The Learning and Teaching of Purim

megillahBy Chaya Gorsetman

Every Purim I am reminded about an incident that a parent shared with me about their child, Dena.

Both of Dena’s parents worked full time and generally arrived home around 6:00 each evening. On a typical day, Dena’s baby sitter picked Dena up from school at 3:30 pm; took her home and played with her until Dena’s parents arrived. Once, before the start of Purim, before dismissal, Dena’s mother received an urgent call that Dena refused to go home with her sitter. Although generally quite close with her sitter, on that particular day, Dena was frightened to be alone with her and needed assurance that her parents would pick her up from school and take her home.

Once together, Dena’s mother asked Dena why she didn’t want to go home with her sitter as usual. Dena, upset and crying, said: “Haman wasn’t Jewish and he didn’t want to let the Jewish people celebrate Jewish Holidays, so I don’t want to go with her because she isn’t Jewish and will not let me be Jewish. I don’t like people who aren’t Jewish.”

Similarly, once a distraught parent told me that her son wanted to attend a different school, because he no longer wanted to be Jewish. On Chanukah, Purim and Passover, everyone was trying to kill the Jews and he did not want to be killed.

Unfortunately, over the years I have heard numerous experiences of this sort, where a young child (3, 4 or 5-year-old) is upset or frightened by a story told in school around a Jewish holiday or event.

Most adults, parents as well as teachers, think about teaching Purim (or any other Jewish holiday or custom) to young children from their own, the adult’s perspective. The pedagogical concern of course is how do young children acquire knowledge and how that is considerably different from how adults or even older children learn and integrate information.

Most adults assemble the information that they seek to transfer to others based upon what it is that thinking adult would want to know. And so, Jewish holiday teaching generally begins around an history lesson of sorts, typically with specific mention of this or that bad person or nation that sought to destroy the Jews, how God managed to save his people and how everyone lived happily ever after. Of course, most experienced teachers and parents are careful of how best to describe to our young children the hardships of our forefathers and foremothers. But the harsh outlines of the ‘story’ remain, and often prove fearful and threatening for the more sensitive among our children.

At the outset, I am not adverse to storytelling. Indeed, storytelling is an extremely effective way in which to communicate values as well as historical facts. However in this essay I wish to consider what types of values we might want our young children to experience and how best to communicate those values in an age appropriate manner to insure that our children can participate together with us in our traditions without the often attendant, but mostly unnecessary sense of fear.

Young children are exceptionally good learners. They connect deeply with what they are told and from whom they hear the messages of life. They are naturally curious and want to know about the world in which they live and how best to interact with the people that make up their world. However, young children are often incapable of distinguishing between something happening now or far back in the past. They tend to understand information literally so hearing about how a certain non-Jew tried to kill a Jew sometime long ago will likely be misunderstood as actually occurring to them just a few days ago. At this stage of their development, young children are egocentric and experience their surroundings and encounters as if all that is occurring around them is really about them.

From an adult prospective, the Purim story is exciting since it contains all of the elements of a good story. The Megillah is a rich aspirational drama about kings and queens, nation building, political intrigue, death and last minute, life saving resolution. It’s fun to read, comic in places and very insightful as to how poorly, nation effecting decisions are often made by corrupt bureaucrats obsessed with their own sense of importance and personal greed. Young children know that adults give the story great significance, especially with the celebration taking place in both the Synagogue and at home. So they naturally understand the story as being concrete and current in large part, because they do not have a mature concept of time as it relates to history; their learning is personal, and literal particularly in their interpretation of historical events and how it relates to their own lives. They worry about the killing, the sending away, and regarding people not liking Jews, as they begin to ‘own’ the details of the story.

One well intentioned, and developmentally sensitive teacher once told me that in her early childhood class, that to be sure that the children learned the story, she told the story of Esther, Mordechai, Ahasverus and Haman repeatedly to her students. The teacher enthusiastically recounted that the children learned the story well; its details and its message. Instructively, she also recounted that she noticed that when the children played with the Purim puppets they referred to Haman as “mean.” This led to a discussion of how we could help someone who is “mean” (like Haman) to become a better person. “I asked the children,” she said, “if we could write a letter to Haman, what would you tell him to help him make better choices in life?”

