Cutting Loose on Purim
Judaism demands a lot from children. At services, they have to sit still for at least an hour, to stay quiet, to listen to words they barely understand. But Purim gives kids a break. On this holiday, kids are supposed to cut loose and make noise and dress up in costumes and eat sugary pastries.
The festival of Purim, which will be celebrated from sundown on February 25 through sundown on the 26th, arises from a story that's as accessible to kids as a comic book saga: A beautiful and courageous Jewish queen saves her people from a genocidal villain.
The synagogue services become the stage on which this drama is played. Children wear crowns and flowing, regal robes, or dastardly attire, playing out various roles in this dramatic victory of good over evil.
And it's hard to overestimate the festive power of a good noisemaker. When they enter the service, the children are given greggers, which they use to make a racket whenever the name of the villain, Haman, is mentioned. The noise blankets the sanctuary. At the end of the service, the children are treated to hamantaschen--sweet triangular tarts shaped like Haman's hat. They don't only listen to the story; they see and taste it.
The rituals of Purim have much to teach us about children and religion, most especially about prayer. Through their surprise and delight at simple things, children speak their first prayer of utter joy--Wow! Hallelujah! (Praise God!) Instead of trying to force children into an adult prayer structure, the rituals of Purim teach children that prayer can involve movement, drama, story, and--most liberating of all--noise. About this carnival-like celebration, the Book of Esther says, "there was light and gladness, happiness and abundance." Purim is a day of feasting and merrymaking (and, for adults, a rare day where it's OK to toss back a few drinks). The psalmist writes, "Make a joyful noise to God."
Children naturally are amazed at what adults consider mundane. They imagine a world of things alive with personality. Trees feel, animals talk, the moon thinks. Parents can go outdoors and wonder with their children what prayers the trees might offer in winter, the flowers in spring. What might the moon say to God? They can let their children hear them pray, not just the prescribed words of tradition but the ones written in their hearts. They can ask them if there are words in their hearts that they would like to say.
Recently, when I was teaching prayer to a group of 12-year-olds, I began with a story. A shepherd would pray to God every day. He would say: "God, if you had sheep, I would take care of them for nothing, because that is how much I love you. And if it were raining, I would stand over you with an umbrella so you wouldn't get wet, because that is how much I love you."