American Pie Purim

It’s become a tradition here in St. Louis that my wife and I invite the Yeshiva High School senior boys over each year for our Purim seuda. Given the logistics of our house, the males gather around a long table in the den while the women watch in amusement and, occasionally, dismay from the relative safety of the dining room. How my wife prepares enough food to satisfy the appetites of a minyan of teenage bochurim is one of the great mysteries of life.

I begin with the Reading of the Rules (e.g., anyone who feels sick must make it to an emergency exit before, well, you know), move swiftly through a parody of kiddush, then come to the main part of the celebration, where I introduce all the students in turn with lyrical grahamen and they earn their fare by presenting divrei Torah. When the last one is finished, I give my own davar Torah, which somehow weaves together all of theirs in sequence. (Don’t be too impressed; it’s a lot easier to do drunk than sober.)

Lower classmen, although not officially invited to the meal, often drop in as do graduates who happen to be in town, for a chance to see the effects of a full bottle of wine on their unswervingly staid rebbe. (According to rumor, I never loosen my tie). It’s also not often that a bochur gets to hear his rebbe perform a drop-dead, Paul Robeson rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

But the highlight of the afternoon festivities (which typically run between three and four hours) is my annual exegesis of Don Maclean’s American Pie.

The references are a bit dated for today’s teenagers, although they still know Buddy Holly (the music), Mick Jagger (Satan), Elvis (the king), and Bob Dylan (the jester), and they usually get the Lennon-Lenin pun. Such references as Charles Manson (helter-skelter), the sock-hop, Woodstock, James Dean, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention (the “sweet perfume” may be tear gas) require a bit more explanation. And a few of the lyrics need editing (e.g., the Father, Son, and Casper the Ghost). Don Maclean’s message of modern music’s messianic hope and ultimate failure seems to resonate well within the spiritually complex structure of Purim.

I suppose some might suggest that I am degrading Purim, introducing the secular, the mundane, even the profane into avodas haKodesh. And although I generally avoid listening to modern music with its coarse or often heretical lyrics, although I never insert secular melodies into Shabbos davening or Shabbos zemiros, although I struggle to squelch discussions of baseball whenever they turn up at the Shabbos table, I would argue that Purim, with its theme of blurring the boundaries between Mordechai and Haman, is different. Moreover, I would argue that Purim offers a unique opportunity to resurrect, selectively and briefly, the ghost of my secular past as a demonstration of the need to strike a balance between the spiritual and the physical.

Who can measure the impact on Amerian kids of the lingering memories of a Purim celebration that integrates the culture they find so enticing without losing focus on avodas HaShem? And what could ever have replaced what has become my trademark Purim schtick if I hadn’t learned American Pie way back when?

33 comments on “American Pie Purim

  1. Let us not forget one aspect of Purim that gets lost in the Ad Lo Yada stuff. Harness the power of Purim to ask HKBH for those special requests. While it’s true, as Jagger famously said, “you can’t always get what you want,” sometimes “you can get what you need.” And don’t wait for the waning moments before sunset on Purim to offer up those prayers. We ladies know you don’t need set times to pray: snatch a few moments before going to sleep on Layl Purim to pour out your heart and ask the Aibershter for “matanos levyonim.”

  2. To David Linn #15: We women have all the Purim memories, we have to clean up after all you drunken men! But, as Ruchoma Shain wisely put it in her book, All for the Boss, just compare “our” shikkurim to “their” shikkurim….

  3. Some blogs (this one excluded, natch) are better read drunk to avoid remembering the content—such as the pot calling the kettle black instead of looking for common ground to improve.

  4. The Jews were threatened with annihilation because the party was celebrating the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. The Gemora actually falls away from the answer, that it was because of the party because only the Jews in Shushan went to the party, and says they were threatened with destruction because they bowed to Nebuchadnezzer.

    I think the message of Purim is how to see Hashem and stay Observant in golus. It’s about using the secular to serve Hashem, even getting drunk is used in service of Hashem. Anybody reading Beyond BT or other Torah oriented blogs understands that message. The other alternative is to retreat into isolation and try to build big walls to keep the secular world out. It seems that especially these days, that approach is meeting with less and less success.

  5. Regarding R. Hirsch:

    Yes – the main difference between “Torah im Derech Eretz” and mainstream “Torah U’madah” is that R. Hirsch explicitly places Torah at the pinnacle, and other pursuits subservient to it.