Here is what her children told her:

David: Don’t do it again. Don’t send the Jewish people away.
Claire: Don’t push anybody.
Eli: Go away, and then you need to be Jewish
Steven: Don’t let him talk, close his mouth.
Olivia: Set boundaries to Haman.
Seth: Haman, don’t hit people.
Talya: Go away.
Eli: Send him away.
Beth: He should go to the doctor’s office.

There are several takeaways from this learning situation. Notice how the children are addressing Haman from their limited perspective as if he were in the classroom with them and listening to each of their suggestions. Although assuredly, the children must have also focused on the other characters of the Purim story, it is instructive that the children were mostly concerned and related most intently with the Haman character. It was Haman that needed more focus, since it was Haman that was the most threatening. In other words, the young children in her classroom understood Haman in the most literal, non-conceptual way as a bully that they knew that required some measure of ‘talking to’ in order to correct his behavior. But Haman is not Purim. Purim has multiple big idea messages that also need expression and dominance, and which especially for young children (and ultimately for adults as well) require acknowledgement and engagement.

Over the years, I have collected countless, and often times humorous, anecdotes that illustrate how young children may distort information because of the concrete and literal manner in which they respond to storytelling. Accordingly, our understanding of what children “need to know” about an historical event in Jewish life deserves a serious, in depth review of how educators prepare themselves and think about teaching young children. Just as teaching literacy and math are regularly reexamined, so does the Jewish component of early childhood curriculum deserve a periodic assessment. If the storyline generally connected with a particular holiday can be seen by young children as inherently violent (think Chanukah and Pesach as well as Purim), it is likely inappropriate to teach that storyline to young children.

So the immediate question for teachers (and parents) is how best to teach the traditions of our people in an age appropriate manner that children can understand, appreciate and will properly integrate into the broader family and people experience. Asked differently, what should young children know about a particular holiday, and in the instant case, Purim?

Foremost, young children need to know about the celebration of Purim, on which day the holiday begins and what types of things we Jews do on Purim. For example, we need to expose young children to experience of how diverse communities of Jews celebrate Purim, the types of clothes they wear, the foods that they eat, and maybe even the different noises that they make when the Megillah is read. These are the types of conversations which easily engage young children so that they may bring in their own concerns and personal experiences, which is an excellent stage for enabling them to express their curiosity and wonderment.

The renowned early childhood researcher Lilian Katz (professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) was once asked what young children should learn about Judaism. She responded:

“We should present the celebratory and musical aspects of holidays as well as some simple rituals such as observing candles being lit and related foods. We also want to imbue values, responsiveness and awareness of others needs, and points of views and feelings. An inquisitive disposition fosters understanding and information that explains matters which interest and concern them.

Engaging in a variety of religious observances, participating in holiday events, and singing songs in Hebrew, cultivates feelings of belonging and pleasure. Feeling at home around Jewish objects and symbols are a meaningful aspect of being part of a community. An important element of the curriculum should involve children in investigating a variety of topics related to their own family history as well as the history of their community. Best learning takes place in an environment that promotes experiences and supports curiosity.”

In light of Lillian Katz’ insights and directives, as an educational community we need to reconsider how teachers can better prepare young children for the holiday of Purim. We need to consider how we can ‘tell the story of Purim’ without focusing primarily on a story line which may be inappropriate for young children. In other words, we need to inquire about and discuss those messages of Purim which are age appropriate and easily grasped by 3, 4 and 5-year-old, Jewish children to enhance their experience of the holiday to encourage deeper thinking and making deeper meaning for them.

By way of illustration, imagine a group of teachers working collaboratively to prepare for the Purim holiday. However instead of focusing on the classic Esther, Mordechai and Haman storyline, they decide to explore the customs and laws of Purim. When were they instituted as customs? How have different Jewish communities over the ages celebrated Purim? What are the big ideas of ideas of Purim and how are they expressed by our customs?

The Rabbis of old seemed to have incorporated the notion of social inclusion in how Purim is observed today and coupled it with a sense of responsibility for all Jews, regardless of their economic realities. On Purim the Rabbis actively accentuated gift giving and care for the poor. In addition to reading the Megillah, Jews everywhere are obligated to send shalach manoth (gifts of food) and matanot evyanim (gifts to the poor) to friends and the poor, respectively. Additionally it is on Purim that the Rabbis decreed that the count of the people occur with the Machzit Hashekel, the half coin that each Jew deposits in his or her synagogue to facilitate an actual census of the Jews in that community.

