Guest Writer – Sara Benbassat – Purim – The Masks We Don

Purim, in contrast to a lot of the other Chagim is meant to be relatively cheap… by cheap I mean you don’t have the following conversation with your spouse, “It’s coming up to Pesach/Rosh Hashana/Sukkot…. it’s time to:

1. Re-mortgage

2. Get a new credit card

3. Sell all our non-existent silver.

I like to think that the  idea of Misha Nichas Adar Besimcha, which means the month of Adar should be celebrated with joy, is really just another way of saying ” you will be stressed today… go ahead DRINK!” driving takes on a whole new reality, getting from my home  across the street can take the most part of a day, navigating between the swarms of children thrusting buckets in my face, screaming at me ( even though I am literally a cm away from them) why, that last penny, that last crumpled up charity voucher, should be theirs is something every Jew in every Jewish community will experience on Purim.

Driving down the road, without the engine on, (there is no point turning it on as I am not getting anywhere at any pace) my daughter screams in delight or horror each time she sees a minion, monkey, bunny, fairy, dancer, police officer, Arab, Indian, nun, pope, Mr men costume, where’s wally, cowboy, cowgirl, fireman, (you get the idea) whilst we sit drumming the wheel, fixed/manic smiles on our faces, while looking at the list, seeing that we still have to get to yet another friend living the other side of town, and taking  another swig of that alcohol that YES we are actually allowed to drink that day (passengers only of course!)

My thoughts and sympathies go out to any clueless person who happens to be driving through a Jewish area on Purim, my advice to you is…. DON’T, and if you do my prayers are with you friend.

This year our theme is Orphan Annie.  I am ashamed to admit how many hours I have spent online searching for the perfect Miss Hannigan, Daddy Warbucks and Annie costume.  Once those were found my search began for the perfect Mishloach Manot, how on earth would I beat the Harry Potter theme I did last year? Or the Where’s Wally the year before.

The costume finding and the Mishloach Manot giving are becoming more extreme as time passes.  Over the course of the last few years I have heard of people ordering Sari’s from India, Chinese gowns from China, American footballer costumes… yes you have guessed it from America. In fact, I am sure that some people hop over to the country in question for a day to ensure their kinderlach get the best costume in town.

There are many women who create beautiful MM and love doing it, going to stores such as Homesense, or thrift stores, their imaginations running wild, the joy their children experience when filling up the amazing jars, ( it’s got to be a matter of one sweet for the jar one for you) makes this Chag even more special than it already is for our kids.  Cholent themed MM with beans, rocket launcher sweets and heartburn pills were one of my favourites.

According to my 10-year-old daughter, hundreds of years ago in the olden days, when her parents were young Mishloach Manot consisted of a tin of pineapple chunks and a fruit or carton of drink. She is horrified by the thought and has threatened to disown us if we would even consider giving this.

As I scrolled through post after post I came across a picture of a little girl dressed up as Queen Esther, and it made me pause for thought.

“Am I missing the true message of Purim”? I asked myself. Taking a look at the Purim story, we read about Esther, a young beautiful girl, forced to marry after being taken from her home, trained to become a fitting wife for the king, no choices given, snatched from everything and everyone she held dear. Today those responsible would be held accountable, kidnap, child abuse and slavery would all be reported and the perpetrators held to account.

Esther had no therapy, she had no shoulder to cry on yet she knew that her duty was to protect her people, with courage and grace she took on a task which would seem to most of us daunting at the least and almost impossible, she saved a nation.

The last few chapters of the Megillah talk about the joy that was felt in the town of Shushan and beyond, how the day of Purim would be inscribed in History as a day of celebration and gift giving.

The people of the time were celebrating their survival, they had been led to the gallows and were by a miracle and the perseverance of one woman given a reprieve from a sure death.  We can understand how the happiness they felt, the pure relief and gratitude filled each of them with true simcha.

How can we in today’s generation, where, the majority of us living in democratic countries do not feel daily persecution relate to the happiness shown at the time of the Purim story? Why is it we find ourselves in such an advanced world, with anything our hearts desire at our disposal at the touch of a button, society as a whole is becoming lonelier, suicide rates are on the rise, mental health illness a common occurrence? Is there a part of Purim which could be considered a mask? A time where we have no choice but to don the face that is expected of us? No matter how we actually feel are the faces of clowns really masking something else and if you were wipe off the makeup and you would find tears?

There was a time I was a divorcee, alone, mentally unwell and vulnerable. Purim was a day I locked the door and hid under my covers, the music I could clearly hear outside my window, the dancing in the street, the joyful shrieks of children like a hammer, shattering my heart piece by piece.

Thankfully 11 years on I am remarried, but I have many friends of my age whom are either divorced or single.  Chagim are in general family orientated, children are usually heart of the Chag, the streets teeming with people, a tangible community feeling permeates the air. But what about those who do not have family? Who do not have married friends whom to join for the meals? The Baalie Teshuva, the Ger, the single, divorced or widowed? How can they too feel the happiness of the chag?

Another aspect of the Chagim is the expense, those who live with the constant dread and fear that their card will be declined whilst shopping, who through no fault of their own cry each night as they worry how they will buy those essential items, whose children compare themselves to others asking why they cannot have the shoes or clothing from the store that everyone else seems to go to. The people who live month by month, day by day with the cloud of debt hanging over their heads. How can people with such constant worry feel happiness over Purim when there is no way they can afford to lavish friends and family with Mishloach Manot?

How about those who have been married for a number of years and have not been blessed with children?  Can we begin to imagine how difficult Purim must be for them?

As my life has progressed, my journey through mental illness, neonatal loss and trauma has taught me many lessons. Working for a mental health charity and spending time on a daily basis with  clients whom have many hardships and challenges I see what true happiness is, I see how those who are the most vulnerable revel in friendship, appreciate others, see the good in those around them and are genuinely concerned for the welfare and health of those around them.  Spreading happiness, true happiness does not depend on the size of your Mishloach Manot, it does not depend on the amount of Matanat Levyonim we give, what it does depend on however is how it is given.

A plate given with that bygone tradition of a juice and fruit, handed over with true simcha, given to the person whom perhaps no one else would think to give to, to the singles of our community, the divorced or widowed,  the people who would give anything for someone to smile at them on Purim, to acknowledge their existence, a hand stretched out, pulling them in, including and celebrating the survival of the Jewish nation with them. This, I believe is true happiness.

Sara Benbassat is a prolific writer and resides in London, England. Visit her blog at


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