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A Purim Spiel

            The last thing we did in person at my synagogue last year, before the Covid shut down, was the Purim Spiel. Everyone was crowded into the sanctuary, with congregants of all ages singing from the “stage.” A few days later, the world stopped, but we had no idea that we’d be living on Zoom for an entire year, or more, and that our next Purim Spiel would be presented entirely on Zoom.

            I’d never seen a Purim Spiel (or even heard of one) before coming to my current synagogue nine years ago, but it turns out that they have been a Jewish tradition for centuries. A Spiel is a play (from the German/Yiddish) and a Purim Spiel is a comic version of the story from the Book of Esther that we read each Purim, with a lot of leeway for modern interpretations, humor, music, and especially satire. Many politicians and Very Important People have been lampooned in Purim Spiels across the world.

“Am I a Very Important Person?”

            At our synagogue, the Cantor writes the Purim Spiel each year, usually adapting popular songs to fit the Purim story: there was a Star Wars version, a Wizard of Oz version, a Billy Joel Extravaganza, etc. Once a year, it’s a chance for doctors and lawyers and teachers and children to get up on stage and sing their hearts out to an audience filled with every age group, including children dressed as unicorns and cowboys and princesses.

“That will never happen to me.”

            The goal of the Purim Spiel is to provide a catharsis and to give us a chance to laugh, and after the devastations of Covid and the economy and politics this year, we really need that. It will be easier to take a deep breath and move into the more sober tone of the Biden years after getting what we’ve just been through out of our systems, and then we can wash our hands of it, as much as that’s possible.

            Purim isn’t a major holiday on the Jewish calendar, unlike Passover or Rosh Hashanah. It’s very likely that the holiday of Purim was instituted by the rabbis to give Jews something Jewish to celebrate at this time of year instead of being drawn into the celebrations of their neighbors. Purim may have been based on an ancient pagan festival, celebrating Marduk and Ishtar, two of the important pagan gods of the ancient Near East, with the names changed only slightly to Mordechai and Esther.

            The story of Esther, considered by most scholars to be historical fiction, rather than history, highlights one of the major themes in Jewish life across Millennia: anti-Semitism, the baseless hatred of Jews because they are “the other.” But in this story the Jews win, because Esther, a Jew who hides her Jewish identity, becomes queen of Persia and is able to thwart an attempted genocide of the Jewish people. It’s a court intrigue, with all of the misunderstandings and frivolity and devious plans and feasting and blood lust you can imagine. The main characters are the King (silly and gluttonous), his first wife Vashti (smart and rebellious), his new wife Esther, her uncle/cousin Mordechai who encourages her to play her role to save her people, and Haman, the Grand Vizier and the bad guy.

            Imagine if, instead of going along with Hitler’s Final Solution, German leaders had listened to Jewish voices and turned around and killed Hitler and his henchmen instead – that’s the Purim story. It’s a fantasy, and a welcome one for a people who have often been the targets of prejudice and genocide and need at least one day a year to imagine what it would be like to turn things around.

Like if I sent You to the groomer?”

            The original commemorations for Purim were more sober and serious and focused on the formal reading of the Book of Esther; the custom of masquerading in costumes and the wearing of masks probably originated among the Italian Jews at the end of the fifteenth century. But whether it was originally intended as a party or not, the playfulness and laughter and blurred boundaries of Purim feel essential now.

            Usually our synagogue also has a Purim carnival for the kids, with games and rides and a costume parade, and Hamantaschen to eat, but that will not be possible this year. Hamantaschen were another late addition to the holiday, based on a German cookie called a Mahn-tash or poppy pocket, filled with sweet poppy seed paste. Hamantaschen are three-cornered cookies filled with sweet (or even savory) fillings, meant to resemble Haman’s three-cornered hat.

