Quick! What the Hell is Purim?

I always think of the Bible as sort of dry reading — difficult to understand, weighted down by archaic language and vague descriptions, full of stories that just kind of go on and on. But, of course, that’s not always true.

And it’s especially not true in the Book of Esther.

Reading more like a Shakespearean play, the 10-chapter Book of Esther tells one hell of an intriguing story. It’s a story of honor, greed, deception, justice, irony, death and triumph. There is a clear beginning, a clear ending and even a climax and denouement. And, on top of it all, it’s a relatively quick read.

All this is good new for any Bible reader, but it’s fantastic news for our Jewish friends because, during the Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrants are asked to read the entire story of Esther aloud. Twice.

Purim begins tomorrow — March 4 — and continues through sundown Thursday.

So without further ado, here it is, your friendly neighborhood Cheat Sheet to Purim.

hamantaschen

Jason Gewirtz has a good wife who bakes good Hamantaschen.

Holiday: Purim

Pronounced: POOR-im

Date: Purim falls on the 14th day of Adar in the Hebrew Calendar.

Celebrates: The escape of Persian Jews from extermination sometime around the 4th century BCE.

Religion Represented: Judaism

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Purim is maybe a 6 or 7, says my friend Jason Gewirtz, who acknowledges that Purim is pretty much the most kick-ass of all the Jewish holidays even though he, himself, suffered some childhood trauma around Purim. (Something about having to wear a cute little beard in a Purim play when he was 4. Sounds ghastly.)

Star of the Show: Esther

The Back Story: Purim’s back story (which comes to us courtesy of the Book of Esther) is one of my all-time favorites, and reads a lot like a melodrama — which is exactly how Jews treat it. The villain of the story is the Persian king’s advisor, Haman (BOO! HISS!), and the two heros are Esther, the queen, and her cousin, Mordecai — both of whom are Jewish. The story is absolutely wonderful. And if you know it, you’ll pretty much know everything there is to know about Purim. For your reading enjoyment (or not), I’ve included my version of the story HERE.

Associated Literary Passages: The Old Testament’s Book of Esther, and the Babylonia Talmud: Tract Megilla.

Why Feminists Should Love Purim: There are precious few Biblical stories that put a woman front-and-center and show her taking heroic actions. Not only is Esther willing to “out herself” as a Jew to save her people, but the king respects her boldness and advice so much that, by the end of the story, she’s calling virtually all the shots. You go, girl.

The Food: The most Purim-est of the foods is Hamantaschen, a pastry shaped like Haman’s three-corned hat. “Leave it to the Jews to develop a snack based on the hat of the villian Haman,” Jason quips.

The Fun: Celebrants read the story of Esther twice during Purim — once at sundown, and again the next morning. They give away food, donate to the poor and, of course, engage in some serious feasting and drinking. In fact, the Talmud literally demands that Jews get rip-roaring drunk at Purim. No shit. The Babylonian Talmud states, and I quote, “Rava said: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’” How’s that for an excuse to party?

Conveying Meaning to Kids: This is a no-brainer, really. Just tell your kid the story! Either put it in your own (age-appropriate) words and tell it as a bedtime story, or check out a Purim picture book from the library. My favorite is Queen Esther the Morning Star by Mordicai Gerstein, but Queen Esther Saves her People and The Story of Esther: A Purim Tale also are good. You can also look online for videos about the story of Purim; Sesame Street has a good one. And I found this website with some very funny Purim-centered puppet videos and a slide show, among other things, that would be great for kids ages 8 to 12 or thereabouts. That and Hamantaschen, and you’re good to go.

A version of this post originally appeared in March 2012

6 Types of Secular Parents: Which Are You?

Types of Secular ParentsHow do you address religion with your kids?

While researching my book, I discovered six “methods” most commonly employed by secular parents. I had many sources for this research, including my own survey, but the most helpful was the work of a researcher named Christel J. Manning, who launched the country’s first academic study into nonreligious parenting in 2005 and then wrote about her research in the Sociology of Religion in 2013.