    In conversation, I’ve found it very useful to cast this in terms of “which cultural/moral yardstick judges which?”

    When “modern orthodox” people fret whether Judaism is democratic/feminist/egalitarian enough – they are making Torah subservient to external measures. To invoke R. Hirsch in defense of this is way off.

    The Hirschian approach is clear: the Torah tells us the relative merits of feminism/capitalism/democracy etc.

    In this sense, T.I.D.E. is about experiencing everything – including aesthetic and physical appreciation of the Alps – through the Torah-delineated lens of G-d awareness.

    Happy Shushan Purim!

  6. Not to be downer but…isn’t the main point of Purim to beware of the dangers of assimilation? That the Jews ate and drank with their non-Jewish hosts and that’s why they were punished with the threat of annihilation?

    I’m all for integrating past and present memories, but maybe we shouldn’t wax nostaligic about our secular memories davka on Purim?

  7. Rabbi Simenowitz,

    Thank you for your response. I guess when I wrote about “non-judgmentalism,” I was not suggesting that observant Jews take a live and let live approach to life. I was suggesting, however, that they should not presume to know why I person has chosen a certain path or taken a certain action. For example, many people who survived the Holocaust decided not to continue being observant. Now, we could judge that person as a Shabbos violator. Or we could say to ourselves, gee, it is a shame that person is not keeping Shabbos but I cannot begin to imagine what that person endured and what their relationship with G-d is. Therefore, I am not going to look down on that non-observant Jew. It is a miracle that such a person can even get up to go to work each day! Whether it is wearing jeans, listening to secular CDs, watching The Terminator, violating Shabbos, intermarrying or any other host of activities that are considered bad, the observant community must not presume to stand in the shoes of the people taking such action. The ironic thing is that judging them unfavorably only pushes them further from what observant Jews regard as the truth–the Torah.


    So, bye, bye, big American lie,
    I tried to buy meaning with no meaning to buy.
    They say “drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
    It’s the big American lie. It’s the big American lie.

    Now, for ten years I’ve been on my own
    Since I came to that wall of stone
    It’s called the western wall.

    “Say, have you met the Shabbos queen?”
    Said Meyer Schuster, like a dream.
    “The torah,” he said, “it’s made for you and me.”
    “Now, when Hashem created mortal man,
    You know he had a special plan.”
    I went to yeshiva to stay.
    It blew my mind away.

    While men were reading the book from the arc,
    those words went straight into my heart
    And I came out from the dark, the day the music lied.
    I started singing…(bye, bye…)
    [end Excerpt]

    There’s definitely something to be said for bands like Shlock Rock and performers like Gershon Veroba. Now when I hear the song “American Pie,” my head fills in the lyrics from “American Lie” instead. And so forth. SO I can still have the music I loved with Jewish words and topics that I won’t be embarrased to have my kids repeating. For me, it’s the best of both worlds. (Child of the 80s)

  9. “…and the 3 men I (now) admire most, Avraham, Yitzchak & Yakov.” OK it doesn’t rhyme, but haven’t we all struggled with that line? I like your thought how on Purim we can integrate the spiritual with the physical, i.e. our secular past with our spiritually striving present. As the Megilla ends “laYehudim ha’yisa Ora” (for the Jews there was light). Darkness was the a plague of Egypt, as it represents Greece and empty external beauty. Yet for the Jews THERE WAS LIGHT! On Purim we can mesh and yet remain pure. In fact that is the message of the day! Thanks R. Goldson!

  10. RSS,

    Funny, I caught a segment last night on VH1’s I Love the 70s (1973 to be exact) which did a hysterical take on Freebird (was that you in the crowd?).

    You are absolutely right that everything comes with a price tag, I’m only suggesting that the price of an occasional air guitar or other trip down memory lane is far less costly to your soul than the complete excision of all such activities as is often advocated in the kiruv world. The latter is more likely to result in becoming the J.D Salinger of mitzvah observance or worse – the James Dean – then the former is of doing serious spiritual harm.

    Yonason, there was a question in there somewhere (maybe challenging your appearance of being apologetic?), but I find your response in the paragraph beginning ‘Consequently’ to be just the right temperature.

  11. Jeff,

    I sympathize with your experience and your objection to the superficial overriding the internal. It has always been and continues to be a chronic problem in the Jewish world, and the Torah observant community is by no means free from it. Rabbi Simenowitz’s articluate response leaves little else for me to add.


