The Poetry of Purim

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Purim

Dear Friends: With the holiday of Purim almost upon us, I
thought it would be a good time to do something a little more-
aahh, cultural, shall we say?

As many of you know, Purim is a fun and happy holiday, in which
we read the story of Esther and her bravery, which saved the
Jews from destruction in ancient Persia. What many of you may
not know is that not only does Purim typically involve funny hats,
a bit of shnapps, and yummy hamentaschen, but there is a more
serious and creative aspect of traditional Purim observance as
well.

Of course, the Jewishly educated among you realize that I’m
referring to the revered and holy art of Purim haiku, which is
rapidly regaining its prominence as one of the most spiritually
satisfying of Jewish religious practices. Many of you probably
learned in school that a haiku is a short poem, with lines of five,
seven, and five syllables, often evoking nature, which originated
in Japan. Well, that’s only partially right- recent linguistic
research has shown that the history of the word involve a hard,
gutteral -kh- sound, making the Hebraic origins obvious: it’s a
chai-ku, a poem of life.

Many Purim haikus illustrate the way Jews celebrate the holiday
in their places of worship, with the guidance of their spiritual and
lay leaders. For example:

cantor in costume
much Jewish frivolity
rabbi wearing drag

joyful children smile
songs, laughter, festive feasting
board members tipsy

Or perhaps you might have a haiku which is a paean to the
distinctive foods of the season:

delicate pastry
golden star, heart of sweet prune
soon, only matzah

It’s also important to understand that Purim haiku, in particular,
is something that helps Jews connect the timeless story of
Esther and Mordecai with their local circumstances and modes
of cultural expression. For example, these two haikus only work if
you pronounce the key phrases of local idiom with a heavy
Boston accent:

Queen Esther, so brave
Risked life, saved the Jews
She was – wicked smahhht*

Mordecai wise, strong
Gave Haman and sons what fer **
spring breeze, they sway high

Then again, Purim haiku can have an implicit political message
in it:

King of Persia
nefarious advisor
like “W” and Rove

Sometimes Jews write Purim haiku in order to give local or
historical figures the symbolic seriousness which derives from
being compared to the epic and paradigmatic figures of the Book
of Esther:

hero of legend
appeared when life was dark
Mordecai? Ortiz!

all times hatch evil
then, Haman plotted bad schemes
today- Steinbrenner

As our final example, here’s a Purim haiku which is fascinating
for its linking of local events- in this case, the merger of two
neighborhood synagogues- with the release from the
oppressions of bureaucracy which the Jewish holy day provides:

Bereshit process
Xanax prescriptions arise
aaah! Purim, no vote !!!

As you can see, Purim haiku continues to be a living art form,
putting into poetry the spirituality of the season.

happy Purim, y’all,

rnjl

*[smart, for those outside New England]

**[a term meaning vengeance]

PS- for those who want some serious learning this week, here
are two links: the first is teachings on Parshat Tzav, the next is on
the holiday of Purim itself.

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/
Weekly_Torah_Commentary/tzav_index.htm

http://www.myjewishlearning.com:80/holidays/Purim.htm

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