Category Archives: Purim

The Trauma of Remembrance

dscn1448.jpgTherefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!(Deuteronomy 25:19)

Tonight we begin Shabbat Zachor (“The Shabbat of Rembrance”) – the term for the Shabbat that falls immediately before the festival of Purim. This day is so called in reference to the commandment to remember the Amalekites, the infamous arch-enemies of Israel who were known for attacking the weakest and most vulnerable members of the community. According to the Torah, “The LORD will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages” (Exodus 17:16) – indeed, Haman himself is identified in the Book of Esther as a descendant of King Agag, the notorious Amalekite king mentioned in this week’s Haftarah portion.

What does Shabbat Zachor ask us to remember? Is is simply to always remember that no matter how good we may have it, there are enemies out there in the world conspiring to kill us? In this regard I’m especially interested in the commandment from Deuteronomy above – to never “forget” to “blot out the memory” of Amalek. While this imperative might at first seem confusing or contradictory, it might well offer us a profound insight into the spiritual effects of remembrance – particularly in the wake of trauma.

Trauma experts have long pointed out that one of the central symptoms of PTSD is the persistent reliving of past traumas. Trauma therapy is thus directed toward effecting the reduction of the crippling impact of these memories – to eventually “blot them out” as it were. The same might be said for the collective experience of trauma. Perhaps the verse above is not commanding us to forget or become complecent about our enemies so much as it is instructing us to eradicate the aspects of our traumatic past that serve to keep us enslaved or imprisoned.

Given the abundant traumatic memories of our post 9/11 world, the imperative of Shabbat Zachor speaks to us with a powerful urgency indeed.

Purim and the Jewish Id

ahm1.jpgI’m willing to lay odds that this Purim there will be a fair share of Jewish commentators claiming that history is repeating itself in Shushan – that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the contemporary Haman come back to life to once again threaten the Jewish people with genocide. I’m also fairly sure that some of these pundits will even recommend that we should emulate the Jews of ancient Persia in the Purim story (see Esther 9:1-16) and launch a preemptive military strike against Iran to avert the coming cataclysm.

Don’t buy it.

While reading the Book of Esther gives us a great way to celebrate the holiday of Purim, it makes for lousy analysis of contemporary geo-politics. That we might be tempted to compare our current world situation to a decidedly absurdist and satirical Biblical text shows just how far down the rabbit hole we may have fallen.

It feels odd to have to write these words, but here goes: don’t take the Book of Esther so seriously. It’s a wacked-out tale for a wacked-out holiday. On this one cathartic day, we allow ourselves to live in a topsy-turvy world, in which up is down, blessing is curse, and victim is victor. Megillat Esther is at its core a collective Jewish revenge fantasy in which every imaginable power dynamic (male/female, Gentile/Jew, Oppressor/Oppressed) is joyfully subverted. Purim gives us the chance to let our “Jewish Id” run amok – to indulge our darker fantasies in this one cathartic moment, perhaps so that they might have less of a hold over us during the rest of the year.

We would also do well to bear in mind that the Book of Esther has for centuries been chanted by a victimized Jewish nation that has dreamed for centuries about turning the tables on their oppressors. But we must admit to ourselves that 21st century Jewish nation bears little resemblance to the cowering, sackcloth-wearing masses of the Purim story. It’s probably a sign of how much we have internalized our victimization that we might even be tempted to draw parallels between the Book of Esther and our fear of genocide at the hands of the current Iranian regime.

Whether we want to admit it our not, we Jews currently live in an age of unprecedented Jewish empowerment. Whether or not we are willing to say it out loud, there are relatively few oppressed Jewish communities in the Diaspora any more and the State of Israel is a strong and vigorous nation (one, by the way, that has the capability to literally wipe out Iran with the push of a button.) To compare our lot to the victims of Shushan is, quite frankly, chuzpah of truly Purim-dik proportions.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for catharsis. By all means let’s tip a few this Purim. But let’s also keep absurdity in its place. After we’ve nursed our hangovers, we’ll still have to find a better way through the real-life story that is currently unfolding in present day Shushan.

Jewish Iran 101

mot.jpgPurim – the festival that highlights the experience of ancient Persian Jewry – arrives this weekend. In advance of the holiday, (and given the current state of affairs in that part of the world) I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the little-known present day Jewish community of Iran.

Some of the following facts may surprise you:

– Iran is home to 25,000 Jews – the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel.

– Judaism is a recognized minority religion in Iran. The religious rights of Jews are protected by the Islamic constitution, which allows them observe Jewish traditions freely.

– According to Iranian law, the Jewish community can elect its own member of parliament (currently Maurice Motamed, above).

– There are approximately 30 synagogues, six kosher butchers and a Jewish hospital in Tehran. Children may attend Jewish schools (though all principals are Muslim, the schools do not close on Shabbat and the curriculum is supervised by the government).

– There is the Jewish hospital in Tehran, which has a Jewish director and is funded by donations from the Diaspora.

– Because of the Islamic nature of the regime, Jews, like other minorities, face discrimination which prevents them from securing government jobs or becoming army officers.

– Though Iranian Jews are not allowed to publicly support the Jewish state in any way, they are allowed to travel to and from Israel – a fact both countries have recently acknowledged.

– Despite Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and anti-Israel rhetoric – as well as efforts by the world Jewish community to encourage their emigration – Iranian Jews are generally opting to stay in their native homeland.

Though the Jewish population of Iran is but a vestige of what it once was, Iranian Jews are proud of their history and fiercely devoted to their community. For more in depth information about Jewish Iran, I highly recommend this BBC piece and this recent article from the Jewish Forward.

Sick to My Stomach

hangmans-noose.jpgLike many of you, I couldn’t avoid images of Saddam’s hanging blasting out at me from every corner of the web this past week. The top posts on most blogs invariably advertised the most “uncensored” version of the now infamous cell phone footage of the Hussein execution. Not a proud week to be a blogger…

Apart from the sheer barbarism of this film being shared so happily across the world and into our computers, I can’t help but be sickened by everything that this event represents. It was put very aptly by John Simpson, the World Affairs editor of the BBC, reporting from Iraq:

Altogether, the execution as we now see it is shown to be an ugly, degrading business, which is more reminiscent of a public hanging in the 18th century than a considered act of 21st century official justice. Under Saddam Hussein, prisoners were regularly taunted and mistreated in their last hours. The most disturbing thing about the new video of Saddam’s execution is that is all much too reminiscent of what used to happen here.

Yes, Saddam was evil incarnate in so many ways, and few could reasonably deny that the world is better off without him. But his botched show trial and rushed execution (in the words of Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister, “an Eid gift to the Iraqi people”) was primal, tribal justice pure and simple. Shame on us all for even being involved in this morass of sectarian vengeance.

On Purim, we will joyfully celebrate the downfall of Haman, another horrible tyrant who met a similarly ignoble fate on the gallows. But the beauty of this holiday is that it comes as one brief moment of absurdist catharsis. Purim is the day we allow our deepest darkest revenge fantasies to hold sway – largely so that they cannot hold their grip upon us during the rest of the year.  In Iraq, alas, we have all been sucked into a Purim-style nightmare from which there is no discernable end in sight.

Adar has come early this year. Be very afraid…