Friday, April 16, 2021

Recently, I read a lovely story to my younger students. The book was “The Purim Surprise,” written by Lesley Simpson and illustrated by Peter Church (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2014). It is a unique tale, and it concerns a Jewish mother, Mrs. Levin, and her daughter Naomi. They move to a new apartment just before Purim, on which Naomi’s seventh birthday falls. Mrs. Levin goes to great lengths to prepare mishloach manot for all the Jewish residents of their new community and enlists Noami’s help in shopping and assembling the items to be distributed. Naomi is upset that Mrs. Levin is so preoccupied with the mishloach manot that she does not even mention Noami’s birthday. Unbeknownst to Naomi, though, the slip her mother has inserted into the treats is an invitation to a surprise Purim birthday party, to which everyone can come in costume and with instruments.

There are multiple reasons for Mrs. Levin’s actions. Through distributing mishloach manot to the Jewish residents, she and Naomi fulfill a mitzvah central to the holiday. In the process, they also figure out where the Jewish residents live and make an initial connection with them. Naomi learns important lessons about giving, and when the new neighbors arrive at her apartment for the Purim birthday party, Naomi is a recipient of their chesed. Not only is her birthday not forgotten, but strangers have dressed up, brought gifts and entertained her.

The story is lovely and unique for several reasons, in part because the protagonists—a single mother and her daughter—are a bit unusual in Jewish story fare. There are no bubby and zaidy (or equivalent grandparent names in other languages). There is not even an Abba or Daddy, and no brothers or sisters. Somewhat justifiably, most Jewish books involve a larger nuclear or extended family. Community and synagogue activities are also family-centered, but the families are usually “conventional” two-parent ones. This book puts a single mother and her only child at the center, but how often are they valued as important members of the Jewish community?

It is noteworthy that in “The Purim Surprise,” Mrs. Levin takes the initiative and with Naomi’s help goes all out in preparing and delivering the Purim treats. One could ask why it didn’t work the other way around, and the neighbors didn’t reach out to the Levins, but one could also argue that maybe Mrs. Levin and Noami were such newbies that no one knew they were there. Regardless, the Levins made the effort. Realistically speaking, how many single parents can invest the time, as Mrs. Levin did, to acquire new friends and make her daughter happy? What would have happened had Mrs. Levin been unable to afford either the time involved in the mishloach manot project or the likely substantial cost of fulfilling the mitzvah?

As a follow-up to these questions, it would probably be appropriate for the Jewish community to take a good, hard look about the way singles/single parents, male or female, and their children are integrated into their social fabric. It’s easy and more convenient to prioritize invitations from couple to couple and family to family for Shabbat, holidays and events. Often singles and single-parent units fall between the cracks when it comes to socializing.

It’s just after Pesach, and it was the second time in 12 months that most of us had unusual, if not near-surreal, COVID-19 Pesach experiences. For many Jews, this was particularly relevant as they were again unable to celebrate the holiday in a physical synagogue. COVID also affected who and how many were present at the Pesach sedarim.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, raised the concept of a Fifth Son, who was not even present at the Seder. He (or she) might not have even known that there was a Seder or its importance. Or he (or she) might not have received an invitation and for a variety of reasons might not have felt comfortable to ask for one. For even some of these reasons, singles in the community (and their children) are not unlike the Fifth Son.

Even though, due to COVID-19, it was not feasible to have extra guests at the Pesach Seder table this year, there is nothing to stop anyone from reaching out in the coming weeks and months, in a range of other ways, to those singles, or single parents, and their children—or for that matter, any of the marginalized people who (with no attribution of malice on anyone’s part) might have fallen through the cracks. This should be the operational principle not only on Pesach, but post-Pesach, and throughout the year.

Rachel Kovacs is an adjunct associate professor of communication at CUNY, a PR professional, theater reviewer for offoffonline.com—and a Judaics teacher. She can be reached at [email protected]ail.com.