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A more sober marking of Purim?

Rabbis and others, concerned about past excesses by young revelers, urge more responsible drinking at tonight's celebrations.

March 03, 2007|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

Purim, a holiday celebrating the foiling of a plot to kill the Jews of ancient Persia, is often used by many -- including the underaged -- as an excuse to get drunk.

The festival, which starts today at sundown, is observed with costumes, storytelling and boisterous behavior. But growing concern about excessive drinking on Purim is prompting some Jewish leaders and groups to call for moderation or to suggest that celebrants forgo alcohol entirely.

An incident last year, in which an Orthodox Jewish high school student in Los Angeles went to an emergency room after drinking too much during another religious holiday, triggered debate and reflection about alcohol abuse in the Jewish community.

"We're recognizing that with many of the teens who end up with a substance abuse problem, it was on Purim they got their start," said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B'nai David-Judea, an Orthodox congregation in West Los Angeles.

Religious authorities say that drinking on Purim is practiced in all strains of Judaism, but that it can be more pronounced among the Orthodox, who often take a literal approach to Jewish law and therefore would more strictly follow calls for drinking as an expression of joy.

An Orthodox outreach section of Jewish Family Services in Los Angeles circulated leaflets last year urging moderation on Purim and telling parents to talk to their children about alcohol abuse. Last week it sent out 5,000 such leaflets to the Orthodox community throughout Los Angeles.

According to the nonprofit Students Against Destructive Decisions, in 2005 about 10.8 million people between the ages of 12 and 20 reported drinking alcohol in the month before the survey. Nearly 7.2 million said they were binge drinkers.

Debbie Fox, director of the Orthodox outreach section at Jewish Family Services, said she wouldn't be surprised if similar trends applied to Jews in the Orthodox community.

"There have been warning signs for years," Kanefsky said. "After every single Purim, you just braced yourself for the story that you'd hear. If it wasn't from your own city, it was in New York [or] was in Baltimore -- somewhere some Yeshiva kid was killed or terribly injured driving on or after Purim."

At Kanefsky's own synagogue tonight, "not a drop of alcohol is to be found in the building," he said. Kanefsky decided to go dry about seven years ago, he said, when he saw young children fascinated by the "tipsiness" of their parents and other adults.

"I was watching this and said, 'Oh my God, what message are we sending here?' " Kanefsky said. "And so that was the end."

Purim celebrates how Esther and Mordechai saved the Jews of the Persian Empire, in the 5th century BC, from the royal vizier Haman, who plotted to annihilate them. The narrative unfolds in the city of Shushan, or modern-day Shush in Iran.

Purim, which typically falls in February or March, is considered a relatively minor religious holiday in Judaism. Many liken it to Mardi Gras.

The religious obligations for the holiday include listening to or reading the story in the Hebrew Bible. While the story is read aloud, listeners "blot out" Haman's name by making noise, booing or hissing. Other obligations include having a festive meal, giving gifts of food or donating to the poor.

However, an additional mitzvah, or good deed, is stated in the Talmud, or compendium of Jewish law: that one should drink until one cannot tell the difference between the phrases "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai."

For some, it's a reason to imbibe.

"I have heard people say, 'Oh, yeah, everyone's going to be drunk because it's a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim,' " said Orit Hayun, 22, a senior at USC who is helping organize a Purim party near campus.

"I hate to say this, but it's a great selling point, especially for college students: 'Come to this party. Drink for free, or drink for a $1 all night.' "

The practice of drinking on Purim is centuries old, and the question of what amount is proper has prompted "an impassioned and often-divided debate among the rabbis," said David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. "There is a Talmudic claim that it's an obligation, but that has not been universally endorsed by subsequent rabbis."

Indeed, the Talmud also contains a tale of two sages drinking on Purim. One accidentally kills the other in his drunkenness. The sage is brought back to life, but the next Purim he does not celebrate in the same manner.

Rabbis say the injunction to get drunk probably was an outgrowth of difficult times for Jews in exile. Purim offered a rare chance to let go of inhibitions and fully express joy.

"You've got to remember: Back in the day, there wasn't the worry that somebody would get into the car and hurt themselves," said Rabbi Dov Wagner, an Orthodox rabbi with Chabad, a Jewish organization, at USC. "Judaism today has the social responsibility to look at the different factors that might not have existed before."

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