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 In Hashavua Article

Removing the Mask: a peak behind the curtain at how Yavneh does Purim

Recently, the 8th graders studied the difference between situational and dramatic irony. They also explored the ways in which hyperbole, coincidence, stock characters, and physical comedy contribute to farcical literature. Are they studying a play by Oscar Wilde? Or perhaps a touch of Shakespeare? Nope! The students are studying Megilat Esther.

The 8th grade Esther unit is a culmination of three years of integrated middle school Jewish Studies and English Language Arts. The students have learned to study in hevruta, an ancient Jewish mode of study focusing on partnership, conversation, and deep textual analysis. They have learned to interpret both sacred and secular text using logical inferences and textual evidence, ensuring that the text itself is always an equal partner in discussion. They have also learned about plot, character, conflict, and theme as well as symbolism, foreshadowing, and extended metaphor. They’ve studied English grammar and analyzed various authors’ syntax and linguistic styles. Generally, these skills and concepts have been used to study our shared secular texts, with paired Jewish texts supporting overarching themes and ideas.

Now, in the spirit of Purim’s central tenet of v’nahafoch hu, turning things upside down, the students have the opportunity to apply all of these skills and concepts to a foundational Jewish text. We approach the sacred text of Megilat Esther as literature, taking a deep dive into the story through the lens of classical farce. In hevruta, reading straight from their own Tanakhim, the students examine each character, comparing their preconceived notions to how the citizens of Shushan are actually portrayed in the text. Is the hero Mordechai truly as pious and altruistic as we’ve been taught to believe? Is King Achashverosh an all-powerful monarch as we are taught as children, or are there people behind the scenes pulling his strings? Every year, the students’ delight is evident as they uncover more and more of this familiar story. We meet characters they didn’t know existed, discover customs of ancient Persia, and learn what actually happens after Haman is vanquished. We take the opportunity to discuss the power of myth, the question of authorship and audience, and the value of shared narrative. And through it all, the students employ all of the close reading and literary analysis skills they’ve been honing for the past three years.

What is the cherry on top of this delicious Jewish Studies/ELA sundae? Or the delicious filling of this hamentaschen? After the 8th graders have completed their study of Esther, they are then tasked with the responsibility of planning the school’s Purim festivities. They synthesize all they’ve learned and lead the school in performing the mitzvot of Purim: they chant from the megilah, write and perform a spiel, organize a drive for charity, and plan activities for the lower school. It is a huge responsibility and they, without fail, rise to the challenge.

One of the mitzvot of Purim is matinot l’evyonim, giving gifts to charity. Traditionally, this meant giving money to the poor so they had the resources to buy food for a festive Purim meal. Here at Yavneh, one of the 8th graders’ responsibilities is choosing a charity to support and inviting the whole school to participate. This year, the class chose to support Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital by holding a virtual toy drive. While their first instinct was to donate directly to Covid relief, it came up in discussion that the pandemic has been affecting those with other illnesses, as well, including postponed treatment, screenings, and surgeries. In the end, the class decided to support Lucile Packard and the work they do for children facing enormous medical challenges. Please help us perform the mitzvah of matinot l’evyonim by donating here: https://my.supportlpch.org/yavneh