Purim, a holiday that commemorates a thwarted genocide, has somehow become a dress-up party filled with jokes, satire, and general tomfoolery. How do we reconcile these seeming contradictions? Probably the best way to do so is with the age old saying: if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Sure, we could spend our time on Purim contemplating the near destruction of Persian Jewry, but it’s better to make fun of the ridiculousness of the hatred that led to Haman’s plot.
Afterall, Jewish tradition did eventually create Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, which precedes Purim. That is the appropriate time to contemplate the many moments in history when anti-Semitism has threatened our existence. Any yet, we are still here, in part due to the courage and boldness of people like Mordecai and Esther.
Humor is a very human way of dealing with pain, fear and anger, so it is natural for Purim to include silliness, but it also gives the holiday multiple layers. Most are familiar with the funny parts, including costumes, carnivals and parties, but there is a darker side buried below the surface, and it is not just Haman’s plan to kill us. At the end of the book of Esther, the Jews are given permission to eliminate their enemies and end up killing 75,000 people.
This year, a congregation in Michigan produced a hilarious musical video in the style of Avenue Q which notes that we never “talk about the massacre hidden at the end of the book”. It’s true. That part of the story is not included in most religious school discussions of Purim. While we like to celebrate our victories over enemies, we don’t want to glorify vengeance and retribution.
Humor can be helpful in allowing us to cope with difficult situations, but it can also cross the line into stereotype as well. Michael Che, a co-host of SNL’s Weekend Update, has received criticism for his joke that while Israel has vaccinated half of its population, it was only the Jewish half. In fact, Israel vaccinates all of it’s citizens, which includes a significant percentage of non-Jewish Arabs.
Not only was Che’s joke factually incorrect, it plays on the anti-Semitic trope that Jews are insular and only care about themselves. Others argued that while Che may not have gotten his facts right, the sentiment of the joke is correct because Israel is not vaccinating Palestinians, who are not Israeli citizens. This is correct, but also not the whole story. There is a question about whether Israel should be responsible for vaccinating the Palestinian population. According to the Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is charged with healthcare and vaccinations in its territory, and, at least initially, it did not request vaccines from Israel, choosing instead to acquire them from other sources.
While Israel may not be required or obliged to vaccinate the Palestinian population, it certainly makes sense just from a practical standpoint to coordinate with the PA to do so. Palestinians come into Israel each day for many different reasons, so if Israel wants to eradicate COVID from its midst, it cannot ignore its closest neighbor. It is sad to see that the current state of Israel-Palestinian relations is so low that there cannot be basic coordination on vaccination.
Jokes can expose hypocrisy and challenge the powerful, but also reinforce negative stereotypes. During the coronavirus pandemic we have been reminded of the power of humor to lift us up in moments of despair, isolation, and boredom. We need laughter now more than ever.