The Jewish holiday Purim and the Book of Esther's lesser known ending The joyous Jewish holiday celebrates Jews' escape from annihilation as told in the Book of Esther. A lesser-known end to the story takes on new meaning during this time of war in the Middle East.

Purim — a festive Jewish holiday with an ending often ignored

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Jewish celebration of Purim begins at sunset tonight. At synagogues around the world, people will read from the Book of Esther and celebrate. But if they read a little bit further than is usually done for the holiday, they will discover the story's dark ending. And as Deena Prichep reports, it's one that many Jews think about this year.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: The Megillah, which tells the story of Purim, is set in ancient Persia.

AARON KOLLER: There is a evil adviser to the king who essentially randomly gets upset at the Jews for no good reason.

PRICHEP: Aaron Koller teaches Near Eastern and Jewish studies at Yeshiva University and has written about the Book of Esther.

KOLLER: He sends out messages throughout the entire kingdom. Eleven months from now, everyone should just kill their Jewish neighbors.

PRICHEP: But then the king's wife reveals that she's Jewish, and the evil adviser, Haman, is killed instead. The story has been told for thousands of years, and it's always a sort of a party with heavy audience participation.

SARI LAUFER: We're going to cheer when Esther appears, and people are in costume. I'm usually in an animal onesie.

PRICHEP: Sari Laufer is a rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles.

LAUFER: I've not heard a lot of quiet Megillah readings in my time.

PRICHEP: Like many temples, they have carnivals and original plays.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) We don't need no hate from Haman.

PRICHEP: Purim is usually considered kind of a kids' holiday. Haman's plot is foiled - big cheers, big finish. For most Purim plays and for many Jews, that's the end of the story. But there is another chapter. Professor Aaron Koller explains.

KOLLER: The fact that Haman's dead doesn't actually mean that the Jews are safe because the decree's already gone out, and the king says, no, we can't repeal the decree. What we can do, though, is arm the Jews and let them fight back.

PRICHEP: And they do, and they kill 75,000 people across the empire. Koller stresses that there are no mentions of this massacre in the histories of that era. We're looking at a work of satire, a sort of comic revenge for people who didn't have any real power. But now...

KOLLER: You take 2,000 years of fantasy violence and marry it to the real world in which people actually have machine guns, and suddenly it gets really dark.

PRICHEP: It may be no surprise that some Jews gloss over this final chapter or don't even know it exists, but Yehuda Kurtzer, who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish research center based in New York and Jerusalem, says it's part of the story.

YEHUDA KURTZER: The fact that something is hard to read but it still attests to a piece of our consciousness as a people - you don't sanitize it. You read it, and you think about the consequences.

PRICHEP: And with the war between Israel and Hamas, there's a lot to think about.

KURTZER: The bulk of the book, until Chapter 9, is this parody or a satire of the horrors of vulnerability, and then the horror of the ninth chapter is what you do when you actually get power at your disposal.

PRICHEP: With the Israeli government reporting over 1,200 people killed on October 7 and the Gaza Ministry of Health reporting nearly 32,000 Palestinians killed since, many people are feeling the horrors of all the chapters.

KURTZER: I know some of my Israeli friends have a hard time engaging in that conversation because they feel that they're closer to the fourth chapter of Esther. They feel that they're in a place of vulnerability and that the agency and power that they have available to themselves is the kind that you use to defend yourself, as opposed to the kind that constitutes perpetrating something terrible. So I'm doing what Jews do in these kind of places, which is just be anxious.

PRICHEP: The Talmud says that on Purim, people are supposed to get so drunk that they can't tell the difference between the hero of the story and the villain. It's usually read as reinforcing the whole carnival atmosphere, but Kurtzer says it could also be showing that the lines between good and evil aren't as clear as people might want. And that's the story of the whole Megillah.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

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