Four Stories for the Four Mitzvot of Purim

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A monthslong party, a beauty contest, and feasts. Deception, intrigue, and a reversal of fortunes. A queen with a secret, a sagely mentor, and a bloodthirsty foe.

The Purim story has got it all, and the way we commemorate the holiday — with
costumes, drinking, and a raucous celebration — reflects that. Traditionally, the holiday has four mitzvot, or commandments: the reading of the Megillah; mishloach manot, or food baskets to friends and family; the festive meal; and charity.

This year, here are some of the unique ways that synagogues and Jewish organizations are coming together to celebrate.

Purim Party Plays (Megillah)

BY JESSE BERMAN

Purim takes as its foundation the story of the Book of Esther, which many consider a comedy. It seems very appropriate, then, for synagogues to retell the story of Esther each year in as comedic a manner as can be devised. And with Baltimore’s Megillah readings and Purim spiels this year pulling from everything from “Little Shop of Horrors” to “Back to the Future,” it seems the old tradition is alive and well.

Hinenu: the Baltimore Justice Shtiebl will hold its third annual Purim spiel March 7 during “Little Lots of Horror: A Hinenu Purim Party” at the Peabody Heights Brewery.

“This year, we’ll be spoofing ‘Little Shop of Horror,’” said Noah Mitchel, Hinenu’s arts and culture chair. “There will be a campy type of horror theme, and also spoofing other musicals and pop songs.”

Hinenu’s spiel, written by Liora Ostroff and Karen Taylor, will be a “radical retelling of the story of Esther that also celebrates the values we hold dear at Hinenu,” said Mitchel.

Beth El Congregation will be having a spiel as well March 9. Realizing that it is currently the year 5780 on the Jewish calendar, Beth El chose to have an ‘80s themed celebration with a spiel that pulls from the classic ‘80s film, “Back to the Future.”

Taking place at Beth El, the festivities will include a carnival, a museum with ‘80s themed “artifacts” (like Rubik’s Cubes), and an after-party that will feature a DJ playing ‘80s music, according to Josh Bender, executive director of Beth El. Perhaps best of all, there will be a real-life DeLorean time machine at the celebration, with the winner of a raffle getting to take a ride in it. Sadly, given the volatility of today’s plutonium market, it does not appear this particular DeLorean will be equipped with a functioning flux capacitor.

The last several years, Beth El has chosen to bring its spiel and carnival together, in order to “bring together all generations of the community,” Bender said.

For those interested in a more traditional celebration, Beth Tfiloh is expected to have multiple Megillah readings this year, including a Multimedia Megillah reading, March 9.

“We have a whole multimedia show that goes on the screen on the sanctuary,” said Cherie Brownstein, Beth Tfiloh’s synagogue program director. “There are all kinds of pictures and alerts on when to use groggers. It’s a fabulous and very interactive way to hear the Megillah reading.”

A carnival will follow the Megillah reading, and attendees are encouraged to dress up in costumes. Additionally, the BT clergy is expected to come dressed in a surprise group costume. Brownstein predicted that the clergy’s costumes would be very popular with young children, and, when pressed for a hint, said, “It’s somebody who’s in the ocean.”

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Sending Gifts (Mishloach Manot)

BY CAROLYN CONTE

Brown paper packages tied up with strings, gifts are a few of the mitzvahs of spring.
Mishloach manot, or shalach manos, are gift baskets of food given to friends and family for Purim. They can be bought, but many people prefer to personalize them.

Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School’s BT Cares Social Action group hosted a mishloach manot making event March 1. More than 60 volunteers packaged 1,000 mishloach manot and delivered them to Jewish nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and alternative living units.

“For me personally, Purim is such a fun holiday,” said Lindsay Gaister Montague, BT director of after school programming and social action. “It brings a smile to everyone’s face, and it’s a chance to go all out and celebrate. From the costumes and delicious hamantaschen to fulfilling the beautiful mitzvah of making and giving mishloach manot, it truly connects people together and spreads joy throughout communities.”

Coming up on March 10 from 10 a.m. to noon, Jews United for Justice will deliver unique mishloach manot that include messages about paid family and medical leave, immigrant justice, police accountability, and criminal justice to state politicians.

“We bring hats, scarves, stickers, and things like that for people to wear, and also encourage people to come in costume,” said Rianna Lloyd, Baltimore community organizer for JUFJ.

For those interested in buying a last-minute mishloach manot, Simcha Sweets in Baltimore offers gourmet baskets of wide variety and price ranges. For example, the Jester Basket can be purchased for $20.95. The White Picket Fence of Reyus is available for $29.99, and there are also more expensive options.