    I may not have been clear in my reference to Rav Hirsch. Yes, there is the famous incident where he explained that HaShem would hold him accountable for not having visited “His Alps.” You are correct, I believe, that Rav Hirsch implied that every aspect of creation is intended for us to learn about the nature of HaShem and find inspiration to come closer to Him. My point, however, was that Torah im derech eretz is not a statement that sets up secular culture as a prerequisite for acquiring Torah wisdom, but that it complements Torah and provides a greater context in which to appreciate the totality of creation. The fundamental difference concerns which is subservient to which — Torah is never incomplete or inadequate; rather, it is our human limitations that may make it necessary for us to widen our frame of reference to more fully recognize and develop our relationship with HaShem.

    Regarding drinking, I refer you to the link in Mark’s comment above (#16). Certainly one does not have to get drunk to fulfill the mitzvos of Purim and, indeed, there are circumstances where it would be wrong to do so. In the same way that one must measure and evaluate how much secular involvement will benefit him spiritually, so too one must gauge his drinking.

    So much of Torah is left indefinite because every person is different and so every person’s avodas HaShem will be unique. Within the boundaries of halacha, there is much latitude for individual expression. Click on the nonconformity link and see what a can of worms that can be.

  12. R Goldson-I am not sure about what you posted re RSR Hirsch. R Hirsch felt that seeing the ALps was a genuine religious experience. I think that latter day revisionists of Torah Im Derech Eretz seek to offer apologetics re this and much of the Hirschian ethic which he viewed as Lchatchilah and not bdieved

    On the subject of Purim, I think that one can and should certainly enjoy the day, but not necessarily via alcohol , especially if you can’t handle it and you might injure yourself and or others. Every year, Hatzala warns us about this. Without entering into a halachic discussion, there are may Rishonim who deny that the mitzvah of Simchas Purim means that you have to get drunk.

  13. Jeffrey – you raise a very good point. As you are aware, when Hashem gave us the luchos, some dealt with man’s relationship with Hashem while others emphasized man’s relationship with his fellow man. As one of the local rebbetzins says: If you go to the doctor and he says “I have to amputate a leg – which leg do you want?” that’s essentially the dilemma here – we need both legs so those who feel they’re good Jews in their hearts and those who think “ethics shmethics – when is the latest I can say sh’ma?” both suffer from spiritual dietary deficiencies and should take a supplement :)

    As far as the overall question of the jeans, CD’s etc. the situation is not one of black or white, yes or no, but rather a spectrum of spiritual possibilities. I saw a sign once which said it best “This is not Burger King – you cannot have it your way”. Pop culture would like us to believe you can have your cake and eat it – Weight Watchers has Fergie trying to convince this heavy nation that you can eat hamburgers, pizza, drink and still become svelte. – It’s an age where “drivers are wanted” (unless you are driving a competitor’s product!) and of ersatz empowerment. In truth, you can do whatever you want but as mature adults we know that all choices have consequences. As we mature, our priveleges are expanded – when we first were told we no longer had a bedtime, how many of us stayed up late just because we could? (Now we can’t even stay up late even if we wanted to, but I digress)

    So too with spiritual growth and adolescence – just because we can do something does’nt neccesarily mean we should. We end up paying the price on the spiritual front. Our hearts and heads want to soar to the heavens but amazingly we feel weighted down and unable to clear the runway – it’s called “timtum halev” a dulling of the heart (like plaque deposits in your spiritual arteries) so while you can crank those Ronnie Van Zantd chestnuts and wave your lighter meaningfully yelling “Freebird” or “Whipping Post” understand that that comes with a price tag – as Rabbi Bob said “ya gotta serve somebody”

    BTW you said “how we care for one another, how to not be judgmental” Judaism is in fact very judgmental – it demands that we judge ourselves long and hard and constantly take stock of ourselves as well as judge others favorably – that being said, the Torah does not subscribe to the Hallmark philosophy of “I do my thing you do yours and if we meet, its beautiful” – B”H we have a well defined set of values and standards and it’s entirely appropriate at times to note that certain behavior or conduct or thought is at odds with those Torah given values. Certain obvious breaches come to mind looking around at pop culture – certain movies for example are simply inappropriate on their face for tznius, etc. reasons. (The hashkama minyan just ins’t the same when you’ve been up all night watching “Desparate Housewives” and finding out Tony Soprano’s latest whackee) But what about the so called “pareve” movies like ET, Home Alone, Back to the Future, Terminator, etc?

