AS winter stumbles into March, bringing with it the promise of warmer weather and longer days, thoughts for many turn to Purim.
It used to be a relatively minor festival in the Jewish calendar, with a huge focus on children, nash and dressing up.
But in the past decade or two, it has become a rather more grown-up chag — bringing with it a plethora of more grown-up problems.
The days of Purim being only associated with innocent three- cornered pastries and bright-eyed children dressed as Queen Esther are becoming consigned to the past.
Now when communities are starting to plan for Purim, they are having to focus not just on planning megilla readings but also on dealing with the anti-social behaviour that a minority of Purim revellers engage in.
Excess alcohol, drug use and unpleasant behaviour are becoming more prominent themes for what used to be a festival associated solely with harmless fun.
I’m not sure when or how it all started to change, but this evolution is a worldwide problem, not just a local one.
For years, many of us in the communities in the north of the UK complained about the post-Purim mess left in the streets by an excess of high jinks, but even those days of worrying about streets littered with silly string and kosher Haribo wrappers seem innocent compared to nowadays.
Now we are more concerned with keeping our young people safe on Purim than with merely keeping our streets clean.
And let’s be honest, our kids may not be safe on Purim these days. Sending our children onto the streets on Purim night unfortunately can mean putting them at risk of excess alcohol, exposure to drugs and risk of road traffic accidents caused by recklessness and lack of inhibition associated with drinking even low amounts of booze.
Risky behaviour, letting your hair down and doing things that you might not ordinarily do seems to be part of the culture at Purim these days and I fear it will take a serious incident before our communities wake up to this.
I use the term “communities” here, not community. This is one problem that affects charedim, modern Orthodox and secular alike.
For some reason, there is an increasing influx of secular Jews into the “Jewish areas” on Purim night, as young people swarm the streets in search of adventure.
The streets of our communities are increasingly awash with alcohol and illegal substances, available to even the youngest of revellers.
Of course, not everyone partakes. The majority of young party-goers are responsible and sensible. They are there to have good, clean fun and may even themselves be frustrated by the few trying to take things too far.
But there is a significant minority who are hellbent on engaging in risky behaviour that would normally only be seen inside a dodgy city-centre nightclub.
The community needs to start taking action to keep Purim safe. We need alcohol and drugs education in our schools in the weeks leading up to Purim.
We need the schools and organisations that organise the Purim floats that bring so much entertainment to our streets to also take responsibility for safety of passengers and the public.
Allowing students to organise their own floats does not, in my view, absolve schools of their responsibilities here. Many floats which parade loudly through the streets until the early hours have no adult supervision at all.
Another big problem with Purim is that the whole party is aimed at boys only. Only the yeshivas and boys’ schools organise floats — it is not considered appropriate for girls to be on floats.
Although some schools do try to organise alternative entertainment for girls, the lure of the street parties is always going to provide strong competition, and swarms of girls trying desperately to have fun, too, among the privilege of the teenage boys who themselves are high on sugar, alcohol and worse, are always going to provide a heady mix.
When Purim becomes arguably, one of the busiest times of the year for Hatzola, the emergency paramedic service, it’s time for a rethink in terms of culture, provision and education for young people on Purim night.
The whole problem with Purim is that it appears to condone excessive drinking — the obligation being to become so intoxicated that a person cannot distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai” (Talmud, Megilla 7b).
This allows adult males to drink with impunity on Purim, but this culture is dramatically infiltrating to young men — and women.
The whole culture of letting your hair down on this one night of the year, when almost anything goes and it’s fun to see grown men tipsy, needs challenging.
Seeing someone’s dad or rebbe merry from a Purim schnapps at a seuda is one thing; watching 14- year-olds vomit in the street, play chicken with passing traffic or pass out on the pavement is quite another.
This Purim, let’s make it different. I call on the schools, youth movements, shuls and organisations in our community to lead the change.
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