Sunday, October 20, 2019

I still have fond memories of my childhood Purim preparations. We all sat in an assembly line, ready to take directions from my parents. My mother, a creative person in a myriad of areas, would show us her clever poem or song that explained the connection between the items we were about to wrap up. We didn’t always understand every joke, but we recognized her creativity and were amused. Apparently, the community in which I grew up (the valley in Los Angeles, for those who are curious) was ahead of its time, and themes were already the norm with many families (and this goes back 30 years), even incorporating costumes to match the food.

In my own home I enjoy thinking of themes together with my family, and whether we match costumes to each other or to the theme depends on the year and on everyone’s interest. Our children enjoy taking part in a family theme (some years), as we hold family meetings to brainstorm around the table, and they eagerly wait for their part in our own assembly line, a scene that is nostalgically reminiscent of my childhood.

In the weeks leading up to Purim, everything around me has the potential to become a Purim theme. Even the title of this piece makes me sit and wonder, “Have we considered an Elizabethan Purim?” I even try to have themes for our Purim seudah, though not all my guests find it as amusing as I do. I find themes entertaining, and even helpful in focusing my energy. But sometimes we get so wrapped up in the costume planning and mishloach manot coordinating that we need to take a step back and refocus.

As our rabbi, Rav Zvi Sobolofsky of Congregation Ohr HaTorah, mentions each year in his review of Purim halachot, “Despite what people may think, it is not one of the mitzvot of Purim to have a theme in mishloach manot.” Which raises a question for many people: Has thematic Purim gotten out of control?

I posed this seemingly innocuous question to the Facebook community, asking their feelings toward thematic mishloach manot. Many people are enthusiastic fans of themes. “Themes are a creative outlet for me. I especially love writing the poems,” said Abby Cooper of Bergenfield. “But I really don’t think people need to feel pressured to do it if they have no interest,” she added, noting that themes are just meant to be fun, and not an added source of stress. Cooper also said she doesn’t have her children tie their costumes into their mishloach manot theme so they can be happy dressing up in costumes of their choice.

Teaneck’s Yael Rosman also enjoys a family theme, and they match their costumes to the mishloach manot. “It’s actually a nice bonding experience because we all figure something out together,” said Rosman. “I’m not super into baking, sewing or spending a lot of money, so we usually do something relatively simple to pull off that either everyone agrees on, or that can tie into what everyone wants to dress up as individually.”

Rena Newman also utilizes the resources around Bergenfield and Teaneck for a family theme. She used to make their family’s costumes and now visits the costume gemach for their collective Purim inspo. “My kids are into it and we have fun as a family.”

Like any good Facebook question, responses about mishloach manot went from favorable, to neutral, to heated. Heather Benjamin of Teaneck supports her fellow moms in their creative endeavors, as she appreciates the best of both worlds. “I find that as a full-time working mom I just don’t feel I have the time for themes,” said Benjamin. “However, I always love getting mishloach manot with themes and am in awe when other working moms send them out,” as she jokingly referred to her mishloach manot as “just” doing the mitzvah with yummy food.

Eliana Baum enjoys the fun behind a theme (full disclosure: she’s my sister so she grew up with the same fond memories of Purim). But at the same time, she has seen the trend start to spiral out of control, even to the point where classic costumes are becoming a thing of the past. “It’s a little sad to think that doing a family theme means that girls and boys aren’t dressing up as Esther and Mordechai anymore,” she said. Maybe we should be doing Purim as a theme?

Others, however, feel the whole idea of doing themes represents a larger issue as an undercurrent in the community at large. “Being on Facebook and seeing all the comments in some of these groups—people are way too focused on the trees and missing the forest,” said one member of the greater North Jersey community. Just to clarify, this individual is not against themed Purim ideas. It is something she thinks about doing every year. But she feels that themes can sometimes get out of control and make Purim more of a focus on materialism. She offered a different perspective. “The community needs to work harder at being welcoming to people they don’t know,” and suggested using mishloach manot (themed or standard) as an opportunity to reach out. “Giving through tzedakah organizations…as well as having kids make simple ones of their own to give to friends and including people beyond their group is what I have been more comfortable with.”

Echoing the idea of partnering with tzedakah organizations, North Jersey is fortunate to have both prepackaged mishloach manot that benefit tzedakahs, as well as cards or ecards that can be sent out to friends and family. Tzviya Siegman remembers the time when her entire Purim was consumed by shopping for, packing and delivering mishloach manot. Now “I am all about buying prepared through Project Ezrah,” she said.

Dr. Bin Goldman, a psychologist in Bergen County, offered perspective on the trend. “You can go over the top without a theme, and you can do a theme without going crazy; it’s all about how you do it,” he said. Goldman explained that there are many benefits that can be found in doing a family theme. “The ability for a family to sit down and include everyone in the creative process teaches them lessons in collaboration in group work and social problem solving,” he said, also explaining that any type of family meeting teaches children how to take everyone’s needs into account and that they have a voice.

If a family is concerned that mishloach manot can be too costly or over the top, Goldman suggests that instead of figuring out what to buy for a lavish arrangement, look around at what your family already has, or already has easy access to, and create ideas around that. “Thinking thematically incorporates many skills. It forces everyone to figure out how things go together creatively, makes you look for and recognize patterns, and incorporates inductive reasoning and critical thinking. Above all, it provides a chance for a family to sit down together and ask ‘How can we work through this together?’”

In our family’s mishloach manot we try to tie something back into the Purim story, a mitzvah or a sentiment of the day, so that even as we are being silly there is still a focus on what Purim should be about. We send cards out to more and more people each year, mishloach manot to fewer people, and have resolved that our mishloach manot should not cost more than what we give through the cards. This is what has worked for us, and we continue to evaluate each year as our family’s needs evolve. But the point made by the community member to use Purim not necessarily to try to outdo your theme (or your neighbor’s theme) from the year before, but as a way to reach out to people outside of your immediate circle is one that can be taken to heart. Whether you’re kicking it old school like Yael Elias in Passaic, who put hamentashen on a paper plate, or have a family costume spread worthy of cosplay at a Renaissance Fair, if you give one mishloach manot, or 60, the message of Purim and of “mishloach manot ish l’reyeihu” should be a strong focus in carrying out this special mitzvah of the day.

By Jenny Gans