February 24, 2021
How I fell in love with Purim in Israel
By Barbara Sofer
Seder night has always been a seminal event for me, as it is with most Jews. Over the decades of living in Jerusalem, Israeli melodies have been grafted onto the songs I inherited from my grandparents who brought them from their shtetls in Belorussia to our New England cherry wood table. The format is the same.
But Purim is different. Only in Israel did I fall in love with this holiday.
I knew about Purim back in Colchester, Connecticut where I grew up, but it didn’t have much impact. We went to the synagogue to hear the megillah reading at night. We wore leftover Halloween costumes and circled the synagogue pews in an anemic parade. The treat was stopping at the Colchester Bakery, conveniently next door to the synagogue, where the non-Jewish Polish Gadel family produced cheese Danish-sized hamantashen overflowing with poppy seeds.
The following morning we went to public school. We took off for the “real holidays.” Purim wasn’t among them.
Maybe it takes a Jewish state to extrude the celebration of Purim. In Connecticut, we had a fashion dictum about not wearing white before Memorial Day. In Israel, it’s acceptable to wear Purim costumes and accessories in the street from two weeks before the holiday. Of course, in Jerusalem it’s hard to know who is wearing costumes and who isn’t.
The day the children all dress up in school is the quickening. In normal years, goofy parades and parties follow. Where else but Israel would it make perfect Purim sense to celebrate two Purim days, one for the arei haprazot cities that were unwalled in the time of Moses’s protégé Joshua, and another for the cities walled back then. Just a reminder that Joshua died about 3,265 years ago, but this category remains.
It may take a village, as the statement goes, to bring up a child, but it takes a whole country to get Purim right.
I’m not talking about the must-do’s from a religious point of view: hearing every word of the megillah, giving charity, passing out food gifts. Even this year, those are easy. Our balcony minyan is run by silversmith Mordechai Bier who probably holds the Guinness Book of Records for the speediest Megillah reading. He’ll read at least three times from the parking lot. It’s easy to make charitable contributions online. The ingredients for my trademark shalach manot Purim pickles that I make each year were delivered to my doorstep.
So what am I really missing?
In our household the longest table we set all year is for the Purim feast. Yes, longer than for the Passover Seder when we focus on our blessedly large family. We usually have to set two parallel tables. This is the time to call in our merry friends who come from near and far and very far. We move the furniture, and costumed fellow-Israelis plus visitors from abroad, seminary students and great grandparents, fill our Purim salon for a multi-course meal that starts at noon and lasts all afternoon. Unlike Passover, when they are the focus of our attention, our children and grandchildren usually wind up helping with the food, since I’m literally the toastmistress.
The festive meals that are mentioned prominently in Megillat Esther are often shortchanged in the many Torah talks about the central characters of the Megillah. Let us recall that the Purim story begins with long Persian feasts at which, according to tradition, looted Temple accoutrements are demeaned as drinking mugs and flagons. Esther’s unmasking of Haman’s villainy and her Jewish identity takes place in back-to-back banquets.
Isn’t this a clear directive to go all-out in celebrating the Purim Feast?
At our table, each dinner guest gets a chance to speak, offering up comical vignettes, songs and of course multiple l’chayims.
An oft-constrained mischievous spirit courses through me. I am overtaken with a mix of joy and fancy, ebullience and giddiness to fulfill this mitzvah.
The test of being inebriated enough “not to differentiate between the righteous Mordechai and wicked Haman” falls to my professor husband Gerald Schroeder, who on non-Purim days is unscrambling questions of nuclear physics.
Every year he attempts to tell the story of the hanging of the 10 spies at Nuremberg, connected to the ten sons of Haman. He endures a fair amount of heckling by the guests as recounts how the evil Julius Streicher, publisher of the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, shouted out “Purimfest 1946” just before he was hanged. If he can get through it, or if we can remember that the name of the hangman at Nuremberg was John C. Woods, (like the wooden gallows Haman built), it’s time to pour another round of drinks.
Just to mention, Purim is a risky time for us to entertain strangers. We have scared away more than one potential new friend who meets us when we are in Purim mode.
Happily, the Purim spirit is contagious.
So, unfortunately, is the coronavirus.
On Purim 2020 we were just starting to be cautious. No hugging friends as they walked in the door. Back then, remember, that the prime minister was demonstrating the Indian bowed greeting of “namaste.” We started bumping elbows. Only afterwards was I nervous about having held this gathering. I counted the days afterwards until I confirmed that no one had gotten sick.
What will be in 2021? I made peace with Seder-for-Two in 2020, but passing up this signature Purim meal a year into the pandemic is painful. We can’t crowd together, dipping humus, drinking wine and whiskey, and singing the hometown theme songs of guests from Oklahoma and Odessa, Stanford and Stockholm, Boston and Brooklyn, Melbourne and Maryland. We once had a guest from Persia who had visited the grave of Queen Esther. A beloved regular, now departed, was born in Shanghai. Instead we are hemmed in by a virus born in China. Of course my friends understand: we are all law-abiding citizens. But isn’t Purim the day in which law is suspended? Unfortunately, not for the coronavirus.
So I’m feeling a little blue – certainly not the Adar spirit. Shushan Purim this year in Jerusalem actually falls on Shabbat, so we get what’s called Purim Meshulash, which means Triple Purim – starting on Thursday and ending Sunday night. Purim x 3. This gave me the idea to spread out the holiday.
Here are some of things I’m doing to boost my holiday cheer.
On the first of Adar, I took part in a cocktail-making class at 2 a.m. (it was organized around US east coast time) with my fellow college classmates at the University of Pennsylvania.
Several days later, I took part in a Zoom cocktail party for supporters of Hadassah. (Is my love for Purim impacted by belonging to and working for an organization named for Queen Esther’s Hebrew name?)
This was at 9 p.m. our time and you were asked to be in cocktail dresses and black tie.
In the days leading up to Purim, I’m trying to meet with my Purim regulars in small groups in parks. So if you see me in a park on a bench with a flask in my hand, you’ll understand why.
I’m going to increase my gifts to the needy.
My nuclear family will gather for an outdoor meal. It won’t be the same as the Spirit of Purim Past, but it will hold the place for the Spirit of Purim Future. After all, Purim is the only holiday that will remain in the time of the Messiah – may she come speedily in our time.