Here are the six approaches, along with pros and cons:

1. Returning to religion for the ‘sake of the kids.’ Some parents, particularly those raised in religious environments, believe the benefits children can glean from religious participation outweigh their own personal misgivings. (Or at least that’s what they tell themselves to avoid showdowns with Grandma!) Although there is an undeniable degree of comfort in raising kids the same way you were raised, doing so is disingenuous. There’s simply no integrity in indoctrinating kids into that belief system that no doesn’t make sense to you personally. You are living a lie, and teaching your kids that assimilation is more important than truth.

 2. Indoctrinating kids against religion. This is the flipside to No. 1 — and yet it’s no more advantageous. When religion is presented as something to be avoided at all costs, parents not only remove a child’s ability to decide for herself what belief system is right for her, but they fail to teach their kids that smart, reasonable people sometimes follow religious paths, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are an anti-religious atheist, employing this strategy may seem to be the most “honest” approach — and you may be right — but you run the risk of creating a bigoted and prejudiced child, rather than a tolerant and kind one.

3. Outsourcing religious instruction. These parents enroll their children in, say, Hebrew School or Catholic catechism classes — while remaining completely nonreligious at home — all in the hopes that the children will learn what they need to know from there. The advantage, of course, is that you can remain true to yourself while still allowing your kids access to religious information. Unfortunately, when you outsource, you have no control over (and limited knowledge of) what your kid is learning. And you guarantee that they receive instruction about only one religion. Plus, you risk confusing the kid, who will no doubt struggle to understand why school provides one set of facts while Mom and Dad provide another. [Read more...]

‘Can Kids Be Good Without God?’ Are We Still Really Talking About This?

MoralityIn case you’re interested, the Los Angeles Times will be hosting a live video discussion tomorrow centered on the question: “Can kids be good without God?” Phil Zuckerman, a super-bright secular studies professor who is promoting his book Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, will be joining Patt Morrison for the discussion, which will take place at 11 a.m.

Zuckerman recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Times titled “How Secular Family Values Stack Up,” where he revealed the many virtues of raising kids in secular homes. The piece was read and enjoyed by a wide audience (myself included!), but apparently sparked some debate on the site, too, specifically in regard to the fact that secular kids are just as moral (and sometimes more so) than religious kids. So the Times is now exploring the issue a bit more.

That’s all good, I suppose. But I have to say that this whole “morality-isn’t-tied-to-religion” thing is starting to feel like the new “evolution-is-true” debate. And by that I mean: It’s not a fucking debate.

I don’t know anyone personally who believes that godless people are immoral. Why? Because it’s so ridiculously obvious. Examples to the contrary are everywhere — in studies, yes, but also right in front of us. Human history is full of moral atheists.

Take William L. Moore, a postal worker and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) member who staged lone protests against racial segregation in the 1950s and ’60s. He was murdered on his final protest in 1963. Atheist. [Read more...]

What the Hell is Lent and Ash Wednesday?

So much of religion centers on food.

The faithful, it seems, are constantly feasting or fasting. Indulging or holding back. In Christianity, this feasting-fasting cycle is never more apparent than during the Easter season, which kicks off with Mardi Gras (feasting!), followed by Lent (fasting!), which finally — and mercifully — culminates in Easter (feasting again!)

Today is Mardi Gras (AKA Fat Tuesday) — which means New Orleans is having one hell of a street party today. Most Catholics (and a whole lot of secular people, too, says Tim Grobaty, the gin-loving humor columnist at the Long Beach Press-Telegram) will be getting their  ya-ya’s out because tomorrow is the beginning of Lent (AKA Ash Wednesday) — the day that millions of people around the world stop buying Starbucks,
swearing like sailors, gossiping about their co-workers, and eating entire sticks of butter while watching porn.

Poor bastards. What happened to everything in moderation?

Anyway, here’s the low-down on Lent and Ash Wednesday

Holiday: Ash Wednesday

Celebrates: The first day of Lent.

Religion represented: Christianity

Date: Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter Sunday.

What is Lent? The 40-day “fasting” period leading up to Easter. (Observers are afforded six built-in “breaks” — every Sunday during Lent, which means Lent begins 46 days before Easter.)

