Sunday, March 8, 2009

Purim Party-On

We interrupt this Rockmoto blogging series for a look back at my first drunken Purim. And when I say drunken I mean...

March, 1995.

There was a line to get into the house. I’d never been to a Chabad service before, but I heard they throw a great Purim party and I figured this would be an easy entry into the mysterious world of the Hassidim. The Chabad House was a little gray colonial a few blocks off the Northwestern campus in Evanston, IL and frankly it was a revelation to me there were Jews in the mid-west much less Hassids.

I’d grown up in a country club Conservative temple in Stamford, CT where Purim meant gathering in our large sanctuary where lay folk would take turns reading from the Megilah and then an English speaker would give an animated English translation. Parents would encourage their kids to stamp their feet and swing their cheap, plastic groggers every time the name Haman was mentioned. I enjoyed the booing and hissing too ‘cause he was the bad guy who as prime minister tried to convince the king to commit genocide against all the Persian Jews. (He didn’t succeed and Purim is the festival holiday celebrating his defeat and our survival).

The making and eating of Hamantashen and the story-telling was the extent of the holiday as far as I knew. Not much to write home about. I didn’t hear about tradition of donning costumes much less the general drinking and revelry that accompanied Purim in some circles ‘til I heard about Chabad in my 20s.

Chabbadnicks were still scary to me at the time. The black hats, beards and paias made it clear they were not just separate from gentiles, but from me as well. I thought their retention of 16th Century Polish landowner costumes to be absurd and misguided if not destructive to intra-Jewish relations as well as interfatih understanding. But I was in grad school and decided I would be open-minded and see what it was they actually did. Rather than starting out with Yom Kippur though, I figured I’d go for a more light-hearted event like Purim. Especially if they know how to throw a party.

I get to the front of the line and I’m told “Ten dollars”. There’s a cover? Unbelievable. Like tickets at Yom Kippur. I nearly turn around but I decide, hell, I’m here already, I might as well stay. I don’t know if I’ll stay for more than a few minutes, but I’ll buy the ticket and take the ride.

The moment I step in the door a guy my age hands me a shot in a little plastic glass. “Le’Chaim!” And he downs it. I follow suit. He hands me a yarmulka and then runs away.

I get two more steps in the door and another guy, thrilled that I’m there approaches me like and old friend and says

“Hi, I’m Schlomo! What’s your name?”
“Welcome.” He hands me another drink. “Le’Chaim!” Boom. Another one down.
A man in his late 50s comes up to me in an kick-ass costume. He’s got a super realistic looking Gandalf length beard and he’s actually wearing an ornate wizzard’s costume all the way down to the curly-tip brocaded shoes.
“You’re new here! Welcome.” He hands me a drink.
“Thanks. Le’Chaim!”
Another hit. The wizard runs off to join a group of other costumed men kicking it up like mad in a traditional circle dance. They’re ten feet away from a group of women doing the same.

Next to them I see the table with self-serve drinks. A dozen bottles of Crown Royal, another dozen liters of vodka and a host of other liquors from Slivovitz to Jameson. There were a total of 50 people there, so they were prepped to get hammered.

As I eye the booze, the guy standing next to me offers another shot. The fourth in under five minutes. And I say,
“Hold on. I need to catch my breath. Who was that last guy? His costume was amazing.”
“Him? That’s the rabbi.”
“The rabbi? What is he doing?”
“Tonight we’re playing a game. ‘Drink ‘til the rabbi drops’.”
This was not my rabbi. My rabbi was Rabbi Alex Goldman - 3rd generation conservative rabbi - age 134 when I was getting bar mitzvahed. OK, he was only 73, but his father was an old school Chicago rabbi who was still practicing at age 96. And even as a spry septagenarian, my rabbi talked old, thought old, and even SMELLED old. He was barely capable of smiling, much less partying. He was a lesson in severity and I was pretty darned sure he didn’t drink. I’ve been led to believe no one at my temple drank. They were part of that Americanized middle class Jew that I’m told doesn’t drink. I’ve been to other conservative services where they sip some whisky and vodka at their onegs, but we never had that. I heard stories that back in Russia my great-great-grandfather would start his day by downing a shot of vodka before his feet touched the ground. It was poured the previous evening and left within reach on his night stand. Of course, he didn’t have centralized heat, so he needed other ways to warm his cockles at the break of dawn. As for my childhood temple, we used our syrupy Manischevitz for our Kiddushes and I didn’t realize there were other kinds of wines until I saw Orson Wells on TV hawking jugs of Gallo in the thick of his sad, portly decline.

