Parenting for the Perlexed: How to deal with scary parts of the Purim story

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via [email protected]

Our kids attend a Jewish day school and are very excited about Purim. They love the costumes and parties. But this year I am worried: My daughter is in second grade and may well hear the full story, including the genocidal parts — first the threat against the Jews, then the Jews’ pre-emptive killing of their neighbors. Even if they skip it in school, I know she’ll notice it at the Megillah reading in shul. She loves to play “school” with her 4-year-old brother, so I worry she’ll pass it on to him, too. What should we do? Peacenik Parents, Los Altos

Dear Peacenick Parents: Glad you raised this issue! It will come up again at Passover with the plagues (especially the killing of the first-born) and the drowning of the Egyptians. I share your view that parts of the Purim story are too frightening and troubling for young children. I recommend shielding kids from this at least until fourth grade. By then they are equipped to separate our reality and values from those we find in ancient societies, the Bible included.

First, let’s see if you can create a “buffer zone” for your kids. Discuss this with teachers at school and clergy at shul. Suggest planning a special kids’ activity, say a Purim treasure hunt, scheduled precisely during the reading of the bloodiest passages. Kids get antsy anyway with the lengthy reading, though they sure love the noisemaking at Haman’s name.

If, nevertheless, your daughter hears the gruesome parts, you’ll need a deep conversation with her. There are various ways to try to explain to young children how different things were in ancient times, though to be honest I think they don’t truly get it. Make it very concrete: first things that are the same (families, parents loving their children) and then those that are different (no TV, cars, phones, and no school for children). Also, not much play time. Tell her kids her age already worked hard to help their families survive. Now move to the issue at hand: Even though people believed in goodness and justice (give examples), they also accepted, more than we do today, racism, national hatred, violence and vengeance.

Don’t overdo it: Listen more than you talk. Ask what she thinks. I expect she’ll expresses horror that people would want to kill the Jews and, also, that the Jews would “kill them back.” Perfect! Tell her: “I am so happy you don’t want anyone to be killed, and I agree with you. But, sadly, it happened then and it still happens in some places in the world today.” Reassure her that it’s not something that happens here, that we are lucky to live in a kinder and safer world (and pray that this is always true…). Ask her to write and decorate her own Megillah with her ideas for a more peaceful ending. Use it to read at home and have her “teach it” to her brother.

Both the Purim and Passover stories traditionally are read as narratives of Jewish triumphalism, but you (and all of us) can use them as opportunities to teach empathy and nonviolence. After you discuss alternative ways that these biblical stories could be told, ask your kids to think of concrete ways to practice these values in their everyday life.

Now, back to the fun: costumes, parades and parties. This is a wonderful opportunity to have fun together as a family. To make it more enjoyable and meaningful for your kids, try to:

• Let them choose not only their costumes, but yours as well. A “family costume” such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” can be a big hit.

• Make at least part of the costume together — hat, crown, sword or basket.

Put on skits at home wearing the costumes.

Don’t forget that very young children (younger than 3 1/2) are easily frightened by the sudden transformation of a familiar face with a mask or costume. They may, at the last minute, refuse to put on the costume you’ve lovingly labored over. Try pre-empting this by rehearsing in advance, repeatedly putting the mask or costume on and taking it off in front of the mirror.

Chag Sameach!

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale was born and raised on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel and worked for many years as a Jewish community professional in the Bay Area.