Life & Culture

The defiant humour of Purim

Purim is the Jewish festival which takes on hate - and uses humour as a weapon to fight it, says Eli Abt


One year on from our first losses on Purim 5780/2020 to the worst global pandemic in a century, it’s certain this year’s celebrations will be rather less boisterous than usual.

This is an opportune moment, then, to pause and count our blessings by recalling another Purim 75 years ago in the Displaced Persons Camp at Landsberg, Germany 1946, where merrymaking was in even shorter supply.

Traumatised by the Holocaust but denied entry to Eretz Yisrael, a group of survivors erected a mock tombstone bearing this inscription under an outsize swastika:

“Here lie

The tormentors of the Jewish People

Haman son of Hamedatha

Adolf Hitler

The White Paper politics over the Land of Israel.

May they languish among the maggots and in Gehenna

May their names be blotted out.”


Their rage against Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s heartless responses to their predicament was heightened at Purim time by the knowledge — which perhaps we’ve forgotten — that the Nazis had boasted unambiguously of their association with Haman, villain of the Purim story.

Hitler had suggested in 1944 that Jews would “celebrate a second Purim” with a German defeat, while two years later Julius Streicher, his unrepentant Jew baiter-in-chief, was to sneer “Purimfest!” when awaiting death on the scaffold.

Haman’s game plan, identical to theirs, and sparked by nothing more than personal animosity towards Mordechai, was to enlist the Big Lie in his pitch to Ahasuerus, the charge of an alien plot to subvert the established order:

“There is a people dispersed among, yet separated from, those in your kingdom’s provinces. Their laws differ from those of other nations. They do not observe the king’s statutes. It is not in the king’s interests to tolerate them. May it please the king to sign off their eradication”.

It was Haman who invented malevolent Jewish “otherness” and bequeathed us centuries of Jewish “conspiracies”, the child-murders for matzah bakes, the poisoned wells breeding the Black Death, the Elders of Zion Protocols, the wartime stabs-in-the-back, the Charlottesville chants of “Jews will not replace us”.

Two and a half millennia on from Haman’s incendiary rhetoric, premier Victor Orban was to deploy it again against Jewish philanthropist George Soros in the Hungarian elections of 2018: “We are fighting a foe who is different from us. Not open but hiding. Not straightforward but crafty. Not honest but unprincipled. Not national but international. Does not believe in working but speculates with money. Does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

Of the numerous enemies we’ve faced, only the Nazis matched Haman’s obsession with, and capacity for, our total annihilation. His was furthermore the only such plan foiled, in our long story, by the faith and courage of his intended victims.

No wonder, then, that we’ve always used humour in our Purim texts and imagery to embellish Haman’s comeuppance and that of his complicit family.

Targum II, the 8th century Aramaic collection of homilies on the Book of Esther, enlarges creatively on Haman’s dismay when ordered by the king to arrange for Mordechai the public honours he’d pictured for himself:

“Mordechai, sir? There must be thousands. Mordechai the Jew? Plenty of those. Which one? Sitting at your Majesty’s gate? Which of the many gates? That from the harem to the palace? Sir, that Jew is my enemy”.

The king, with rising annoyance at his minister’s prevarications, warns him, in the words of the Esther narrative, “not to omit a single detail of what you have suggested.” The deflated Haman has no option but to dress Mordechai, crown him and invite him to mount the royal horse.

“How am I to manage that when I’m weak from my three-day fast to foil your villainy?”, retorts Mordechai as conjectured by the Targum. “Then climb up off my back,” sighs the crestfallen Haman.

His duties completed, the text confirms Haman “hurried home, dejected and with his head covered”, so the Talmud (BT Megillah 16a) imagines the details by inventing a daughter to partner him in crime.

Peering from her roof, and mistaking Haman leading the horse for Mordechai, she flings the contents of a chamber pot over her father’s head, then throws herself to her death when grasping what she’s done.

The story’s tailor-made for illustration, so it’s no surprise to find it appearing in the sumptuous 14th century “Leipzig Machzor” under a piyyut alongside Haman and his ten sons, all hung from a single gigantic tree.

This magnificent prayer book, now owned by Leipzig’s university, was used for three centuries of festival prayers in the synagogue at Worms, a city steeped in Jewish history and a fitting birthplace for that Purim image.

Like Mainz, Worms had suffered the worst of the First Crusade massacres in the Rhineland of 1096 when its 800 Jews were butchered, a carnage repeated in 1349 with the Black Death, when those in the new community not murdered by rioters set themselves alight in their homes.

With their expulsion in 1615 the refugees held on to their beloved Machzor. Treasured as their guardian of memory no less than for its vibrant illuminations, two small but telling details on its Purim page speak to us across the centuries.

The descending capital letters in the piyyut naming Eleazar Rokeach, Worms’ lead ing C13 talmudist and mystic, celebrate the community’s preeminence as a centre of learning and spirituality. Their values are suggested by Mordechai’s headgear. To wear the king’s crown he has removed, but not discarded, his “Judenhut”, the yellow hat, ancestor of the Nazis’ yellow star, dreamed up by Pope Innocent III in 1215 as a way of humiliating the Jews.

Mordechai’s seen gesturing at Haman as though to say, “Regardless of my appearance or my dress, or whether I’m accorded honours or met with scorn, it’s my choice and privilege, above all, to live my life fully as a Jew”.

Our response to present-day would-be Hamans must surely be to celebrate those uplifting credentials, promoted 700 years ago in an age of infinitely greater challenges to their Jewish world than we face in our own.


Eli Abt writes on the Jewish arts

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