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Food, Festivities Mark Purim Celebration

Judaism: Upbeat holiday recalls foiled biblical plot against Persian Jews. Ventura temple's carnival wraps up local events.

March 08, 1999|ANNA GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — Dressed in a glittery Queen Esther gown, 9-year-old Kerri Ramgren threw beanbags at a wood cutout of the evil Haman.

"Show Haman how much you hate him," volunteer Heidi Sohn told the youngster. "You've got to really hit him hard."

And with that, Kerri chucked one more beanbag right through the hole in the villain's face.

Kerri and dozens of other children tossed rings, fished for plastic ducks and tried to dunk the rabbi during a Purim festival at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura on Sunday morning.

Purim--one of the most festive holidays of the Jewish calendar--celebrates the triumph of Queen Esther, a beautiful monarch who foiled a plot by Haman, the king's advisor who planned to destroy Persian Jews more than 2,000 years ago.

In commemoration of the victory, parents recount the biblical story as written in the Book of Esther, while children are urged to cheer for the heroine and boo at the villain. Jews everywhere eat, dance and drink in honor of Queen Esther's bravery. The holiday began at sunset March 1, and the last of the local celebrations wrapped up this weekend.

"It's a minor religious holiday," said Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller, who was dressed as a Teletubby, a colorful space-alien character from the British children's television series. "It's just a custom we celebrate--the notion that the Jews were saved from what would have been their certain death in Persia."

Hochberg-Miller said Jews dress in costume to lower their inhibitions so they are more willing to celebrate.

Sohn, a Ventura parent working at the event, said the carnival reinforces her children's cultural identity. "Purim is not really a religious holiday," she said. "It's more of a historical reminder of the unity of the Jewish people."

During Sunday's three-hour carnival, children dressed up as Esther and Haman for portraits; threw wet sponges at a booth called "Drown Clown Haman;" and tossed rings over fake challah, a traditional Jewish bread. They also ate cotton candy, cupcakes and Hamantaschen--cookies shaped like Haman's triangular hat.

"I like to eat the food, and especially the Hamantaschen," said Mallory Horowitz, 8. "We eat him because we didn't like him and didn't let him win."

Mallory said she's glad Queen Esther saved the Jews, "because otherwise we'd all be dead."

Down on the outdoor basketball courts, Hochberg-Miller revved up her baseball arm and tried to dunk her husband, fellow Rabbi Seth Hochberg-Miller. She missed the mark, but a sixth-grade baseball player hit the target soon after, and "Rabbi Seth" fell over into the tank of cold water.

As "Rabbi Lisa" walked back up to the carnival games, two children grabbed her arms and led her to Haman's jail--a 6-foot-tall cardboard box painted black. As she pleaded with her captors for freedom, 13-year-old Tyler Colbert came forward with the two red carnival tickets needed to keep the rabbi from being put behind make-believe bars.

"Thanks for saving me," she said to Tyler. "I can't believe that happened."

Ventura resident Barry Brenner said he has been bringing his children to the Purim carnival for several years. "It's important to build a sense of community and family," Brenner said. "And we can do that by coming out here for a festive occasion."

The annual carnival gives families a chance to come together and enjoy themselves, Seth Hochberg-Miller said. It also raises money--usually between $1,000 and $1,500--for the temple's Torah School.

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