The children at Pauline Rivkind Preschool have been busy cutting, pasting and painting masks and crowns in preparation for the joyous Jewish holiday of Purim.
The 2-to-5-year-olds also have been singing songs and listening to the story of Queen Esther, the Jewish heroine who so long ago helped to prevent the massacre of the Jewish community in Persia.
"It's a story of good and evil, and it is real easy for young children to understand," said Carol Marger, director of the preschool. "And it has a happy ending."
The holiday, which celebrates the deliverance of Jews in ancient Persia, will begin tonight at sunset and continue Sunday.
"Purim is an informal holiday," explained Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel, home of the Pauline Rivkind Preschool. "It celebrates Jewish identity and Jewish survival."
He said Jews should fulfill four obligations on Purim. They must give gifts of food, or shalach manot, to friends and neighbors. They are required to donate gifts, properly called matanot la'evyonim, to the needy. They also must enjoy a festive family meal, or seudah. The fourth requirement is that they listen to the reading of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther. Tonight a traditional reading of the Megillat will take place in Congregation B'nai Israel's chapel. A more boisterous reading, during which graggers, or noisemakers, will be sounded each time the name of the villain Haman is mentioned, will take place in the sanctuary. The congregation's high school students will perform the latter reading.
What listeners will hear, said Luski, is the story of Haman, who was the prime minister in the court of King Ahashuerus in Persia about 2,500 years ago. "Haman wanted to annihilate the Jewish people from the Persian Empire. Queen Esther, with the aid of her uncle Mordechai, managed to intercede and the plot was foiled."
It is an easy story for children to understand, Marger said.
"It has just a few characters .
. Queen Esther and the king and her uncle, who is like the hero, and the bad man, Haman," she said. "We make puppets, and we can be the characters. It tells a story, teaches a lesson and gives us an opportunity to have a lot of fun together."
With its noisemakers, festive food and costumes, Purim is, indeed, one of the happiest Jewish holidays.
"We don't celebrate Halloween in the preschool and in the Jewish family," Marger explained. "This is the time of the year when our children can wear costumes and eat treats. For all the children here, (Jewish and non-Jewish) it is knowing that there is a God. And being thankful to God is part of faith."
After tonight's reading of the Megillat, there will be a costume parade and a Purim carnival with games and plenty of food. A treat associated with the celebration is hamantashen, the tricornered pastry filled with something sweet. The preschoolers filled theirs with chocolate kisses.
Sunday, there will be a Purim service at 9 a.m. and another Megillat reading. Refreshments will be served after.
Despite the joy associated with Purim, there is a serious side to the holiday.
"The story of Purim is popular because it deals with the perennial problem of baseless, irrational anti-Semitism," Luski said. "This holiday makes us conscious of the spiritual values, which our position as a minority group in the diaspora should lead us to evolve."