Purim and Halloween

An ideological face-off

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The one thing that Halloween and Purim really have in common is the propensity of celebrants to dress up in costume. But on Purim, these costumes have a meaning: They reflect the theme of hiddenness in the Megillah, the scroll that is read aloud on Purim. Any former student of high school English can tell you that "appearance versus reality" is often a key literary theme; similarly in the Purim story, at the end of which nothing is what it initially seemed to be.

Queen Esther hides her Jewish identity from her husband the king, Haman recommends to the king a reward that he thinks he will receive and which is, instead, given to his arch-enemy Mordecai. A gallows that Haman prepares for Mordecai becomes the site of his own execution. (Isn't it ironic? Don't you think?) The name "Esther" has as its Hebrew root "seter," meaning hiddenness or secrecy. Even the name of God is hidden, as it appears nowhere in the text of the Megillah. Some readers identify one verse where a reference to God can be inferred, but there is no direct reference to God or divine power. Costumes on Purim possess an entirely different meaning than those commissioned by Halloween.

And then there is the all-important and traditional overindulgence in alcohol. Allow me to offer you an argument in favor of alcoholic libations. Wine and feasting are thematic elements throughout the Purim story. Even in excess and revelry, there is an implied limit to our indulgence: We read the Megillah twice, once at night before the party, and again the following morning. The implicit message is, "drink 'em if you got 'em, but remember that you have to show up for services in the morning."

The Purim wine is not just about getting a little high. Wine, and feasting in general, are signs of freedom, luxury, and affluence. This Purim, eat, drink, be merry, and if you want to, wear a costume--but also be a mensch. Know the story behind the holiday and keep an eye on the less fortunate. And when you can't tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats, it's time to call it a night. As they say at the local watering holes on the Upper West Side, "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."

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Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer who lives in Manhattan.