It’s become a tradition here in St. Louis that my wife and I invite the Yeshiva High School senior boys over each year for our Purim seuda. Given the logistics of our house, the males gather around a long table in the den while the women watch in amusement and, occasionally, dismay from the relative safety of the dining room. How my wife prepares enough food to satisfy the appetites of a minyan of teenage bochurim is one of the great mysteries of life.
I begin with the Reading of the Rules (e.g., anyone who feels sick must make it to an emergency exit before, well, you know), move swiftly through a parody of kiddush, then come to the main part of the celebration, where I introduce all the students in turn with lyrical grahamen and they earn their fare by presenting divrei Torah. When the last one is finished, I give my own davar Torah, which somehow weaves together all of theirs in sequence. (Don’t be too impressed; it’s a lot easier to do drunk than sober.)
Lower classmen, although not officially invited to the meal, often drop in as do graduates who happen to be in town, for a chance to see the effects of a full bottle of wine on their unswervingly staid rebbe. (According to rumor, I never loosen my tie). It’s also not often that a bochur gets to hear his rebbe perform a drop-dead, Paul Robeson rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
But the highlight of the afternoon festivities (which typically run between three and four hours) is my annual exegesis of Don Maclean’s American Pie.
The references are a bit dated for today’s teenagers, although they still know Buddy Holly (the music), Mick Jagger (Satan), Elvis (the king), and Bob Dylan (the jester), and they usually get the Lennon-Lenin pun. Such references as Charles Manson (helter-skelter), the sock-hop, Woodstock, James Dean, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention (the “sweet perfume” may be tear gas) require a bit more explanation. And a few of the lyrics need editing (e.g., the Father, Son, and Casper the Ghost). Don Maclean’s message of modern music’s messianic hope and ultimate failure seems to resonate well within the spiritually complex structure of Purim.
I suppose some might suggest that I am degrading Purim, introducing the secular, the mundane, even the profane into avodas haKodesh. And although I generally avoid listening to modern music with its coarse or often heretical lyrics, although I never insert secular melodies into Shabbos davening or Shabbos zemiros, although I struggle to squelch discussions of baseball whenever they turn up at the Shabbos table, I would argue that Purim, with its theme of blurring the boundaries between Mordechai and Haman, is different. Moreover, I would argue that Purim offers a unique opportunity to resurrect, selectively and briefly, the ghost of my secular past as a demonstration of the need to strike a balance between the spiritual and the physical.
Who can measure the impact on Amerian kids of the lingering memories of a Purim celebration that integrates the culture they find so enticing without losing focus on avodas HaShem? And what could ever have replaced what has become my trademark Purim schtick if I hadn’t learned American Pie way back when?
First published Fev 28, 2008