Step right up and win a goldfish! Shave a balloon! Pitch a penny into a bottle! Knock over the bowling pin!

"It's time for the costume contest," says a voice over the loudspeaker,

"There'll be prizes for the scariest costume, the prettiest, the most unusual." Children giggle and push a little and smooth down their hair as they line up to parade around the room.

"Hi, Daddy," a little girl calls as her father crouches to shoot picture after picture. "Psst, David, psst!" a mother hisses as her son struts by.

"Fix your hat, it's crooked."

It's Purim, the Jewish holiday that, more than any other, belongs to children. The holiday recalls the time when the Jewish people in Persia were saved from a bloody massacre by the beautiful Queen Esther, herself Jewish, and her brave cousin Mordecai, who persuaded King Ahasuerus not to listen to the wicked courtier Haman and his plot to rid the kingdom of Jews. It's a time of rejoicing and games and noise and fun.

Purim is one of my favorite holidays and the one of which I have the fondest memories from my childhood in Chicago. My grandmother would make the special Purim hamantashen, a three-cornered pastry "shaped like Haman's hat," filled with sugared chopped prunes, nuts and raisins and glazed with butter. I still use her recipe today, and my children help roll out the dough, carefully place the raisins and nuts according to some mysteriouso plan and painstakingly fold the finished product into three corners. The pastry tastes best when hot right out of the oven.

At the temple, the Book of Esther, part of the Megillah, is read and the children are given noisemakers, called greggors, to hold.

Whenever the name of Haman is mentioned, everyone boos and twirls the gregors, getting louder each time. "Imagine being able to make so much noise in temple!" my children always marvel.

The big event of the holiday is the carnival, usually held on the Sunday nearest Purim. A large room at the temple is transformed, it always seems to me, into hundreds of booths and stalls where all kinds of games can be played. There are elaborate ones like "hit Haman with a ball and knock him into the water," very popular with the children. But it's hard to find volunteer Hamans. There are also simpler games like tossing pennies into bottles and fishing expeditions with a piece of string and a bucket of water. "Step right up, prizes for everyone, a winner every game." The volunteer workers become Coney Island pitchmen in the best tradition.

The children wear costumes. There are ferocious-looking Hamans, kindly Mordecais with long, flowing beards ("It itches," one little boy whispers), kingly kings with regal robes, court jesters and clowns, and, of course, dozens of Queen Esthers. I was always Queen Esther and so were my daughters until, one by one, they grew too old for such goings-on. Now we just watch and admire.

At the carnival I try a few games, then stand with the other parents. "Hey mom, hold my fish," my son says ashe thrusts a goldfish bowl of live occupants into my hand and rushes off. He's back a few minutes later, hot dog in one hand, hamantashen in the other.

"They've got lots of food left," he reports, "but I'm out of tickets." He looks at me hopefully. How can I refuse? All of the money raised at the carnival wil be donated to some worthy cause -- another Purim tradition. I hand him a dollar. "Buy me a sandwich," I call, but he disappears into the crowd.

In the car going home we sing the songs I learned in Sunday school and still remember, which the children are still learning today: "Oh, once there was a wicked, wicked man . . ." "Purim's here, Purim's here . . ." "Oh, today we'll merry, merry be. . ."

"Tell you what, Mom," my daughter finally says tactfully. "Your voice sounds like it's getting tired. Let's turn on the radio."