The Candy Store on Reisterstown Road also has mishloach manot options. “We have a very wide range, from a kids’ package that looks like a suitcase full of candy for $8 or
some for $20 to $250. There’s a lot of different items from gourmet popcorn to glass decorative vases,” said Manager Yehuda Nelkin.

Hankering for Hamataschen (Purim Feast)

BY JESSE BERMAN

It is something of a truism that Jewish culture is inextricably tied to food. Jewish mothers and grandmothers show their love through it. No Jewish gathering would be acceptable without a fully stocked buffet of some kind. And the greatest sacrifice we are normally asked to make in the course of the year is to somehow go 24 hours without eating while simultaneously refraining from a spontaneous restaging of “Lord of the Flies.”

While Passover’s matzah and Chanukah’s latkes may be more iconic Jewish cuisine, a Purim celebration would not be complete without its own share of edible fare. Enter the Seudah.

For those in the community’s Jewish population that enjoy Asian cuisine (that’s not a lot of people, right?), Beth Tfiloh will have you covered this year with “Purim on the Orient Express.”

“The room will be decorated featuring different Asian countries, and the food will be a blend of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai,” said Cherie Brownstein, Beth Tfiloh’s synagogue program director, who noted that more than 500 people have already registered for the event.

The festivities will also include inflatables, face painting, a magician, entertainment by the group Soulfarm, a multimedia game, and a costume parade, Brownstein said. There will be prizes given out for the winners of the multimedia game and costume parade, with the best costumes being determined by judges.

Meanwhile, Harford Chabad’s “Purim in the Bakery” is perfect for those willing to get their hands a little dirty. According to Rabbi Kushi Schusterman, professional baker Rachel Rothenberg will lead attendees through decorating cupcakes and making hamantaschen, March 10. This will be followed by a multimedia Megillah reading and dinner that will include bourekas, knishes, turnovers, salads, soup, and pastries.

“Growing up, Purim was fun and exciting,” Schusterman said in an email. “We focus on that Hashem saved the Jewish people through nature. And we need to connect with the deepest levels of G-d.”

While many undoubtedly enjoy having a large Purim meal that is shared with the entire community, others may prefer a quieter evening at home with their families. For those unsure which option they prefer, Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim may have the best of both worlds.

“This year, [Suburban] launched a hachnosas orchim initiative, led by co-chairs Aliza Jessurun and Gila Reidy, to provide home hospitality and facilitate connections for our members,” said Juliya Sheynman, Suburban’s executive director. “Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos showed us that many of our families are happy to open their homes and invite new friends they may otherwise not have met. Our co-chairs secure hosts and make recommendations of guests that would greatly appreciate the invitation.”

Gifts to the Poor (Matanot L’Evyonim)

BY CAROLYN CONTE

The mitzvah of gifts during Purim is prescribed to recall the brotherly love that Mordechai and Esther awoke among all Jews. According to the Orthodox Union’s website: “When there is inner unity among Jews, even the wrongdoers among them become righteous.”
One of the four commandments of Purim is matanot l’evyonim, or gifts to the poor. This year, local rabbis have organized a few collections and charity runs.

The Friendship Circle will distribute funds to families in need for Purim. To give, go to Jointhecircle.com/donate and leave a note that it is for Purim.

Harford Chabad’s Rabbi Kushi Schusterman collected for two specific people in need last year. He said he collects and distributes discreetly to people who are suffering from poverty. Donations can be made on harfordchabad.org. “Sadly, there are those locally who have food scarcity,” Schusterman said. “As a rabbi, sometimes I am made aware of it.”

ARIEL Rabbi Velvel Belinsky is also collecting charity, but for members of the community who live farther away: lone soldiers, those who chose to join the Israel Defense Forces but who are not immediately from Israel or who do not have family in Israel. Specifically, ARIEL is collecting for Chayal el Chayal (Soldier to Soldier), an organization that provides meals and social services for lone soldiers. Through ARIEL, people can sponsor mishloach manot for about $36 per soldier.

Chabad of Owings Mills is collecting charity for community members in need, according to Rabbi Nochum “K” Katsenelenbogen. Those interested can go to ChabadOM.com/donate with a memo for Purim charity, or give directly to the rabbi.

“People offer to help, and I also ask people to help,” Katsenelenbogen said. “The recipients are Jewish people in our community who are in a situation in which they can use extra help to celebrate the holiday. They get the monetary gifts prior and sometimes on the holiday of Purim.”

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