The Power of Purim By Yaffa Palti
Photo credit: Zaflsmail
A few years ago, while preoccupied with concentration regarding my family’s Purim getup, I was interrupted by my daughter, Yael, who was supposed to be in bed, but wanted to tell me a joke.
“Knock-knock,” she said.
“Nana your business who it is, just let me in!” she grinned. I think she was tickled by the minor amount of chutzpah that she had managed to sneak in there, and I laughed at the ecstatic expression on her face. The joke was pretty cute, too.
“Very funny. Now go to bed.”
Yael was still grinning. She bounced on her toes.
“Can I tell you the joke again?” she asked.
“Sure, go ahead.” Her delight made me benelovent, and she said the joke again, alight in anticipation. A moment later, her face crumbled.
“You didn’t laugh,” she accused me.
“I did so laugh!”
“No. Last time I said the joke, you laughed for real. Now you fake laughed. And, your fake laugh is creepy.”
“My fake laugh,” I informed my daughter, “is not creepy.” But, it kind of is. Fake laughs are always creepy.
How to explain to her how humor works? How to explain that a joke being funny a moment ago is exactly why it is not funny when you repeat it?
The delivery of the joke has to be surprising, the timing perfect. It can’t be expected, or it is no longer a joke.
Yael was eight years old. She blinked in utter confusion, as I tried to explain this rather insubstantial concept to her, and her face still looked crestfallen. So, I did what any self-respecting mother does when it’s already well after bedtime: I took the easy way out.
“Your joke,” I explained to her, “is so, so funny. And sometimes, when things are so very extremely funny, they take a minute to process. But, I just processed it, and now, wait for it, here comes the laughter.”
And I laughed, making an effort to keep the creepiness factor down to a minimum.
Lying to my children aside, I spent the rest of the evening thinking about humor, and why some things are funny, and why some things are not. Maybe one facet of What is Funny is when the opposite of what you expect to happen, happens. Like, when a little old lady throws down her cane and begins to tap dance, or when a distinguished businessman in a suit slips on a banana peel. Like me right now, lost in thought, straining the soup through a metal sieve and tossing the soup and keeping the bones.
Which is not funny at all because the soup was yummy, and also, if it is funny, as my husband’s incredulous laugh assured me that it is, then it put a hole in my theory. Just yesterday, I threw out the hard boiled eggs and kept the peels, so straining the soup into the sink is not necessarily an unexpected thing for me to do. So, why is it funny?
And, what is humor, then? Maybe it’s a combination—both the surprising and the familiar—that create the formula for Funny. I was still thinking about it the next morning, when Yael tried the Nana knock-knock joke on her sister, Shira, over breakfast.
“I know that joke,” said her older sister with a less than gracious snort. “Who was the one who told it to you in the first place?”
“Knock-knock,” I quickly interjected.
“Who’s there?” my girls questioned.
“Interrupting cow wh—“
“Moooo!” I mooed, and both girls shouted with laughter.
“Knock-knock!” my son cried, his face aglow.
“Avraham Palti! And, you’d better let me in, or I’ll come in anyway! Because, I have a gun!” he finished off, grinning. I could almost hear him thinking: nailed it.
“That wasn’t so funny,” my daughter took upon herself to inform him. But, yes it is, it really is funny—maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, and maybe not funny for his sisters. But, it is truly and deeply funny when a spark goes off in the mind of a little boy and now he thinks that he is one of the big ones, one of the gang, but he isn’t quite, not just yet. Jokes like that are the kind that make you gasp, make you tear up even as you smile.
After the kids left for school, I suddenly realized that all of that stuff I was thinking about humor, that I thought was inconsistent, is encapsulated in the Purim story. The shock and surprise over the reversal of things, the unexpected happening faster than you could blink, the kind of laughter that is accompanied by tears. Through the surprise is the warm feeling of familiarity: Hashem has saved us before, and Hashem will save us again. But, oh, the way that we were saved! Haman, hanging on the very gallows he had built for Mordechai! Ha!
“Pretty sure things are funnier on Purim because of alcohol,” my husband said when I told him about my epiphany.
“Really? That’s all there is to it?”
“No, of course not. There’s also dressing up.”
“Oh. Well, that’s kind of anticlimactic. And, circular. The reason things are funny is because things are funny?”
“I’m saying that’s what people think, that it’s about the drinking and the dressing up,” my husband explained, “but it’s not true. Purim is a lot about breaking barriers, I think. The humor is not in the drinking and dressing up; it’s in Purim. It’s in the power of the day.”
“That’s great stuff,” I said, and rummaged for a pen and paper. “Can you say that again? The humor is not the dressing up and the drinking. All of that is just a manifestation of the power of the day. Ooh, I like that. I like the word manifestation. Can I add the word manifestation to your dialogue? Does manifestation have one “f” or two?”
“Yes,” said my husband. “And also, it’s three o’clock in the morning, and most normal people have these kinds of discussions while awake.”
“But, is it funnier to have it now? Because it is more surprising and unexpected to have this kind of conversation at three in the morning?”
“It is not funny. It is tired.”
“I am doing this to better understand humor. I am doing this,” I explained stiffly, “for science.”
“Mmm,” he said, by which I am pretty sure was an expression of his admiration for my dedication and sciency-ness.
On Purim, we wear costumes and masks and sometimes give the illusion of being people we are not. And yet, we sing together and dance together and drink together, no matter who we are. Because, that’s the day Hashem showed us that, with a snap of the fingers, everything can turn around. This, I think, is humor. This, I think, is the power of the day. This is Purim.
Yaffa Palti is a JWRP City Leader for Communidad Sefardi in Mexico City, Mexico.