The last big gathering I attended in 2020, in that final liminal weekend between “it’s fine, just wash your handswp_postsand the unyielding devastation of the next three years, was a drag Purim spiel. An intergenerational crowd joined the performers in lustily booing Haman, the genocidal villain of the Purim story, and followed Merriam Levkowitz, Chicago’s Premier “Drag Bubbewp_postsand our Queen Esther du jour, in an ecstatic conga line to Sara Bareilles’s “Brave.wp_postsIt feels like a memory from a different era, more than three years ago, when large community gatherings didn’t involve a risk calculus and kid-friendly drag shows weren’t right-wing media’s favorite bogeyman.
Purim, for the uninitiated, is fucking amazing. People love to point out the raucous partying, the encouraging of subversion of gender roles, the badass heroines (there are two, although I’m pretty sure Megillat Esther does not pass the Bechdel Test), the triangle-shaped cookies we eat to mock the sartorial choices of a man who tried to kill us centuries ago. I love it for all the obvious trappings, and I love it because it encourages the best parts of us — generosity, community, humor, and immense, immense creativity, from the drag performers who offer queer interpretations of sacred text to the rabbis saving all their best zingers. It encourages us to be in community loudly — booing Haman, laughing at the rabbi’s jokes, expressing ourselves through festive costumes and accessories.
When Purim rolled around last year, it came on the heels of a second winter of our discontent, and I was dealing with a major upending in my personal life that brought with it a period of mourning, and everyone around me was shouldering their own ever-heavier Sisyphean grief-boulders. Instead of leaning into isolation, I decided to lean into the spirit of Purim, into the tradition of mishloach manot.
This tradition, which literally translates to “sending of portions,wp_postsinvolves creating care packages of food and drink to send to loved ones. According to Jewish law, the food must be ready-to-eat, so sweets, snack foods, and fruit tend to be the most popular. With many loved ones still largely isolating at that time, I could share a little moment of sweetness and festivity with them, remind them that they are still being held in our thoughts, in a manner that still respected Covid-related boundaries. And I cannot recommend enough, whether you are Jewish or not, the act of making lil’ care packages and delivering them to your people.
One beautiful thing about mishloach manot as a care gesture is that like any other care package, it’s easily modifiable outside of the rule of including ready-to-eat food. I’ve seen some absolutely wild themed examples online, from a spread of Trader Joe’s snacks ensconced in their paper bags to a sports-themed parcel with fully-dressed hot dogs to a movie night starter kit with popcorn and candy. It sounds like the most obvious advice in the world, but just think about what the recipients would actually enjoy and use.
That said, I may have overdid it in that first experimental year. I supplemented the snacks with bath bombs, dropped in Japanese Kit-Kats, even included prerolls for a lucky few. I baked two kinds of cookies (one vegan). I made sure to include gluten-free snacks, and to include something fun for the kids for the parcels going to parents. Which brings me to my one piece of advice for this undertaking — it’s okay to keep it simple, and if you’re short on time or funds or energy to put something together, just do what you can and don’t forget to consider your own needs and boundaries, too.
That said, those hours spent scoping grocery aisles and baking and compiling were some of the most grounding I had that entire weird, sad winter. While rolling ginger-molasses cookies and pricing out joints, I thought about what it was I loved about each person, what I would say to them during the drop-off, the chest-filling appreciation of the way they showed up for me as I was lugging my grief-boulder around, how a little bag of goodies didn’t feel like enough to show the scope of that love, but I hope they’d still feel it.
I am filled with questions as this Purim season rolls around. Who will be able to gather? Who will be grieving? But I know that I will approach it as the chance to infuse some queer Jewish joy in the lives of the people I love, to deliver even the smallest reminders that say, “you deserve sweetness and moments of delight, you deserve a community that will be with you, loudly.wp_postsI wish you that same sweetness, and hope you will find a way to bring it to your loved ones, too, this Purim holiday and beyond.
This year Purim begins at sundown on Monday, March 6.