Yom hafuch / eating treif…

From Nigel Savage

Dear All,

“Hafuch” means something like “upside down.” If you order a “café hafuch” in Israel you’ll get the Israeli version of a cappuccino. One of my favorite phrases, from the same root, is “mamash l’hefech” “exactly the opposite.”

So what’s “yom hafuch?”

Well, it’s the name given to a well-known Jewish holiday by a friend of mine (who shall be nameless, but he is Canadian, and an academic, and in Toronto) a dozen years ago.

It was the night of Purim, and this was in the days of JDub, z”l. It was some while after 1am, and many things had been ingested. We were both more than a little the worse for wear. This was the conversation:

–    Where did you hear the megillah?
–    I went to a late megillah reading
–    How come?
–    Well, first I went for my treif dinner
–    ?
–    [beat]
–    How treif?
–    Well, I had a crab salad to start with, and then pork, and then I had…
–    ???!!!
–    [beat]
–    Just remind me: how observant are you? (thinking I roughly knew the answer to this)
–    Well, I’m shomer Shabbat, I keep kosher, I wear a kippah, I’m doing my Ph.D. in Talmud.
–    ????!!!!
–    My take is that Purim is the night when the world turns upside down. There are no rules. We get drunk. We cross-dress. And it’s bacchanalian, the idea behind it is serious, and so although I know that this is not halachic, this is my deep understanding of Purim. I think of it as yom hafuch, the upside-down-day….

And he went on to say: you keep kosher, right? Well, you do that so instinctually that you don’t know what you’re giving up. Let me tell you: I keep kosher the other 364 days of the year, so I do know what I’m giving up….

I’ve never forgotten the conversation. It messed with my head then and it has messed with it ever since.

It messed with me because although there is no halachic basis for my friend’s practice, I absolutely understand his reasoning, and I think that to a considerable sense he’s right – right in his understanding of Purim, and right even in the way he’s choosing to observe the holiday. (And he continues his practice to this day: when I discussed it with him a couple of weeks ago he named a mutual friend of ours, a respected rabbi, who now shares this tradition with him.)

You may ask: well, if you think this is such a great idea, why haven’t you done this yourself?

And my answer is… I don’t think I’m observant enough to try this :).

I’d enter the pardes and go crazy – the pardes (an orchard, real or mystical) is not only a paradise (same root) but also a place where madness lies. My friend’s observation – that risking this raises the bar to observance the other 364 days a year – is not in any way minor. We do so many things by force of habit. Creating healthy habits is a useful and even a critical thing to do. Blowing them up – blowing up, for instance, the tradition of keeping kosher – is not something to undertake lightly.

And yet…. And yet I’m intrigued. Every year, this time of year, I think about it. Some amazing local grass-fed hamburger. With cheddar cheese on top! And onions. And – oh, why not – some amazing crispy bacon as well….

I share this with you not to encourage you not to keep kosher – mamashl’hefech – but because depth is real and art is real and sometimes we should cross lines. The academics are investigating ayahuasca. Pot is being legalized. Gender boundaries are blurring. As I get older I’m more conservative in various ways, more cautious, more respectful of the old, more nervous of radical change. I have more respect than ever for Jewish tradition. I dislike social media. I really hate Twitter. I don’t much like tattoos. I hate even the phrase “elevator pitch.”

And yet I hate also the bland, the sanitized, the fake. If you can say “fuck” on the BBC and quote it in the Guardian, why can you still not say it on CBS or quote it in the New York Times? What value does that bleep have, or a few aste**sks – did you think we didn’t know what you just said?

Can we have day without night or Shabbat without the week? Does Simchat Torah make sense without Tisha b’Av? Or should we just abolish sadness? Why do people not say the word “cancer”? When I write condolence letters I start off by saying some version of “I was so sorry to hear that your father has died…” Because what kind of euphemism is “passed away?” If I don’t use the word “died” do I think that you will imagine that someone has not died – that s/he’s there after all, and it’s all been a terrible mistake?

And my point is: Purim is not just for kids.

It’s the most modern of all books. G!d is hidden. Vashti speaks up as a proto-feminist. Esther is the diaspora hero, assimilated until finally she finds her voice. The violence done unto us triggers violence done by us. Purim is our mardi gras, a day of libidinous over-indulgence, a celebration of our id and our darker selves.

But Jewish tradition – like the Catholic church – is not antinomian. We can let rip one day a year – that’s it.

In Catholicism, Wednesday – the day after Mardi Gras – is the start of Lent. Abstemiousness and repentance, leading up to Easter.

As Jews we don’t have Lent; but we do have… pre-Pesach cleaning :).

And the two (Lent, and the lead-up to Pesach) are more similar than you might think.

Seder night is the pivotal moment of this whole 11-week period, from Purim to Shavuot. It’s the night we go free. And the tradition’s understanding is: you can’t just celebrate freedom. It doesn’t just happen. It’s a culmination of a process. And the process is important – it’s so important that you can’t truly appreciate freedom if you don’t go through the process. And that process is so intense (if you take it seriously) that to begin it you might really want to let rip. Get drunk. Cross-dress. Transgress. Eat treif. Because it’s time to loosen up, to challenge yourself, to go deeper and darker… and when you wake up the next day, now that you’ve loosened a little your sense of identity – now start to slough off the winter, and your fake identities, and the things that stop you being really you, and the things you hide behind… and start to figure out what it is to be free.

So: start early.

Have an amazing Purim. Give mishloach manot (gifts of food to friends). Givematanot la’evyonim (gifts to the poor and needy.) Dress up and go to shul and listen to the megillah and afterwards party. Have a purim se’udah – a celebratory meal with friends on the afternoon of Purim. And eat treif, literally or metaphorically, but only if you think you can really handle it, and only if yourkavanah is some version of ol malchut shamayim – cleaving ever more deeply and seriously to Jewish tradition, and striving in every possible way to be a good person and a good Jew.

And then, the next day: start getting rid of your chametz:

  • Rip up your kitchen, and get rid of the breadcrumbs. But while you’re there – junk the soda. Read the ingredients. All those sauces that are different versions of sugar – do you really need them? Just clear out. Clear out the old things, the stale things, the foods that aren’t good for you. Give things away, chuck them out.
  • Start a cleanse. As a minimum: cut out sugar. If you’re feeling brave: cut out caffeine and all processed foods, and maybe give up booze for good measure. Your body will thank you. You’ll go into Pesach feeling strong and clean.
  • What’s your existential chametz? Start journaling. What’s the fluff, the stuff, the superfluity, that clogs up your brain, that stops you being free?

All of this is there, present, latent, in the very first bracha, the first blessing we say before hearing the megillah. This is the start. Purim is letting rip because the day after Purim we’re starting this 11-week spring clean. It leads up to seder night, which takes us to counting the omer; and then we count 49 days and the next day it’s Shavuot. Finally after all this we receive the Torah.

So… Purim sameach.



PS If you’ve read this far, and speaking of food, today is ta’anit Esther – the fast of Esther. So if you’re fasting, fast well…