Triple Chocolate Hamantaschen (recipe from MyJewishLearning.com)

            For adults, Purim is also a time for drinking. The tradition is to drink until you don’t know the difference between cursed be Haman (the bad guy) and blessed be Mordechai (the good guy), maybe to let us know that feasting and drinking, and taking on the role of power, can make us into the bad guys if we’re not careful. We tend to learn these lessons best by acting them out, rather than just learning the theory, so this holiday is a low risk way to try out being one of the bad guys (with a mask), or to lose track of your moral rectitude for a moment (with alcohol), and re-learn the lesson that you need certain rules in place in order to be the person you want to be the rest of the year.

The masks and costumes are always fun, but resonate even more deeply this year. Many people who have been outsiders to society know how it feels to wear a mask in order to fit in, but we’ve all experienced the way masks can obscure aspects of who you really are, for better or worse, this year. Our Covid masks allow, or require, us to obscure who we are, and especially how we feel. I have masks for synagogue school, made by Mom, covered with chocolate chip cookies, or butterflies, or birds, or dogs, instead of plain surgical or black masks, because I can’t smile with a mask on and the colorful and playful fabrics can do that for me, even if I don’t feel like smiling underneath.

My Masks

            So this year the Purim Spiel was on Zoom, with wine and Hamantaschen optional, and without the music (because group singing on Zoom is heinous), but it still gave us a chance to act out our revenge fantasies, and laugh at ourselves. If nothing else, Jewish history has taught us that we can adapt to new circumstances, and make the best of what we have, as long as we continue to tell our stories and search for meaning, together.

“Where are the cookies?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

My Senior Snow Dog

 

Winter finally kicked in a few weeks ago with more than two feet of snow in one day. I think the Great Snow Planner in the Sky was trying to make all subsequent snowstorms seem puny, so we’d feel shamed into going out, even in eight inches of snow.

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The big snow!

For some reason, this year, Butterfly loves the snow. In the past she’s been uncomfortable with the snow swirling in her face, and the ice crunching and sliding under her feet, and she could never understand Cricket’s fascination with climbing to the top of Snow Mountain to poop. But this year, with the snow piled up over her head, she changed her mind.

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“What is this fluffy stuff?”

This is a dog who does not try to climb up on the couch, and hesitates each time she sees a stairway looming, but she saw a two foot wall of snow and decided not only to try to climb it, but to pull herself up and over, and walk along the iced over top. She went out onto the tundra of the backyard, like a lone explorer, sniffing for squirrels and birds and cat poop. (It didn’t hurt that one of our neighbors had tossed huge chunks of French bread out into the snow for the birds to choke on, again.)

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“I think I can, I think I can…”

Butterfly came home three and a half years ago as an eight year old dog, with a long puppy mill history and a heart problem. She had to learn how to poop outside, and climb stairs, and bark at strangers, and generally be a dog, and we figured, at a certain point, that she was finished catching up. She was running and barking and begging for food, just like Cricket, and really, who expects an eleven year old senior citizen to learn new tricks? But here she is, learning to love the snow. She loves when the snow hardens and she can walk on top of it, she loves sticking her toes into the rain-softened snow and trying to keep her balance as her legs fall out from under her. She loves the way the snow keeps smells fresh for days and days, and she can revisit an old message twenty more times. She even managed to pass the scary corner of the building, because the snow made her forget her fear of the outside world, for a little while.

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“Whoo hoo!”

Cricket has always loved the snow. In the snow, even Cricket can go leash-less, for a moment, and run and play like a puppy. I throw snowballs for her to catch and she buries her head in the snow to find them. She would stay outside for hours, except that snowballs accumulate on her fur and she starts to look like a Yeti who can’t move very well. She tried to chew off the snowballs herself one day, but, since she needed a bath anyway, I tossed her into the tub and melted off the snowballs with the shower attachment. She was not a fan of this experience.

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Cricket, headless.

Cricket in snow 2

Grandma’s magic camera captured Cricket in action.

cricket snow 11

“Grrrrrrrr!”

