Purim traditions: Fish, firecrackers, skeleton costumes

NEW YORK — In Uganda, Jews celebrate Purim by exchanging gift baskets of fish. In Tunisia they light firecrackers and feast on freshly killed lamb.

The teenagers of one Azerbaijan community used to take advantage of the noise made by groggers during Megillah readings to nail the clothing of unsuspecting synagogue members to the benches.

These tales are part of a compilation of Purim reminiscences to be published by Hadassah this year as part of its 90th anniversary celebration.

The focus on Purim is appropriate: The women's Zionist organization was founded on Purim in 1912 and named for Esther, the Purim heroine, whose Hebrew name is Hadassah.

The collection, titled "Esther's Legacy: Celebrating Purim around the World," was put together at the suggestion of Shulamit Reinharz, director of the Hadassah International Research Institute on Jewish Women, which did the research for the book.

The result is a 125-page softcover volume with 138 testimonies from contributors representing 95 countries. (The book has not yet been released for sale to the public.) The testimonies are usually about a page and often include photographs or recipes as well as descriptions of how the holiday is celebrated in a particular corner of the world.

The testimonies offer a window into the variety of Jewish cultures.

"Those of us who live in large Jewish communities don't always realize how difficult or dangerous it is to celebrate Jewish holidays" in some parts of the world, said Jane Zolot, Hadassah's liaison to the Brandeis University-based research institute.

Reinharz said she became interested in the question of how Purim is celebrated around the world because at the very end of the Purim story, Mordechai sends a letter to Jews in 127 provinces with instructions on how to commemorate Purim.

"I thought to myself, 'It's only because those letters were received and the instructions were carried on and taught to the children and their children and their children that today we do this,'" Reinharz said. "So I thought just for the fun of it let's see if I can find 127 Jewish communities around the world and see if they've been carrying out [the instructions]."

Reinharz hired sociologist Barbara Vinick to do research.

"It became almost an obsession for me to get stories from as many countries as I could," Vinick said. In the end she was able to surpass Reinharz's original goal, gathering stories from 138 communities.

Reinharz believes it makes a good "metaphor for Jewish ritual continuity."

Continuity is the predominant theme of the book. Almost every community has a Purim tradition that includes costume parties, Megillah readings and the exchange of shalach manot, holiday gift baskets.

But the stories also show how these core traditions were adapted to local cultures.

In Mexico, one child dresses up as a skeleton in recognition of the "Day of the Dead" tradition. In Morocco the holiday feast is celebrated with spicy fish and couscous instead of hamentaschen.

The juxtaposition of the text material is also what Bonnie Lipton, Hadassah's president, found so interesting about the book.

"There might be different customs and different traditions," she said, "but we're all celebrating the victory of good over evil."