One of the strange glories of Purim is that an Orthodox rabbi can dress up as Elvis Presley to commemorate an ancient victory over rulers intent on exterminating the Jews.

It is a holiday where Jews are not only reminded that nothing is what it seems -- hence Torah scholars cavorting as the King of Rock and Roll -- but that everything is ordained by God and thus for their good.

Purim observance began last night and continues through today with masquerades; a day off for Jewish schools; feasts marked by abundant drinking; charity and gifts; and two complete readings of Esther, the only book of the Bible in which God's name is not mentioned.

"I let loose on Purim," said Rabbi Shlomo Porter, who in past years has dressed up as Miss Piggy and Santa Claus. "This is a holiday to celebrate the Jewish people being saved. But it's also a relevant American story about assimilation and commitment."

The Orthodox, who comprise about 20 percent of Baltimore's estimated 100,000 Jews, are dedicated to preserving Judaism in its traditional forms. The siren call of assimilation, as seductive today as it was 2,400 years ago to Jews who thought they'd been accepted in Persian society, makes Purim especially poignant for the Orthodox.

"In America, the problem is the headlong pursuit of physical pleasures and casting aside of the spiritual," said Menachem Cooper, of the Cheswolde neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore.

"Assimilation wouldn't be so bad if it didn't mean throwing out the guides from God."

Purim is the most exuberant of all Jewish holidays because it reversed an imminent holocaust to usher in a spiritual revival.

In the story, a young Jewish beauty named Esther is forced to become the new queen of King Ahasuerus, who is ignorant of his bride's heritage. Esther's cousin Mordechai humiliates Haman, the king's chief adviser, by refusing to bow to him. Haman's response is to kill all the Jews.

Lots are drawn to decide the day Persians will kill the Jews among them. "Pur" means lot and yesterday was the day fate decreed the Jews would be killed. Mordechai challenges Esther to intervene for her people: "Who knows, perhaps you have attained [the throne] for just such a crisis?"

She does and the Jews are saved, highlighting the Purim theme that no one can be certain of anything in this life. The Purim story ends with Haman and his heirs hung from the very gallows set up for the children of Israel.

The quirks and mysteries of Purim are the reason so many Jews, especially children, will wear costumes today as everything from Queen Esther to King Elvis, as if to say: You think you know me, but do you really?

These are the puzzles of Purim: holocausts which turn into salvations, pastry whose filling is a secret until the first bite, the absence of God's name in a story where He is present at every turn, and the seemingly un-Jewish commandment to drink alcohol until one can not distinguish between the goodness of Mordechai and the wickedness of Haman.

The sober Jew embraces Mordechai while trouncing Haman. Alcohol is intended to blur the distinctions until the two men are one and the same: instruments of an all-knowing God used for the betterment of His people. Most Jews acknowledge Purim in some way.

The Orthodox observe the holiday as they do everything else in Judaism: strictly.

Instead of listening once to the complete book of Esther, the Orthodox will gather to hear the handwritten scroll read again today. Two readings acknowledge the trouble that fell like the night upon the ancient Jews and a rescue that greeted them as a sunrise.

Every word must be pronounced precisely; a mistake demands that the reader start over. This can be tricky, since at every mention of Haman, the congregation responds with a chorus of boos, shouts and castanet-like noisemakers called groggers.

"Growing up in Philadelphia, I remember thinking that the Purims were staged," said Rabbi Michael Meyerstein, an administrator at the Orthodox Beth Tfiloh school. "In Baltimore, it feels very genuine."

During one Purim at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Owings Mills, a student caught an error in a tape of that day's reading. He informed the rabbis and all of the young men were rousted from their dormitory beds in the middle of the night to assemble once again.

After Esther rescued the Jews, Mordechai commanded them to feast, to be joyous, and to send gifts to friends and the poor. Every Orthodox Jew must send at least two ready-to-eat foods to a friend. Money discreetly finds its way into the hands of the poor.

Throughout Orthodox Baltimore this morning -- particularly in neighborhoods between Greenspring and Park Heights Avenues above Northern Parkway -- costumed children will be running up to the doorsteps to leave goodie trays. Some will be for Jewish strangers, like the recent waves of Russian immigrants.

"The command is to send gifts of food to at least one friend, but this has grown rapidly and somehow or another we are sending food to 30 and 40 people," said Rabbi Ervin Preis of the Suburban Orthodox congregation on Seven Mile Lane.

The other commandments include a special prayer added to the normal three-times-a-day prayers, plus a Purim grace after meals.

"God is not some Superman running around saving Jews from wicked Hamans," said Rabbi Porter, rehearsing "Love Me Tender" yesterday while resplendent in his white Elvis jumpsuit. "God sends Hamans to wake the Jews up."

Yet, in the words of a particularly bitter Yiddish proverb: "So many Hamans, only one Purim."

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