Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Cynicism, Genuine Expression and Salvaging Purim

I remember fondly my Purim celebrations in Yeshiva. Sadly, towards many of my previous religious experiences, or stages, I feel heavily ambivalent. However, despite all the estrangement and resentment I feel from religion or towards religion, I rarely look back on my memories of Purim in Yeshiva as wasted, or perhaps backwards. For me, Purim represented a strange magical time, in which I could feel true joy, a dropping of all pretense, and a genuine connection of love to everyone and everything around me. For the skeptics out there, I also got drunk for the first time in my life on Purim, and on that day, a good friend of mine pushed me around the adjacent town in a shopping cart, but the frivolity need not negate the sincerity. I, for a day, maybe even for the whole month, forgot any sense of frustration, or distaste, or even resentment towards anybody in my life despite living in that stage of life when I resented everything and everyone. Purim felt like a sanctioned day off from all my worries, neuroses, and harsh self-lacerations against myself. I felt an odd almost Zen sense of purity, or connection, a day of real spiritual freedom and cleanliness. A day full of that sentiment that everything fits, that you can see your life clearly, your path, your purpose. To some extent, this idea keeps me attached to the feelings Purim used to elicit.

However, each successive Purim since my first drunken one in Yeshiva becomes less and less inspiring, moving, or even exciting. Part of it stems from the history of the day, and the uniqueness of our cultural situation. Regardless of the historical accuracy of the Purim story, as many scholars point out, most religions embrace a day of frivolity or revelry, a day, where the normal rules of propriety do not apply, as if these days serve as a release of a pressure valve that builds up throughout the year. Think of the carnivals of old, of the Festival of Fools, or of the initial foundations of Mardi Gras. Purim, they opine, plays this same role. However, two historical developments make this purpose of the day obsolete. First, most Jews do not live regimented religious lives in need of a release, and two, most people I know drink, or smoke pretty regularly that the idea of a designated day of revelry feels like overkill.

If the festival of Purim, both from a legal standpoint, but also from a historical standpoint serves a similar purpose to the Christian festival of fools, or carnivals of old, then our more materialistic, experiential lifestyle full of joints, cigarettes, hukkah, large meals, alcohol, sex, the best food whenever you want it, in a time when we embrace physical indulgence on every level unless it hurts someone else, then a simple day of indulgence serves as no release, as no big deal at all. So we get to drink! Don’t we drink all the time? Don’t we go to parties all the time?

For some, in attempts to salvage the singularity of the holiday, they turn the day into a representation of a cause, here, usually feminism, in the vein of Esther’s independence and assertiveness. Though this attempt disregards the historical patriarchal society of the supposed tale, the image awakens us to an issue we easily forget (recent events in American politics remind of the exigency of this issue.)  However, social justice can only sustain a holiday until the fight continues, and even then, a fight rarely infuses a holiday with a sense of connection to something greater. Instead, it uses a traditional story to serve contemporary needs, which in of itself presents no problem, but misrepresents the significance of the day. Yoram Hazony’s book on Esther, a politicization of the story, while intelligent, works mostly off conjecture, and emerges as a propaganda infused reading of a text.) Yet, even if we find a tangential meaning to attach to the holiday, we cannot overcome certain problems with the story itself as it promulgates a provincial, myopic outlook, a culture preening of its own merits. I doubt many people go through the holiday and take much inspiration from the story of a genocide averted through fierce retaliation, in the way people do from the Passover and Hanukkah story.

Yet, as usual, the celebration itself transcends the actual act we commemorate. Here, for most, or if not many the day, if you choose to drink, is a long drunken stupor in which you flirt, hug, dress up, and act stupid, because why not. It’s a day of partying, not unlike a vacation day, but here with the outlines of religious observance. For many it’s nothing more than a party theme, which isn’t a judgment, but an observation, one that fits in with the religious development of a large part of Judaism away from traditional bonds and connections. No secret here.

