Guest Post on Purim for SCBWI-British Isles Magazine

I’m thrilled to share an essay I wrote for the Representation column of SCBWI-BI’s Words & Pictures magazine: it’s about the Jewish holiday of Purim, depicting the holiday in Honey and Me, antisemitism, Jewish joy, and school visits.

REPRESENTATION Purim

Purim is a Jewish holiday commemorating the saving of Jewish people in the ancient empire of Persia. It’s a story about survival, and also a story of a brave woman, Esther, who defended her people against all odds. For this segment of REPRESENTATION, Features Editor Eva Wong Nava talks to author Meira Drazin about the festival of Purim.

Meira Drazin’s debut middle-grade Honey and Me was published in 2022 by Scholastic Press. It had already attracted much pre-publishing attention because of its representation. In 2023, Honey and Mewas honoured by the Sydney Taylor Book Award, which recognises “outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.” It has two star reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and was a Kirkus Best Middle Grade Books of 2022 selection. Adding another bell to her whistle, the book was just recognised by the Children’s Book Council’s 2023 Notable Social Studies Trade Books Award Winners.

Honey and Me by Meira Drazin, cover by Shamar Knight-Justice

When I started reading Meira’s book, I was intrigued from page one as the novel is set in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community. I knew about Jewish Orthodoxy but not Modern Jewish Orthodoxy. And reading Meira’s book, I also discovered Purim. I’d only ever heard of other Jewish festivals like Passover and Yom Kippur, but I’d never heard of Purim. I wanted to know more, and as I’m fortunate to know Meira, I asked her to explain this festival to me. So, over to Meira.

 

When I am doing an author visit at a Jewish school, one of the first questions I ask the children is if they dress up in costumes for Purim. All the hands go up. Then I ask them if they’ve ever read a novel in which the characters dress up for Purim. Most of the hands stay down. Unless they’ve already read my middle-grade novel Honey and Me—then they raise their hands and look at me with big smiles.

This year the Jewish holiday of Purim begins on 6th March at sundown and lasts through sundown on 7th March. I am guessing that unlike the High Holidays in the fall (Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement) and Passover in the spring, which are major Jewish holidays that people might have heard of; or Chanukah which is a minor Jewish holiday but because of its proximity to Christmas has taken on more mainstream prominence— Purim is not a festival most people would have heard of or know much about.But if anyone has ever heard the expression “the whole Megillah,” meaning ‘a whole long story,’ the Book of Esther (known in Hebrew as ‘Megillat Esther’ because it’s written on a scroll—megillah), in which the story of Purim is told and is read twice on the holiday— is where this expression originates.

 

A rare scroll of The Book of Esther  (source)

With events dated to Ancient Persia in the fourth century BCE, the story itself is about Jew-hate, the bravery of Esther in defence of her people and against all odds, and Mordecai who remained steadfast to his religion and people, as well as things hidden and things turned around. The subsequent holiday celebrates that Jew-hatred—personified in a king’s highest advisor set to decimate the empire’s entire Jewish population—did not, in this instance, prevail.

The Intercession of Esther with King Ahasuerus and Haman by Pietro Paolini c. 1625 (source)

As Honey and Me’s main character Milla explains: “Purim is definitely the most fun of all the Jewish holidays. We bake jam-filled hamantaschen cookies, deliver food baskets to our friends, give charity, and dress up in costumes. My favorite part is hearing the megillah, the Purim story, which talks about “v’nahafoch hu,” or things being turned around. In the story, evil Haman devised an amazing reward for King Achashveyrosh to honor a most-loyal adviser—thinking that adviser would be himself—but instead it went to Mordechai the Jew, Queen Esther’s uncle. And instead of the Jewish people getting destroyed, they were saved. Anyway, not only is Purim super fun, but it makes us Orthodox kids feel less weird about the fact that we don’t celebrate Halloween.”.Indeed, like Milla, I have never dressed up in costume for Halloween or gone trick or treating. (From reading A Place at the Table by Laura Shovan and Saadia Faruqi, I learned that for the same reason—its pagan idolatry roots—many Muslim children do not either, and I felt a thrill at discovering this connection. Windows and mirrors, guys!) When I first started writing stories for children, though, the psychological impact of not seeing myself reflected back in literature became apparent. I copied the way other authors wrote: I sent my characters to regular schools, not a Jewish day school; I had them dress up for Halloween, not Purim. Basically, I believed the world I knew best wasn’t legitimate enough to write about.

