Purim sparks thoughts on marriage, men, merriment

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The story begins a long, long time ago in ancient Persia, where King Ahasuerus lived with his lovely wife, Queen Vashti. During a festive party, the king sent his men to summon Vashti.

When she learned of this request, the queen became extremely upset.

"He wants me to come just to show off my beauty," she cried in anger. "I'm more than just a pretty face!" With that, she refused to go to the party.

The king and his advisers were furious.

"We must banish her from the castle and cast her out," they vowed. "If we do not, wives all over Persia will think it's OK to start thinking for themselves! The next thing you know they'll be wanting to work, own land and tell us what to do!"

So poor Queen Vashti was banished from the castle, though she was secretly relieved to be rid of the king, who was not very bright and something of a bore.

After much searching, King Ahasuerus chose Esther to be his new bride. Esther was young and scared, but the marriage was encouraged by her cousin Mordechai — whom she thought of as an uncle, for he had raised her. Dazzled by jewels and too young to know her own mind, Esther followed Mordechai's advice and married the king.

Privately, Mordechai advised Esther not to let anyone know she was Jewish. That way she could avoid unwanted trouble.

One day while Esther was getting used to her new roles as wife and queen, Mordechai ran into the king's chief adviser, Haman.

Under pressure to find more funds to pay for the king's excesses, Haman grew angry when Mordechai refused to bow before him. He suddenly devised a plan to direct attention away from his unsuccessful fund-raising efforts.

Haman went before the king and told him the Jews of the land must be killed — they were using too many community services, didn't look like everybody else and had different customs and religious practices. King Ahasuerus agreed.

Upon hearing of the plan, Mordechai convinced Esther to go to the king and save her people.

After much thought, Esther invited the king, along with Haman and all the courtiers, to a party. The king was delighted.

After the food and drinks, Esther went to the king and, in front of all the party guests, begged him to spare the Jewish people. She told him she too was Jewish.

Everyone gasped. Haman sputtered at Esther, "But you don't look Jewish."

"Shut up, you fool," shouted the king, rescinding the order to exterminate the Jews. He demanded that Haman be killed instead.

The Jews have applauded Esther's bravery and wisdom ever since. Esther, who had so totally won the king's heart, eventually convinced him to cut back on parties, save funds for the community and begin a children's reading program, which turned into the world's first public school.

Vashti became its first principal.

Purim provides many themes and learning opportunities. Have your children pretend they are the different characters in the story and ask them how they feel.

Discussions can cover any number of topics, including equality. Why were the king and his men so threatened by the prospect that their wives might have their own thoughts and desires?

Other discussions might explore assimilation — why did Esther keep her Jewishness quiet? Was it fear or a desire to blend in?

Today, immigrants are the favorite scapegoats and people of color are often regarded with suspicion. How should we treat immigrants?

Esther's relationship with Ahasueras makes us ask: What makes a good marriage? What are the qualities of an ideal spouse?

It is traditional to act out the Purim story, dressing up in costume, booing every time Haman's name is mentioned and making noisy fun of everyone — even the rabbi and the religious-school teacher!

Mattanot le-evyonim is the mitzvah of giving to two or more needy people over and above your normal contributions. As a Purim project, you might offer to match your kids' contributions with your own.

Purim Seudah is the special family meal, shared with family and friends, that celebrates our triumph over those who would destroy us. This is the only holiday on which we are commanded to eat, drink and be merry.

Purim, not Chanukah, is the original Jewish gift-giving holiday, marked by the tradition of mishloah manot, giving edible gifts to friends and relatives.

Making hamantaschen together as a family for this purpose is a great treat, and here's a recipe you might like to try. Modeled after Haman's three-cornered hat, this treat is sure to delight and this recipe is sure to have me excommunicated.

TRACY'S HAMANTASCHEN

1 package store-bought prepared cookie dough

3 jars of your favorite jam

Extra flour to assist with shaping.

Cut off a large round chunk of dough and either roll or push sides out to make a medium-sized circle of medium thickness (use a wine bottle if you don't have a rolling pin; fingers work too). Put a dollop of jam in the center and pinch together three corners. Bake as indicated on package. For an added twist, try chocolate-chip cookie dough.

For mishloah manot, arrange several hamantaschen on a paper plate along with dates, nuts, dried fruit and candy. Take a long piece of plastic wrap, twist and secure with a pretty ribbon.

Enjoy and Chag Sameach!