Butterfly didn’t get quite as covered as Cricket, because she’s still a newbie with this snow business. She likes how the snow feels on her toes, and maybe up to her ankles, but once it reaches her chest she starts to shiver. Her favorite thing is to run in the light powdery snow and leave a trail of paw prints in her wake.

cricket & Butterfly

 

Talk Therapy For Dogs

We’ve been learning a lot about how dogs can be helpful to people, as therapy dogs, guide dogs, service dogs, grief and tension and anxiety and stress relieving dogs. But where can dogs go for therapy?

When Cricket was in her second training class, her anxiety was through the roof, and her trainer was unable to break through the storm in her brain to make much progress at teaching or calming her. I have tried massage, exercise, and medication, but each one only helps Cricket a little bit, and only for the short term.

Cricket is tied up in knots.

Cricket is tied up in knots.

To me, the point of talk therapy is to be heard and valued by another person, and, if at all possible, understood. I feel like Cricket really is trying to talk to us, and she is frustrated by our inability to understand. If only we could find her a therapist who could listen to her version of talking, and really understand her. I get the gist of what she’s saying, but I think I miss the subtleties.

When we are getting ready to go out for a walk, Cricket makes an insistent cawing sound that echoes through the hallway. She seems to be telling me to get her leash, but she repeats the message over and over like a panicked car alarm, even after her leash is on.

When her Grandma comes home after even a short absence, Cricket climbs on Grandma’s lap, paws her face, and cries, a very delicate, high pitched keening sound that seems to express her grief and fear during the unacceptable absence.

Her most verbal-like moments are the long diatribes when she trills and gurgles and growls and seems to be pleading her case, usually for some item of food. I listen to her. I nod my head. I respond with “Hmm, that’s interesting,” or, “I never thought of it that way,” and, gradually, she gets it all out of her system and flops on the floor, exhausted.

Cricket just wants to be understood.

Cricket just wants to be understood.

Butterfly, who spent most of her first eight years in a puppy mill, surrounded by other dogs and not many people, communicates more with body language. She licks people to tell them that she likes them. She licks her lips to let us know that she’s anxious, and her tongue can even fold in half from the tension. She barks at me in the middle of the night if I accidentally push or kick her, because she has chosen to sleep where I think my arms or legs should be. But she especially likes to express herself through dance, hopping and skipping across the grass when she’s happy, and stiffening her neck and sitting perfectly still when she’s mad. I’d still like to help her find a way to process her sadness and grief, from her years in the puppy mill, but I don’t know how to do that. Could we try paw painting? Or sand play?

Butterfly speaks without words.

Butterfly speaks without words.

Sometimes, I think the girls could use another dog as their therapist. A mentor dog could act as a role model and show them the ropes. She would probably be a Golden Retriever, and wear a scent that other dogs could recognize as authoritative, but not intimidating. She could lead group hikes to teach polite pack behavior, or work one on one with clients, like Cricket, to teach her how to stay calm when the mailman comes too close. Butterfly has blossomed so much with Cricket as her mentor, how much more could she learn from a role model with a, let’s say, healthier mental state.

A Golden Therapist. (not my picture)

A Golden Therapist. (not my picture)

My big dream is that one day schools will train therapists to specialize in dog and human family therapy. They would have easy-to-wash floors, with dog toys scattered around, and snacks. We would go there together as a family so that the therapist, and her doggy co-therapist, could see how we interact with each other: Cricket overexcited and racing around with her tug toy, and Butterfly bobbing and weaving and then running to me, and back to Cricket for approval. And the doggy therapist would do the head tilt, and the human therapist would say, “Hmm, that’s interesting.”

And then Cricket would gain confidence and start her long diatribe, with Butterfly sitting nearby, listening intently. And all of the pain and frustration would pour out of Cricket’s voice and inspire Butterfly to speak up and tell of her own grief and disappointments. And the human therapist would tilt her head to the side, and say, “I never thought of it that way.” And the dogs would finally feel heard, and understood.

Butterfly and Cricket, completely happy.

Butterfly and Cricket, completely happy.