 Jewish Hamantaschen Cookies eaten during Purim (source)

When I was growing up, the closest I came to seeing something vaguely familiar to my observant Jewish home was in the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor, which takes place in the early 1900s, and as I got older, in the adult novels of Chaim Potok, set pre– and post–World War II. But mostly, the only religious Jews I saw were in the Holocaust books I read over and over again. Although all four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors, thankfully my life in 1980s Toronto could not have been more different. I staunchly support the need for children’s Holocaust literature: for me these books were a key to understanding what my grandparents had gone through but never spoke about, and today’s children, even Jewish ones, no longer have the immediacy of near history, never mind the opportunity to know a survivor, and learn how quickly and devastatingly racism can prevail. At the same time, looking back, I see how hard it was to read over and over again about my people being victimised.

When my eldest daughter entered middle-grade reading age, I discovered the landscape had not changed from my own childhood. Even today, for both children and adults, the vast majority of mainstream books featuring religious Jews still show them in the past, or as victims of persecution. And if set in the present day, the narratives often focus on conflict—either Jewish people wrestling with their religion and community, or struggling against a dominant culture or religion.
I didn’t set out to be the first author to write a contemporary realistic coming-of-age middle-grade novel set in a Modern Orthodox community—and I have been surprised that this has become one of Honey and Me’s calling cards. But I did want to write a book about Modern Orthodox characters who have close friendships, difficult mother-daughter relationships, and influential teachers. I wanted them to encounter situations that are funny as well as sad. I wanted to write a book that I would have loved to read as a child. Mostly, I just really wanted to write a book about observant Jews whose experience of their Judaism is on the balance joyful, and not in conflict with anything. And whereas my earlier efforts at writing for children were missing something, giving myself permission finally to imagine characters in a world that was familiar to me and with the religious rhythms that organise my own family’s life, gave me the chance to create characters who feel like people you might know, regardless if you are someone who comes from the same kind of community or someone who simply knows these characters because they feel familiar in your heart and emotions.
The thematic events of Purim have repeated themselves many times through ancient and more recent history, on large and small scales, and without the benefit of a heroine or hero who saves the day at the last minute. Unfortunately, antisemitism is a reality. My children’s Jewish schools in London have significant security at their gates. At times we have been instructed for the children to fold their blazers—whose school crest includes Jewish symbols— into their knapsacks until they are inside school so that they do not present a target. But thankfully this is not the majority of mine or my community’s life right now. Mostly what we do is live our lives, our religion both integral and yet incidental.
So, without wanting to sound too lofty, my hope is that Honey and Me can also offer an antidote to othering—the foundation of any racism, even when casual and unintentional—by bringing vividly to life characters whose religious practices may be foreign to many readers, but whose hearts, struggles, and humanity are the same.Happy Purim!

*Header image by Tonka Uzu

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Meira Drazin was in the lowest reading group in first grade, although once she finally learned to read she never stopped and will read almost anything (unless it’s way too scary) in almost any genre. Originally from Toronto, Canada, she lived in New York City for many years, and now lives in London, England with her husband and four children. She studied literature at Barnard College and has an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Find Meira here.

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Tonka Uzu created the feature image illustration. She is an author/illustrator and art educator based in Cambridge, UK. Her Picture books are internationally published and her work has been part of the CICLA, Beijing exhibition in 2020 and The Bologna Illustrators Exhibition in 2011. Twitter: @tonkauzu

Eva Wong Nava is a children’s book author interested in world festivals. She is a child of the Chinese diaspora and she celebrates the Lunar New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival as well as the Dragonboat Festival, which are ancient Chinese festivals still celebrated by over 2 billion people of the Chinese diaspora world-wide. Her recent picture book I Love Chinese New Year was published by Scholastic UK just in time to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit in 2023. You can find her here or email her w&prepresents@britishscbwi.org