramer)
In every community, and ours is no exception, there are folks who frequently capture the spotlight for their work while others quietly get things done behind the scenes, flying below the media radar. In our new Kibitz & Schmooze profile, we’ll try to highlight members of Greater Vancouver’s Jewish community who are doing outstanding, admirable and mention-worthy work out of view of the general public. If you know of profile subjects who fit this description, please email [email protected]
Kids and anxiety go hand-in-hand, but, when kids’ anxiety gets out of control, many parents turn to Annie Simpson.
The 39-year-old Vancouver Talmud Torah mom boasts a PhD in psychology and 10 years’ experience in pediatric psychology. She founded the Cornerstone Child and Family Psychology Clinic in Vancouver in January, where she works with nine other psychologists. But Simpson’s focus is on young patients with anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, selective mutism and depression.
Her interest in selective mutism, an impairment defined as an inability to speak in some social situations despite speaking perfectly fine in others, began six years ago. That’s when Simpson started getting referrals of children with the impairment and wanted to gain a better understanding of how to help them. She traveled to New York to confer with world-renowned expert Dr. Steve Kurtz, helped run one of his camps for selectively mute kids and came back enthusiastic about applying his cognitive behavioural therapy methods in Vancouver.
Within two years, Simpson ran the first camp of her own at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and soon started receiving calls from all over North America, from parents who wanted to enrol their children. Just under one percent of kids have selective mutism.
Simpson’s summer clubs are annual now, and in high demand. “I see a wide variety of impairment, from kids who only speak to one parent to kids who cannot speak at school,” she says. “At the camps, we develop a trusting relationship with the children and then expose them gradually to the feared situation, rewarding their success.”
Camp is Simpson’s favourite week of the year because the progress is so rapid. “The children are improving so quickly and they get so excited about their success,” she says. “With the right supports in place back home, the kids continue to thrive after the camp.”
For parents who don’t seek help for selectively mute kids, Simpson warns that the mutism gets more challenging to treat the older a child gets, and is particularly difficult when kids become teens and have had so many years of not talking.
When she’s not counseling patients, you’ll find this enterprising Vancouverite at B.C. Children’s Hospital, where she’s a staff psychologist in the pediatric OCD Program; at Simon Fraser University, where she’s a clinical associate in the department of psychology; or consulting for AnxietyBC.
Purim is a time of deception and inebriation. The story we commemorate in the reading of the Megillah is one of hidden identities and near catastrophe. As is often humorously pointed out, the Purim story ends as most Jewish holidays do, celebrating victory over oppressors and overindulging.
Purim is a fun holiday, with layers of meaning for people of different ages. The young (and many of their elders) enjoy the costuming and playacting, while we appreciate both the laughs and the historical and contemporary nuances of the shpiel perhaps more as we age.
The circularity of the Jewish calendar is both an indicator of consistency and of constant change. While the readings and rituals may stay more or less the same century after century, we as individuals and as a community are different than we were when we read the same verses last year, or the years before.
Certainly, much has changed since last Purim. We were keenly aware of this when we prepared this year’s Purim spoof page. Each year we have a few laughs (and try to bring some to readers) by making fun of current events. But it becomes exceedingly challenging to conjure witty parody when real-life events beggar belief and seem like bad TV comedy.
On Purim, we try to upend the truth or make fun of situations by taking them to their extremes. This takes special aplomb when upended truths and extreme situations are the apparent norm.
The parallels extend beyond the form, even mimicking substance. If the White House today is Ahasuerus’s castle, in this far-fetched narrative, there is even a Jewish consort credited for reining in the worst inclinations of the king.
George Orwell is invoked constantly these days, and rightly so. The fictional dystopia the author imagined in 1984 bears creepy similarities with current events.
The U.S. president habitually says (or, more frequently, tweets) outright falsehoods, either completely made up from within his own imagination or regurgitated from untrustworthy sources on the fringes of the internet. Then he repeatedly refers to legitimate media outlets as “fake news.”
The lies are so bald-faced and the accusations so exactly misdirected that we need to wonder if, rather than being the product of an unhinged loose cannon, they could conceivably be part of a genius strategy. Could it be that the president is inundating his constituents and the world with so many outlandish assertions and utter deceits that he is trying to inure us before laying on something he’s had in the works all along? If this sounds crazy or paranoid, well, we can review the facts, such as they are, next Purim.