Tygerpen | Sumo rabbis and other Purim trivia

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I’m 17, a political Page of the Day at the Oregon Senate in Salem, sitting in the Capitol’s coffee shop. At the next table over is a group of pages I don’t know. One of them pores over a calendar, apparently checking for a date.

“Hey, what’s this?” he says. “PUE-rim?” He looks up at the others. “Is that a holiday? You guys know what that is?” He tries again. “Pooh-RIM.”

The group laughs. They try pronouncing it. Nobody’s heard of this strange word on the calendar.

I’m always reminded of that uncomfortable scene when Purim approaches, because our rabbis have done such a poor job educating the American public about the holiday. Many people, Jews included, don’t know what the holiday is or they confuse it with another Jewish holiday — Kwanzaa.

Worse, those who do know about Purim mistakenly think it’s the happiest holiday in the Jewish calendar. The real happiest holiday is Yom Kippur, the day our elated rabbis finally see people turn up for services.

I can hear the tap-tap-tap of indignant rabbis emailing me that they’ve worked hard to raise Purim’s visibility, and that they encourage congregants to wear costumes, be merry and celebrate Esther and Mordechai’s victory over Haman, the evil vizier who planned to kill all the Jews a long, long time ago, before cable television.

Around the country there are, in fact, Purim balls, Purimshpiels (the traditional comedy-drama of the Book of Esther), Purim carnivals, Purim extravaganzas, Purim bakeoffs and Purim’s Dancer, a 4-year-old filly who won the $58,000 St. Joseph River Purse at Santa Anita racetrack by pulling away for a 2 1⁄2-length win over Hideinplainsight.

But for other reasons, Purim is not the jovial holiday rabbis claim. First, rabbis spend a disproportionate amount of synagogue time choosing clever costumes. Not only are children at Purim carnivals horrified to see their rabbis appear as pirates, hip-hop artists and sumo wrestlers, but I recall one rabbi lecturing his congregation about the dangers of heavy drinking on Purim — a now-discredited tradition — while dressed as a Leghorn chicken. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than a chicken reciting Hebrew. And still sounding better than me.

As for heavy alcohol on Purim, a threatening prospect for people who never drink (like college students), there is actually an herbal medication from India that aids the liver in cleansing toxins like alcohol. It contains well-known ingredients like babchi seeds, neen, king bitters, guduchi and haritaki, and is available online from Himalaya Healthcare under the name “Purim.”

Purim carnivals, like alcohol, pose significant hazards. The worst is that prizes for games are almost always goldfish. Bringing home a goldfish is upsetting to parents who’ve experienced this every year and know they’ll be contending with goldfish diseases like Fin Rot, Swim Bladder and Ick (a parasite). The Ick treatment, as for most goldfish ills, is to change the aquarium water. However, this will not help a common goldfish ailment, Toilet Bowl Absorption, that leads to instant death.

My younger son, Andy, kept winning goldfish every year. Fortunately, he stopped going to the Purim carnival, not because he tired of goldfish but because one year when he swung the “High Striker” rubber hammer to ring the bell on the top of the tower, the hammer ricocheted back and broke his nose. Fortunately, the medical bills were cheaper than goldfish vet bills.

My most disappointing Purim activity was when I wrote a musical for our religious school based on the old Dick Clark dance show. All the stars of that play went on to respectable careers — Tom Rosenbaum became a neurosurgeon; Glen Shimshak a dentist; Larry Zeidman an M.D.; Richard Kennan an author; Sid Galton a judge. Tragically, not one became a Jewish businessman.

This year, instead of eating hamantaschen, which lack chocolate fillings, or Oznei Haman (Haman’s Ears — fried strips of dough shaped like ears, dusted with cinnamon sugar, also known as churros), I’m shaping little round dough balls with a touch of brandy, frying them in oil and dusting them with powdered sugar. My recipe is called “Eshek Haman,” or “Haman’s Balls.” I expect a very jovial Purim.

Trudi York Gardner lives in Benicia and can be reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.wordpress.com.