    Let me leave you with some food for thought – do you notice that in each of the foregoing blockbuster hits the hero is invariably a cynical, wise cracking know-it- all kid, mature beyond his years while the parents are either helpless, dysfunctional or simply non-existent and all other adults are merely 2-dimensional buffoons? Is this a stereotype we want to reinforce in our children or does this fly at odds with everything we’ve invested in their Torah education?
    hasta la vista baby :)

  14. Rabbi,

    I once subscribed to the burn the past approach, but Mordechai, if I understand him correctly, makes sense. I was constantly taught to stop wearing the jeans, throw away the secular CDs (fortunately, I just put mine in the storage room), and insulate myself from my non-Jewish friends. Turns out, major life events have made me realize that I missed those things. And ironically, it has been a couple of my non-Jewish friends who have invested countless hours and energy caring for my well being. I remain a proud Jew, but it sure felt good to try on those jeans again. A lot has made me realize that the most important things–from Judaism or just common sense–are how we treat each other, how we care for one another, how to not be judgmental, not to pretend to know what others experience… if we are failing at these important things… yet we are screaming to throw away the jeans and trash the CDs… did we miss the point? Just some thoughts…

  15. (In response to Chana’s request)

    The Talmud says that when the month of Adar comes in (which is today) happiness increases because Adar and Nisan (the month of Passover) are months of redemption.

    On the holdiay of Purim, the Talmud says that one should drink to the point that they don’t know the difference between Blessed be Mordechai and Cursed is Haman.

    Below is the introduction to an article which discusses drinking on Purim from the Ohr Somayach website.

    “Purim is a veritable cornucopia of paradoxes which ignite the imagination of both scholar and layman. But perhaps the greatest challenge of all is posed by this requirement to indulge in drink to the point of losing the faculty of discernment. How, ask the commentaries throughout the generations, can we be commanded to invite that very intoxication which is so roundly reviled in both Scripture and Talmud? And why such a puzzling standard of non-discernment?”

  16. Someone should really explain this to the brand new newcomers to Yiddishkeit who may not understand about the 1st of Adar. It really seems like someone opened the door to the loony bin here.

  17. I would also avoid Shabbos davening to secular tunes, but D’ror Yikra to Scarborough Fair just seems so natural…

  18. Nice to hear from you, Michael. And thanks for making my day. Give my best to your sons.

  19. I seem to have unleashed a whole gaggle of MiSheNiknasAdar-niks!

    Sydney: As pretty a tune as Amazing Grace may be, you’ll never find me singing it to any Jewish lyrics. The Battle Hymn on the other hand …

    Mordechai: I’m not sure if there’s a question somewhere in your comments, but let me try to respond.

    Rav Hirsch’s approach to Torah im derech eretz, that secular culture is the handmaid to Torah, is often misapplied to suggest that secular culture is necessary to appreciate Torah. Rather, students of Rav Hirsch understand that he meant that Torah knowledge and wisdom enable us to appreciate the world around us, whether nature or those things of value that one can find in secular society.

    Consequently, we face the perennial balancing act of trying to gauge what will benefit us spiritually and enhance our Torah observance and our avodas HaShem. For the person raised in the secular world, it may be artificial and ultimately harmful to reject too much of his past. On the other hand, it might be self-indulgent and equally harmful to retain too much.

    There’s no manual to guide us in this, except, of course, the Torah itself, which will not spare us the day to day decision-making that is the essence of living a Torah life. If I can find chizuk in the secular world that propels me forward in my Torah development, most of the time that will be good. If I find myself dwelling on the past to the point of distraction from kedusha, probably that’s bad.

  20. Reb Goldson,
    Both my sons remember your Purim seudahs with glee. They enjoy relating them to all of their friends around the world. Single handedly (or dual handedly as the case may be) they’ve spread your reputation far and wide. I must tell you (and the rest of the world that reads this) that because of things like your seudah, you made an indelible impression on both of them, and helped bind them to a life of yiddishkeit. I can’t thank you enough, as a friend and a father, for doing that.

