JCC East Bay Shamash Residency
Reflections on Purim from Rachel Brodie, Current Shamash Resident
“Behind the Crescent Moon: Thoughts on this Month in the Jewish Calendar”
The catchphrase for the next month on the Hebrew calendar (Adar, which comes in with the new moon Wednesday night, February 14, 2018) is "be happy, it's Adar!" Indeed, with spring approaching and both Mardi Gras and Purim shedding rhinestones and dripping schnapps all over the calendar, many people find it easy to get into the spirit of Adar. But what about the times when we find ourselves out of sync with communally-dictated emotional states?
My first memory of contending with this dilemma was in the month of Adar, forty-two years ago. My grandmother (my father’s mother) had just died. We observed the intense period of mourning governed by ancient Jewish wisdom and then, as a family, we slowly inched our way back into the world outside our bubble of grief. When it was time to join our community in the celebration of Purim, I announced that I was not participating.
I had been especially close with my grandmother and I was a vortex of many emotions but none of them seasonally appropriate. With the narcissism of most young children and mourners, I wanted the world to cry with me. I wanted Purim to be cancelled. But my father insisted that I go with the rest of my family to the synagogue, to listen to the story of Esther. I did not have to wear a costume, I did not have to actively partake in any of the frivolity, but I had to attend. I had a massive meltdown. He was unrelenting. I was seething. He didn’t look too happy either, but off we went.
I made a point of sitting alone in the corner. I made a point of not being responsive to the well-intentioned attempts of friends to connect with me. I spent a lot of time in the ladies’ room crying.
Walking home I exploded with fury: the experience had only made me feel worse. It was cruel to make me go, how dare he or anyone else tell me how to feel, etc. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but what my father explained to me then and again when I could actually hear him (which wasn’t until about 10 years later) was that while it wasn’t any easier for him to be there, he went to be reassured that even if we weren’t feeling it in the moment, joy, even silly fun, had not been extinguished with the death of this one beloved person. That to know it’s not “all about me” is actually the good news. That while I didn’t yet want to feel joy again, I needed to see joy as essential to our being, vital for our well-being, and within reach. But also, that in the same way that the Jewish holidays cycle through emotional states, we as individuals do too. That what I could not have known then and did not want to know at the time was that I would feel better, I would experience joy again… but also grief again and so on.
Exactly twenty years later, in the month of Adar, just after Purim and just before my 29th birthday, my aunt sent me Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tuscon. Not sure I was interested in reading it, I flipped it open to a random page and read:
“Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job or a limb or a loved one, a graduation, bringing a new baby home: it's impossible to think at first how this all will be possible. Eventually, what moves it all forward is the subterranean ebb and flow of being alive among the living.
“In my own worst seasons I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.”
Rachel specializes in designing and facilitating professional development opportunities for other Jewish educators. She received a Melton Senior Educator's Fellowship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, holds a master's degree in Rabbinic Literature from The Jewish Theological Seminary, and received and a B.A. in Literature and Society from Brown University.