The Jewish holiday Purim is "their version of Halloween here."

John McCain on Wednesday, March 19th, 2008 in a news conference in Israel


Costumes, yes, but not Halloween

Sen. John McCain's weeklong overseas trip to Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Britain and France in March 2008 was a bumpy one for accuracy. Thankfully, he had Sen. Joe Lieberman for a traveling companion.

During a visit to Israel, McCain was making a somber point about the strain of Hamas rocket attacks on Israel when he dropped in a bit of a cultural gaffe, likening the Jewish holiday of Purim to Halloween.

"Nine hundred rocket attacks in less than three months, an average of one every one to two hours," McCain said, during a news conference with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on March 19, 2008. "Obviously this puts an enormous and hard to understand strain on the people here, especially the children. As they celebrate their version of Halloween here, they are somewhere close to a 15-second warning, which is the amount of time they have from the time the rocket is launched to get to safety. That's not a way for people to live obviously."

When Lieberman had a chance to speak at the news conference, he took the fall for McCain's mistake.

"I had a brief exchange with one of the mothers whose children was in there in a costume for Purim," said Lieberman, who became the first Jewish candidate on the presidential ticket for a major American political party when he ran with Al Gore in 2000. "And it's my fault that I said to Senator McCain that this is the Israeli version of Halloween. It is in the sense because the kids dress up and it's a very happy holiday and actually it is in the sense that the sweets are very important of both holidays."

Purim is a minor Jewish holiday whose roots come from a story in the Book of Esther in the Bible. According to the story, Esther was a beauty pageant winner who became queen to King Ahasuerus of Persia, but kept her Jewishness a secret.

When the king's villainous minister, Haman, persuaded the king to wipe out all the Jews in the kingdom, Esther's uncle Mordecai persuaded Esther to reveal her Jewish identity to the king, and plead with him to spare her people. The king had Haman killed and elevated Mordecai to minister.

"It is a story that teaches about standing up for who you are and standing up for one's community," said Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg, and president of the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. "It's also about standing up against hatred and injustice."

During Purim, Jewish people often hold a costume parade and re-enact the story, Torop said. People sometimes dress up as kings, queens and villians from the story, but the custom has expanded into a wider variety of costumes as well (though it does not include ghouls, witches and other scary costumes commonly seen at Halloween). And friends often exchange a plate or basket of sweets, usually to include a specific pastry called hamantashen.

"The only way in which Purim is like Halloween is in the wearing of costumes," said Torop. "At that point, the similarities end."

Torop said he doesn't find McCain's comment offensive, but says it shows "this is one person who doesn't get it. He doesn't really understand (Purim's) meaning and its message."

Which would be fine, Torop said, but when someone decides to make a public comment about someone else's faith or religion, they ought to at least understand a bit about it.

Later, McCain tried to smooth things over, saying, "Could I just say that I understand this is the holiday of Hadassah, otherwise known as Esther."

Lieberman's wife is named Hadassah. That's the Hebrew name of Esther, Torop said, explaining the joke McCain appeared to be making.

On a Political Gaffe scale of 1 to 10, with a one being John Kerry referring to the Green Bay Packers' hallowed home as "Lambert Field" and Dan Quayle telling that poor 6th-grader to add an "e" to the end of potato being a 15, we'd rate McCain's as maybe a two.

He gets a bit of a pass because he apparently got bad info from his Jewish tour guide, Lieberman. And inasmuch as both holidays involve getting dressed up, it's somewhat understandable. But still, it's False.



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