Thursday, 25 February 2021

The miracles of Purim
continue in the face of
racism and anti-Semitism

The holiday of Purim begins at sunset this evening

Patrick Comerford

The holiday of Purim begins at sunset this evening (25 February 2021) and ends at sunset tomorrow evening (26 February 2021). Purim literally means ‘lots’ and is sometimes known as the Feast of Lots. This Jewish holiday commemorates the Jews being saved from persecution in the ancient Persian Empire.

According to the Book of Esther, the Jewish people in Shushan were threatened by the chief minister Haman, who convinces the King Ahasuerus to kill all Jews, because Mordecai, a Jew, had refused to bow down to Haman.

Haman casts lots to decide the date for his plan – the 13th of Adar. But the Jews are saved by Mordecai’s niece and adopted daughter, the heroic Queen Esther. She married Ahasuerus after he banished Vashti, his first, rebellious wife. When Ahasuerus discovers that Esther is Jewish, he reverses Haman’s decree, and instead of the Jews being killed, Haman, his sons, and other enemies are killed.

Purim is the most raucous holiday in the Jewish calendar and occurs today (14 Adar). It begins with people, especially children, dressing up in fancy dress, such as characters from the Purim story, and other costumes. It is Hallowe’en, Carnival, Mardi Gras and Guy Fawkes Night ... all rolled into one, and usually focussed on children.

The Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible that does not mention God. But this book is a story that tells of the triumph of good over evil, and how the clever thinking of one woman saves a whole nation from genocide.

Before reading the Megillah, the person who is to read says the following three blessings:

‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made us holy through his commandments, and has commanded us about reading the Megillah.

‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.

‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.’

As the story of Purim is read from Megillat Esther (מגילת אסתר, ‘The Scroll of Esther’), it is a custom to make loud noise with a rattle, known as a ra’ashan (Hebrew) or grager (Yiddish), every time Haman’s name is repeated. The custom is related to the obligation to blot out Haman’s name.

It is a mitzvah that Jewish people should eat, drink and be merry at Purim. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until they cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai’ ... although opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is.

An integral part of Purim is giving gifts to the poor, matanot l’evyonim, with door-to-door charity collections and on the streets.

Purim is a carnival-like festival that includes large amounts of alcohol, family meals, and exchanging food gifts mishloah manot. A special food associated with Purim is hamantaschen, the triangular cookies named after the villainous Haman.

Purim was celebrated last year two weeks before the first Covid-19 lockdown. The ultra-Orthodox or Haredi community in Stamford Hill in north London was particularly hard hit by the virus. This year, rabbis in the community have said the number of people on the streets should be minimised, people should not visit other homes for the festive meal or seudah, and there should be no street collections.

A Megillath Ester or Scroll of Esther in the Monastir Synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At first, the story of Purim might appear sombre with its recollection of the near-annihilation. But it is also a story of bravery, courage and salvation, and it is a reminder that anti-Semitism has deep roots that long predate contemporary experiences.

Esther is a secret Jew, and her story encouraged secret Jews during the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, when Saint Esther emerged as a popular figure among the conversos. Later, the story of Purim was an abiding comfort encouragement to European Jews in the mid-20th century.

Pinchas Menachem Feivlovitz, who died in 2007, was a Holocaust survivor who devoted much of his life to chronicling and telling the atrocities of the Holocaust. He told of his experiences in the concentration camp of Gross-Rosen in his autobiographical Odeni Zocher (I Still Recall). In this book, he recalls how Purim was marked one year in Gross-Rosen:

‘It was Purim eve, but what was there for us to celebrate …?

‘Suddenly, one of us leaped down from his small space on the bunk and began an impassioned speech that will forever remain in my memory:

‘“My fellow Jews,” he called out, “dear brothers in suffering! Today is our Purim, when we remember the miracles G d did for our ancestors. He who dwells in Heaven saved our nation from being decimated. The enemy fell into the pit that he himself had dug. Today we once again have a double-edged sword pressed against our necks. Our enemies are trying to destroy us, but do not allow terror into your hearts! The Haman of our day, Hitler and his lackeys, will not be able to overcome G d’s chosen nation. The eternity of Israel will not lie. The bells of freedom are already ringing in the distance. We will yet live to see justice meted out against our enemies, just like our ancestors in Shushan of old. Be strong, brothers, the Jewish nation lives on!”

‘Beads of sweat appeared on his face. His lips trembled, his eyes glinted, but he said no more.

‘Then another prisoner jumped down from his bunk and took his place next to the orator. Sweetly, with a voice laden with nostalgia and hope, he sang the words of the blessing said after the Megillah reading, in which we thank G d “Who fights our battles and pays comeuppance to our mortal enemies.”

‘As the rest of us absorbed the last echoes of the tune, the two men lithely climbed back into their spots on the tiered bunking and silence reigned once again.

‘In our minds, we were blissfully transported back to the happy Purims of years past, but we knew the joy would not last.

‘The following morning, the block commander stormed into the barrack: “Cursed Jews!” he shouted. “Last night someone here spoke disparagingly of our Führer. Tell me who it was! If I do not know who it was, you will all be punished before the day is done!”

‘His words were met with defiant silence … Ten minutes passed, and no one uttered a word. “Run, swine, run!” the commander barked, and we Jews began to run as fast as we could, while the guards rained down a shower of rifle butts and whips upon our heads and backs. “Quick, quick,” they shouted as rivers of blood spurted from our heads and our arms.

Our backs sagged and our feet ached. ‘But we had only one fear: that last night’s brave performers, who had gifted us with hope and courage, would give themselves up in order to save us from further suffering. One even tried to run out of line to identify himself, but his neighbours didn’t allow it. “No, no,” they hissed with clenched teeth, “Stay strong. We are all responsible for one another.”

‘I have no way of recalling how long this went on, because every moment felt like eternity. We ran with our last strength, panting, with no air to breathe. Our tongues hung out, and tears mingled with sweat on our cheeks. But no one even considered ratting on the heroes of the previous night.

‘Yes, even the prisoners of Gross-Rosen merited their own Purim miracle – two miracles, actually: That no one dropped dead from the diabolic run we were forced to endure, and that we all had the courage to keep the identity of those two men secret.’

This prayer on Purim, written by Rabbi John Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, is provided in Service of the Heart (1969), the prayer book they edited:

Today, we remember how often our people has had to face prejudice and slander, hatred and oppression. In many lands and ages, Hamans have arisen up against us, and untold suffering has been our lot. We have paid a high price for our loyalty to God and to our ancestral heritage.

But the same heritage has given us courage to bear our suffering with dignity and fortitude, and to remain unshaken in the conviction that in the end good must triumph over evil, truth over falsehood, and love over hate.

We have survived all our oppressors, and can look back upon our history not only with sorrow for its tragedies, but with joy at its deliverances, and pride in its achievements. At this season of rejoicing, O God, inspire us anew with such loyalty to You, to our faith, and to our people, that it may be proof against adversity, and that the heritage it has entrusted to us may be sure in our keeping. Amen.

A Megillath Ester or Scroll of Esther in the Jewish Museum in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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