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Maybe a 5.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: According to the Gospels, Jesus spent 40 days wandering the desert, and fasting, before beginning his ministry, which led up to his death. Ash represents the idea that people came from ash, and to ash they will return — a reminder of Christians’ mortality. Also, ash is symbolic of penance, contrition and a desire to “burn away” sins. In the early days of the church, only Christians who had committed “grave sins” were marked with ash (Think the “Scarlet Letter A”) and prohibited from reentering the church until they had recited the Seven Penitential Psalms and performed 40 days of “penance and absolution.” Now, of course, Christians partake voluntarily. [Read more...]

Five Things Worth Knowing About Coptic Christians

800px-Coptic_monksThe horrifying beheadings of as many as 21 Coptic Christians by the Islamic State in Libya— as well as the rather remarkable airstrikes launched by Muslim-led Egypt in retaliation on Sunday — had me thinking and reading a lot about Coptic Christianity this morning. Thought others might be interested, too. So here’s a VERY brisk overview.

1. Only Egyptians are Coptic: Coptic Christians are Christians native to Egypt. In other words, if you’re not Egyptian, you’re not a Copt.

2. Copts make up the largest Christian community in the Middle East.  Today there are 14 to 16 million Coptic Christians in the world; 12 million of them still live in Egypt.

3. Copts have been Christian for a long damn time. There are lots of different branches of Christianity, and none claims to be older than the Roman Catholic Church — which considers Jesus’ apostle Peter to be its very first pope — and the  Eastern Orthodox (Catholic) Church — which was founded by the apostle Paul. But the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is pretty damn close. Coptic Christianity is said to have been founded during a mission by yet another apostle, Mark (of “Gospel of Mark” fame), in 42 CE — just nine years after Peter and Paul began their ministries and 600 years before Islam came along.

4. Belief-wise, Copts are basically Catholics without the Pope. The underlying theology of Coptic Christianity is so similar to Catholicism, the differences really aren’t worth getting into here. But if you’re interested in the details, click here for more information.

5. They may be a minority, but they are a valued minority. Copts constitute 10 percent of the Egyptian population; the other 90 percent of the population is Muslim. And they haven’t always been treated well as a result. But Egypt’s strong reaction to the recent beheadings by extremist jihadists tells me that these Copts are being viewed as Egyptians first and Christians second. It’s also a great reminder — isn’t it? — that just because jihadists revere Muhammad doesn’t mean Muslims revere jihadists.

10 Simple Ways to Mark Darwin’s Birthday

Featured on BlogHer.comEvolution, or the process by which living organisms change over time, was not discovered by Charles Darwin. But he certainly gave the theory its street cred.

By introducing natural selection — the idea that organisms best suited to survive in their particular circumstances have a greater chance of passing their traits on to the next generation — Darwin gave us a plausible mechanism by which evolution could take place. And that made all the difference. Darwin’s 1859 book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was the most groundbreaking biological theory the world had ever seen. And it remains an idea so powerful that it’s still banned today in some schools.

Today — Feb. 12 — would be Charles Darwin’s 206th birthday. And it’s one of the only secular holidays we’ve got. So let’s celebrate!

 

evolution

1. Watch this seven-minute video of cool-as-hell Carl Sagan explaining Natural Selection in a delightful and simply way.

2. Make a toast. Darwin’s name is one we want our kids to know and respect, so even if they’re too young to grasp the process of natural selection, at least get his name out there. At dinner tomorrow, raise a glass of something bubbly to Charles Darwin, a famous and important scientist whose life we celebrate.

3. Drop the “theory.” As Sagan says in the video above, evolution is a fact. The reason we hear the phrase “theory of evolution” so often is because, during Darwin’s day, evolution was a theory. But DNA has since proven what Darwin had theorized. Calling evolution a theory today is both confusing and misleading. [Read more...]