  21. Rabbi Goldson,

    Since you seem to have a knack for musical exegesis, I’ve always been stumped by “cut loose like a deuce another runner in the night”; not just that what-did-he-say? word, but the song’s full menagerie of abstruse characters that make giving pshat on McLean’s jester and sergeants more suited for the freshman pop lyrics class.

    Anyway, the gist of your essay – if I understand it correctly – is that on rare occasions (Purim only?) it’s OK to tiptoe back into our previous lives and peek under our mattresses for the sake of striking a balance between the physical and the spiritual. Just like that hair tonic in your father’s medicine cabinet, a little dab will do ya.

    But I beg to differ, and so arrive at the principle conundrum of the Baal Teshuva: How much (or is it how little) integration should we have between what was then and what is now? Is it Brylcreem or is it Maybelline (maybe she’s born with it…?). I, for one, believe that we have left too many Jews on the platform because the BT train didn’t allow them to bring any baggage aboard. They were told to burn what was under their mattress, on their turntables, and in their closets (you oughta slip on a pair of Levis once you get that bottle drained Yonason) to be cleansed of the secular blight.

    Apologizing because we grew up believing that looking into the sights of the sun was where the fun was is a mistake. So is trying to turn it into some type of spiritual gadget. It is what it was, requiring neither trotting out nor locking away. If my wife hadn’t learned American Pie way back when, then when the officer pulled her over for speeding down Olive Street Rd., she never could have told him (truthfully) that she was singing the song at the top of her lungs and hadn’t noticed that she was going over the speed limit. The officer gave her a piece of his mind and then, handing her a warning, said “it’s your lucky day – I’ve gotta catch the last train for the coast”.

    The only thing that we should do ‘selectively and briefly’ on Purim is drink; but we never should be afraid to ‘turn it up’ when Ronnie Van Zant tells us to.

  22. Lord, I hope that he’s not introducing them to sweet wine – especially, not Malaga. Poor kids, if’n he does.

    Although he claims a benefit to never inserting secular melodies into Shabbos davening or Shabbos zemiros, what’s wrong with “Adon Olom” to the lilting, “Amazing Grace” or the martial “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? He obviously supports the use of Le Marseillaise (at least in Chabad – No?) I guess that’s why I never get invited anywhere: Risk of infection – or is it infarction?

    Anyhow, no one can get upset with the use of the third person here – it’s impersonal with less risk of infarction.

  23. Rosh Chodesh Ador- end of the Olympics- Fat Tuesday- Mishenichnas Ador marbim b’Simcha! Let the games begin/end! Let the good times roll!Strange coincidence or Harmonic Convergence?

    Ah gants Yohr Frailich. Let this be the year that HaShem drops His mask once and for all and the Music Will Live Again!

  24. Dear Rabbi Goldson:

    Your article gets to the heart of some old tapes that continue to run in this aging Boomer-BT head of mine. Without consciously reinforcing any of those tapes, I have managed to subdue the pleasure I once had in hearing the old standbys. The times when it’s toughest is when I meet up with a former crony who also traversed those once-sacred paths.

    Thank you so much for the article and for fond memories of your Purim table.



  25. This brings back fond memories from my years at high school. Thank you, I enjoyed it very much and i still remember the discussion of American Pie in class.
    Chodesh Tov, and Freliche Purim

  26. Gevalt:)

    in chassidus, we talk about Yom Kippurim (literally “a day like Purim”) so nu? what’s so special about Purim? On yom Kippur, we become angels – we abstain from eating, drinking, etc., wear white, sit in shul all day (you get the picture) Big deal – that’s what angels do – they have no free choice (which is why the’re called “chayos hakodesh”) – they’re on spiritual autopilot. But the “chap” of Purim is that even though it’s a day where we cater, nay pander to our “gashmi” (physical)side, we are nevertheless able to take the most mundane and corporeal and strain out and elevate the holiness out of it.

    Congratulations – you’re at least halfway there :)

    how about:
    “and the one thing I admire most
    is kemach yashan whole wheat toast
    and some leftover shabbos roast
    the day the crockpot died”

    a guten chodesh and a freiliche Purim

  27. I remember my first few Purims visiting Rabbi Lam at Ohr Somayach. The shpielim were great, but I didn’t really drink because I was thinking that I certainly didn’t come to Yiddishkeit to get drunk.

    Many years later my Purims are filled with much wine and simcha and I realize that getting drunk the right way, at the right time for the right reasons takes work and for me is another example of the beauty and depth of Torah.

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