So where does that leave us? We can take away easy messages of being yourself, or of creating an autonomous personality, or of fighting for religious tolerance, but these easy Lifetime/Hallmark channel truisms leave little impressions on our personality. Or, we can explain that we revel often, but how often do we engage in a mass cultural revelry, one in which our whole community celebrates, drunkenly? None of this convinces me, because when it comes down to it, Purim parties that start the week beforehand, again, feel like a hilariously misguided excuse to celebrate as opposed to a reason for celebration. Additionally, we cannot outrun the obvious point that  inevitably, with an attenuation of religious devotion and observance, most if not all holidays will turn into emptier experiences, though perhaps culturally viable, and even valuable. Consequently, the question that remains is what can we add, or make of the holidays on a level that fits our desires, needs, and personality, to engage? How can I use these ritualistic times of the year, traditionally given to thoughts of spirituality as a contemporary person who lacks certainty, and often doubts the existence of something more than the material world?

Interestingly, I find myself chewing on an answer from the spiritual realm. One strong vein in the mystical realm explains that Purim represents a day to transcend our mere physicality not through the weaker asceticism of the Day of Atonement, but  transcendence through the embrace of the earthly. More importantly, for our purposes, it represents a day in which no one hides, but here on Purim, as much as we, similar to the Day of Atonement, cannot hide from the Eternal Judge, here we cannot hide from the disparate parts of ourselves, or other people. Here’s a day in which we accept people for as they are, what they want to be, poor or rich, cool or lame, awkward or charismatic, part of the brotherhood of men, bro, or not; whether the rabbis intended for this, this aspect has become part of the day.

It’s not hard to see that this insight transcends any religious goals or motivations. It simply states what we know as true, but forget most of the time: that real, and true communication matters to us; that we know it gives value, purpose, and meaning to our lives, but we shy away from it, for whatever reason. We know deep down that in order to love, to survive, we need to speak and act genuinely, risking vulnerability with other people. Sometimes we need to drop the cynicism, the narcissism, the desire to look cool, to be seen as smart or pretty, to think more about what you can give than what you can take to feel normal, balanced, healthy even. I imagine most unmarried people on this day will seek out someone to love them, someone to flirt with, or someone to make them feel pretty, but perhaps, instead of seeking out a way to make ourselves feel better, however fleeting, we should look to provide that to someone else.

The message ends up non-ideological, but cliched nonetheless. However, we underestimate the value of cliches.  If we think about it, so much of how we navigate our day depends on cliches: to comfort ourselves in times of need, to easily categorize information, to help us keep together the social glue, to flirt. All of these arenas rely on cliches or conventional wisdom that slips out of our consciousness, daily. Sometimes we mislabel certain wisdom or rules about our non-physical selves as cliches because it lacks complexity or the concreteness and certitude of biology (Imagine someone expressing snarkiness at the “cliche” of vegetables offering more healthy ingredients than greasy fried chicken), but we can agree on same basic human requirements: to feel loved, unconditionally, to feel understood, challenged, accepted by others and by ourselves flaws, insecurities and all, and to feel respected. This basic existential needs engenders happiness, and makes us more caring people. In this sense, Purim affords a free pass to care deeply about our family, our friends, and our selves, without the normal social repercussions, to give gifts for no particular reasons to the ones you love, to hug freely, to give without hesitation to the poor. Purim is a day in which we can remember the needs we learned as we grew up but forget when we grew smart, all of which does sound like a Hallmark card, but maybe that’s the point.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful and thoughtful post! I think the reason why Purim is such a compelling holiday for so many, is because it embraces that physicality. We live in a world that emphasizes sensuous experiences. I feel that sometimes we feel guilty for that (maybe that's just Jewish guilt). It's nice to have a day that we can take advantage of all the good stuff without feeling bad for it. I think especially in the "yeshiva" community, there is a sense of asceticism, and intoxication is relatively frowned upon. But, since we do live in a world with so much that interests us physically, we enjoy having a day where we can embrace that. It could be to a fault, that we don't feel comfortable with ourselves during the rest of the year, so we need an outlet on Purim, but I prefer to see it as a community sticking to certain values but embracing others at certain times throughout the year. Purim is a time, for me (and I assume others like me), to appreciate the value of the physical. Enjoying good food, good drink, and good conversation with friends and family certainly gives me a better appreciation for this world and for the Jewish experience. Happy Purim Joe!