Impress Your Kid (Or Your Date) With Some ‘St. Valentine’s Day’ Trivia

Whirling DervishesFor the most part, I’m fine with being a nonbeliever. Like Bill Mahr says, “it requires so little of your time.” But every once in a while, I’m struck by how much my worldview has limited me. Take, for instance, the fact that I’ll never be a Whirling Dervish. Now that’s a real bummer! I’d love to be able to spin like that. Even worse? The chances are, like, zero that I’ll ever be sainted.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wendy! Don’t be so negative! You are a fantastic person, and you help so many others in need.” And to that, I say, “Thank y
ou. Really. I’m touched and humbled by your words.” But the truth is, I’m not saint material. First of all, there’s a whole, like, process to being sainted, and despite my skills in various areas, Catholics have surprisingly strict requirements: believing in God, performing miracles and  being deadm— just to name a few!

The whole subject is really interesting, actually, which is why I’m dedicating this installment in the Holiday Cheat Sheet series to a real saint: St. Valentine.

Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Feb. 14

Celebrates: A Christian martyr who lived in ancient Rome.

What it is, really: A day people celebrate romance and love by giving each other flowers, cards and candy hearts.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Valentine’s Day ranks at about 5, religiously speaking. This, according to my sister’s Catholic in-laws, who said it’s rarely, if ever, mentioned at Mass. In fact, Valentine’s Day is widely considered a secular holiday. (Although the fact that my nephew’s Jewish preschool doesn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day proves that the connection isn’t entirely lost.) [Read more...]

‘Mommy, What’s a Bible?’

DSC_0101-703x1024Latest in a series  for secular parents offering age-appropriate explanations for religious concepts.

Several years ago, an atheist friend of mine agreed to send his eight-year-old son to Vacation Bible School camp with some friends from the neighborhood. As camp week approached, the two would discuss “VBS” from time to time. One day, his son asked: “Dad, what does VBS stand for”

“Vacation Bible School,” my friend answered.

To which his son replied: “What’s a Bible?”

It was a funny moment — and a wake-up call for my friend, who hadn’t fully considered the importance of religious literacy. I still don’t know how he answered the question — but here’s how I would.

The short answer:
The Bible is a collection of very old books full of stories about God.
[Read more...]

On Stephen Fry, the Super Bowl and the General Assholishness of a God Who Kills Babies

This weekend was a heck of a thing, wasn’t it? First off, the Seattle Seahawks made sports history Sunday with one of the weirdest, wildest and most alarming endings to a Super Bowl game ever. The catch… the ill-fated play… the off-sides foul… and, finally, the fight. My God, men! Which brings me to the other weekend upset. On Saturday, Stephen Fry was asked in a rather hilarious interview (made hilarious in large part by the interviewer’s reactions) what he would say to God if he ever got to heaven. Please watch the video, if you haven’t already. It’s short and totally worth it (much like the last two minutes of the Super Bowl). Essentially, Fry says he would begin the conversation by calling God out on bone cancer in children, then he would make it clear that any God who would inflict so much suffering on children for no reason is “a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God,” as well as being “monstrous” and  “an utter maniac who deserves no respect whatsoever.” [Read more...]

Atheist Momma Julianne Moore Inspires Happy Dance

150121_THR_JulianneMoore_0327Secular parents may be a minority, but judging from Julianne Moore’s most recent comments to the Hollywood Reporter, we are also in some damn fine company.

“I learned when my mother died five years ago that there is no ‘there’ there,” Moore, a mother of two, told the Hollywood Reporter. “Structure, it’s all imposed. We impose order and narrative on everything in order to understand it. Otherwise, there’s nothing but chaos.”

It wasn’t the first time the Oscar-winning actor had revealed her atheism publicly. In 2002, while appearing on Inside the Actor’s Studio, she gave the world’s best answer to the question, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say at the pearly gates?”

 “Well, she answered, “I guess you were wrong. I do exist.” 

Still, it was the first time she expanded on the topic to any degree. For instance, in a conversation about the path that her life has taken, Moore indicated that the notion of a godless universe has allowed her to take full responsibility for her own choices and full credit for her own happiness — an opinion I think many secularists share.

“The idea that you’re the center of your own narrative and that you can create your life is a great idea,” she says, referring to a notion in one of her favorite books, Little Women. “I totally believe it. I’ve been really lucky, but I feel I’ve completely created my own life.”

[Read more...]


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