The teachers might also examine the phrases or terminologies regularly associated with Purim. For example, Masechet Taanit 29a relates that on the first day of the month of Adar it is customary to say Mishenichnas Adar Marbim Besimcha (When the month of Adar enters, our joy is magnified). What kind of joy did the Rabbis have in mind when this Mishnah was formulated and how was it expected to be magnified? Frankly while I am intrigued by the question, I don’t know. However I offer the following pathway for consideration.

In Devarim, Parshat Reah (Deuteronomy 17: 13-14) the Torah commands us to be joyous on the holiday of Succot. It suggests that we express that joy by inviting the Ger (convert), the orphan, and the widow, the socially and economically vulnerable, to our temporary dwellings. On Purim, we also have a festive meal and invite those dear to us. So the prototype of how we express simcha (Joy) is by taking those that are most vulnerable in our community and sharing the day with them and our friends. In both Succot and Purim, we literally create simcha by helping others experience joy through acts of charity, offers of friendship and by eating a festive meal together. Just as Succot seeks to develop a sense of community through the shared experience of God’s providence in the 40 years of our ancestors’ wanderings, similarly Purim seeks to create a sense of community of God’s providence in another time and place.

With these types of conversations and exchanges between and among teachers (and maybe even among parents) Purim becomes recast as a holiday of giving and through (or because of) that giving, rejoicing.

Imagine further what might happen to those teachers who engage in these types of deep conversations about the big ideas of a holiday and how they begin to think about what young children should experience and learn before a holiday. What can young children investigate? What opportunities will children have to inquire? How will the environment support them to be able to ask questions and wonder about the holiday? What values do we want children to gain from the experiences and conversations?

Teachers are able to share ideas of how to present an environment which raises the children’s curiosity of what they would like to learn about the holiday of Purim. Perhaps the details of the Purim story no longer need to be at the center of the learning. Perhaps the experience of cooking and baking and giving to those in need may be more meaningful because young children can enjoy the experience. They can develop the mental disposition of caring for others, and become more aware of others and how they feel. They can learn songs related to the holiday with the actual words of the prayers. Learning before planning the curriculum will surely enhance and deepen the teachers’ understanding of the holiday. Teachers who engage in their personal learning will also begin to collaborate in a deeper way and develop curriculum in a more meaningful way for the young child. Just as teachers explore possibilities, they may begin to think of how children can explore and construct their own learning.

Assuredly, this type of discussion is not meant to eliminate the recitation of the Megillah altogether in a school. The storyline of Purim is appropriate for older children, and as young children mature they will have ample time to hear the details of the story and discuss it fully in depth.

I am reminded of a ‘teaching moment’ experience by one veteran teacher in one of her 3 and 4-year-old classrooms. She had created a comfortable environment in her classroom just before the holiday of Pesach.

“I started Pesach with a set table. I’ve done that before, but for whatever reason, I began to listen to the children and wanted to know what they were thinking about, when believe it or not, the thing they were most interested in was “how the Rabbi finds the non-Jewish person to sell the chametz to” and “what if the non-Jewish person takes the chametz?” I answered them and wanted to get back to the Seder, but they just kept going with this, so I stopped my “agenda” and worked on theirs.

As a result of this conversation, one little girl raised her hand and told us that “do you know that when my father was little he wasn’t Jewish and he ate non-kosher food? Then he met a Rabbi. I think his name was Effie Buchwald, and this Rabbi taught my father how to be Jewish.”

Did those children learn much about the intended lesson? Frankly, I don’t know. However, I am quite confident that the children were engaged in a serious conversation that was relevant and meaningful to them. I also know that these children were able to have this kind of learning experience, because the teacher was invested in creating a learning community by establishing the classroom as a safe place for serious conversations. She also allowed the children to express their thoughts and make meaning of their issues around Pesach.

Young children need to be engaged in developmentally appropriate practices. As educators we need to refocus our attentions less on the simple storyline and more on the depth and message of the holiday. Lilian Katz is concerned about the personal connections that children make that are meaningful to them. She is interested in supporting their curiosity and the wonderment of new ideas. We can accomplish this by encouraging our teachers (and parents) to engage the big ideas of each holiday and how that is expressed by our customs and practices.

Chaya Gorsetman is a teacher educator at Stern College for Women, a consultant to school leaders, and researches educational issues in the Jewish early childhood sector.