My dad drank Budweiser in those classic cans to borderline excess and washed it down with pretzels and peanuts every Sunday to the hum and crack of the NFL. Occasionally, I’d have a tiny sip just to see what it tasted like. Because of those afternoons I have a nostalgic love of that pisswater. It reminds me of the few relaxed father son moments spent in contented silence interrupted only by an occasional outburst from my father when he lost patience with the Giants once again.

I didn’t drink in high school one iota, but my days at Princeton taught me a blissful excess with my dear friend “Old no. 7”. My copious drinking in those days was instigated by my brothers in song and I didn’t really drink outside that circle. This is not to say I didn’t go too far at time. My favorite step over the line was a “Drop-trou” arch after which my dear English friend Crispy and his girlfriend carried me in classic drunken sailor style nearly a mile to the doorstep of the girl I had a terrible crush on. They deposited me and departed thinking they’d done a great mitzvah as I thought I’d be received warmly. In fact, no one was home. I figured I’d wait for her return. Some hours later my amore discovered my slumped figure blocking the entrance to her sleeping quarters and she gently nudged me awake and asked.

“What are you doing here?”

I attempt to explain what preceded my arrival was singing with my a cappella group for the last night of the football season for which it’s traditional that while mid-song, we lower our pants and brave the frigid November climes in recognition of the hardships our team went through. And to acclimatize ourselves to this endeavor, we steeled our loins against the environs by imbibing a classic sour mash.

What I got out was:
“I…Oh. Uh.” I try to stand. “Oooh. Bathroom?”
She opens the door of the women’s room, guides me to a stall and I make it to the toilet just in time. I beg her to leave, but she holds my hair as I wretch in front of the woman I had recently come to adore – only the third who’d actually agreed to kiss me at that godforsaken Puritan school. And now I’ve ruined everything.

We’re actually still friends today, but though I assured her I’d be fine if I just got a few hours of sleep on her hallway floor, she called the campus police and I was ushered home in the back seat of a flashing patrol car.

That was the third most drunk I’ve ever been and that night was NOTHING compared to Purim at Chabad house.

Fragments of memories are all that remain.

The costumes were out of control - both homemade as well as rented from professional costume houses. The most haunting beast was a 7 ft. tall blue Alladin genie – the Disney movie of the year. I’m still chilled when I recall holding hands with this monster while doing the huora.

Yes, I played my part in a human centrifuge for a good part of the evening, but at some point I joined the three-piece klezmer band, making them a quartet. The next day, I deduced that I became their extra percussionist as evidenced by the red thrashings my arms and legs appeared to have received from the crashing of my tambourine against various body parts.

The last image I have is trying to balance as I bicycled home. I certainly shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of anything that night, but I appear to have somehow made it back to my apartment.

It took a full 24 hours to even begin to recover and I’ve not been back to a Chabad Purim since that night.

But I do go to a great Purim party these days at the house of a conservative rabbi. He prefers single malt scotch. I bring an entire bottle with me. This year Trader Joe’s 11 year. It’s actually quite good. We go through quite a bit and I just take a cab home.

My favorite moment at that party came two years ago when I’d been tipsily flirting with a lovely woman all afternoon. Feeling I should meet the other guests, I engaged another gent in a talk for a while, at which point, I get a tap on my shoulder. I turn to see her a few more sheets to the wind than I’d last encountered her and she looked at me with all seriousness bearing on severity and burped out:
“David Rodwin…” She was still as stone, but clearly steadying herself with all her strength. “…We should procreate.”
Then she pulled an about face and exited. We never did procreate, but God, I love Purim these days.

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