Why I Celebrated the Persian New Year on Purim this Year


Addressing the NIAC Chicago Nowruz Celebration, March 16, 2014 (photo: Roxane Assaf)

Like many American rabbis around the country, I spent the most of the day yesterday leading my congregation’s noisy, joyously raucous Purim celebration, complete with a carnival and a family Megillah reading. As per usual, we read a somewhat watered-down version of the Book of Esther – one that characteristically kept the sexual hijinx and violence to a minimum.  Even with our PG version, however, there was no getting around the decidedly darker aspects of the Purim story – particularly the infamous ninth chapter in which we read that the Jews of Persia slew 75,000 Persians then celebrated the day after with a festival of “feasting and merry making.”

As always, this part of the story stuck seriously in my throat. While we adults can intellectualize the more disturbing parts of the Purim narrative (“it’s irony,” “it’s a revenge fantasy,” “it’s cathartic,” “it’s not meant to be taken seriously, after all…”) I’m just not sure we do any favors to our children when we read these kinds of stories to them, even in censored form. I’m fast coming to believe it’s time to tell a fundamentally different version of the Purim story to our children – one that celebrates the venerable Persian-Jewish experience rather than cynically telling a Persian version of “when push comes to shove, all the world really just wants the Jews dead.”

I’m also mindful that there are all too many adults who are willing to take the Purim story literally. I’ve written before about the disgusting Purim violence annually inflicted against the non-Jewish population in Israel. And on a geopolitical level, leaders of the state of Israel (and many in the American Jewish establishment) have openly and unabashedly used the Purim story to frame our relationship to Iran – presenting present day Ayatollahs and Mullahs as nothing less than Haman incarnate and promoting all out war as the only way to settle the current nuclear impasse.

For all this, however, I’m happy to report that Purim ended for me on something of a redemptive note this year.

As it turns out, the Persian New Year known as Nowruz is fast approaching and last night, I was thrilled to attend a Nowruz party sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).  So after I got home from my congregation’s Purim carnival, I took off my clown costume, put on a suit, and drove to a suburban restaurant where I celebrated the coming of spring with Chicago’s Persian community and supported the important work of NIAC, which among other things supports a “policy of persistent strategic engagement with Iran that includes human rights as a core issue.”

When I addressed the gathering (above), I thanked them for reaching out to me and explained that ever since I returned from a visit to Iran in 2008, I’ve always hoped to score a Nowruz party invitation from my Persian friends. I also explained why celebrating Nowruz with NIAC was for me the perfect, redemptive coda to Purim. And I added that contrary to the impression created by some Israeli politicians and Jewish institutional leaders, there were many in my community who believed that the current crisis should be settled through diplomacy and engagement and not an inexorable march to war.

Now I’m thinking there might well be something to this Nowruz/Purim celebration. Can’t think of a better way to, in words of the Book of Esther, “turn grief and mourning into festive joy….”

7 thoughts on “Why I Celebrated the Persian New Year on Purim this Year

  1. Steve

    Just curious how many Iranian/Persian Jews joined you? I know there are at least 2 Persian/Iranian synagogues close to JRC. My guess is there were none and for good reason. I’d bet they would prefer to celebrate a more traditional Purim.

  2. R' Rachel Barenblat (@velveteenrabbi)

    In my understanding, Norouz is usually celebrated on/around March 21, the first day of spring, which is my birthday. So I’ve long felt a connection with that festival. I love the idea of having a new year just as (northern hemisphere) spring is beginning. Of course, one could argue that Pesach is precisely that, but hey — one can’t have too many holidays. 🙂

  3. Donna Hicks

    Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on Purim. I have been in Hebron/Al Khalil during Purim and thus have struggled, as a Christian, to acknowledge any constructive aspects of the celebration based on what I have seen happen.

  4. John Weber

    Thank you. A meaningful first step.
    Isn’t the Megillah a Jewish reworking of an older Sheherazahd story anyway? Thus a Jewish-Persian folk tale in its origins?
    The acknowledgment of Arab-Jewish culture is scant, but occasionally surfaces, but the recognition of the 2000 years of Farsi-Jewish culture, philosophy, literature seems to have been completely erased, despite the continued presence of a Jewish community in Iran.

  5. Eric Selinger

    Hi, Brant! You say this in passing: “I’m just not sure we do any favors to our children when we read these kinds of stories to them, even in censored form.” I’m not sure that’s true. The lesson that the Torah is a completely human document, that it has “everything in it,” as Ben Bag Bag says, including what’s worst in us, and that we sometimes need to resist it in the name of human decency (or of holy goodness, if you prefer): surely that’s a gift worth giving? And worth giving young, before an unquestioning veneration for anything Biblical (encouraged by the culture around them) sets in?

    As for the violence that the holiday provokes, there’s a long sad history of Easter as the occasion for violence, and I suppose that you could chalk that up to the representation of the Jews in some of the passion narratives. Yet there are also plenty of Christian communities who read the same narratives and never turned on their non-Christian neighbors, which suggests it’s not the story that makes this happen, in either case. ‘Taint what you read, it’s the way that you read it, as the old song says.


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