Posts Tagged With: Purim

Celebrating Purim With a Vengeance

Its often said that Purim is the Jewish Halloween, but some Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn in New York City must have taken that a little too seriously.

When most people think of Purim, they think about funny parties, weird costumes, drinking a lot, and giving gifts to each others. The Jews who put up these Purim decorations decided that wasn’t enough. They decided the Purim symbol they wanted people to remember was t the hanging death of Haman and his sons. The recreated the scene by stringing up a line of eleven manequins on a wire stretched across the street.

There is a medieval tradition of parading with a hanging figure of Haman and then burning the figure up in effigy. Symbolicly burning is a way of wiping something out. Psychologically burning is a form of purification. One might imagine that burning Haman in effigy is a symbolic way of purifying ourselves from the effects of evil, i.e. symbolically ridding ourselves of self-defeating anger, learned fear, anxiety responses and all the other ways suffering and trauma can bend the human soul out of shape. But hanging 11 fake corpses in a row to stare at all day is nothing more than gloating.

Jews aren’t supposed to rejoice in death. The Talmud says that a generation that puts one man to death is a blood thirsty generation. We talk about the effect of death,. For example, wiping out the name of someone and their descendents is a way of saying that they have been completely vanquished and can never cause trouble anymore. However, we don’t rejoice in death itself, nor in the suffering that leads up to it.

Jews believe in respecting dead bodies. According to Jewish tradition even the hung body of a criminal should be taken down before nightfall. Even if the human being who inhabits the body is evil, the human form is in the image of God. To leave it hanging disrespects not just human dignity, but also God.

Jewish tradition teaches that even our enemies deserve a degree of empathy and respect. Each Pesach we dip our finger in our glass of wine and remove ten drops. According to one well known explanation, we diminish our own joy at liberation because our freedom came at a price paid by others.

Judaism believes that the ability to stand up for oneself and the ability to have compassion for one’s enemy are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the opposite is true. The failure to have compassion destroys the ability to protect oneself. Pharoah was a strong leader, yet he is described as having a hardened heart. Each plague in one way or another was meant to provoke empathy and compassion. For many, shared suffering can soften even the hardest of hearts, but this was not the case for Pharoah. He couldn’t even muster compassion for his own people, let alone the Hebrews in his care. Plague after plague Pharoah refused to let the Jews go, even though his own people suffered the price of his stubbornness. Even when he lost his own son he could not feel empathy and compassion for all the Jewish children he had killed during the years he forbid the Jews to reproduce. He could not acknowlege their suffering. Eventually his hard heart killed him. He drowned in the Red Sea pursuing the people he had no compassion for.

Haman too lacked empathy. He was consumed with his need for power and respect. When Haman refused to bow down to him, he began persecuting Mordachai and everything associated with him, including the entire Jewish people. Had he been capable of empathy he would have understood that Mordachai’s refusal to bow was an expression of integrity and not a threat to Haman’s power. Had he been capable of empathy he would have accepted the kings need to honor Mordachai as the person who saved his life. Instead of empathy for the king’s need, Mordachai entertained still more hatred and resentment against Mordachai. Eventually, his self-absorption and lack of empathy sealed his doom: seeking to save his own life he threw himself at Esther with the intent of begging her for his life. He gave little thought to how this might look to the king. Whn the king came in from the garden, he saw Haman attacking Esther. This was the final straw and the king ordered Haman’s death.

Even the Jewish notion of God affirms the compatibility of empathy and honor. God in Judaism is portrayed as a strong warrior, but also as One filled with compassion.

We lower ourselves to the level of Haman if we think that celebrating salvation requires gloating over the death and suffering of others, even long dead fictional others. There’s a reason mischloch manot, tzedakah, and a meal are the Purim mitzvot: they are about sustaining life.

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The Technion Megilla Controversy

Float from the 2011 Technion Purim Parade

Students at the Technion* requested that the school reschedule a Wednesday evening class last week so that they could attend the night-time Purim megilla reading. The technion administration refused explaining that it was a secular institution and it would have to reschedule classes and exams for students of all religions if it rescheduled for Jewish students.

The students then turned to MK Michael Ben-Ari (Ichud Leumi). Ben-Ari wrote to the education minister and deputy speaker of the Knesset, MK Gideon Saar (Likud): “It cannot be that a Jewish country would prevent the reading of the megilla on Purim. If this were to happen outside of Israel there would be an uproar. I am appalled to hear of the lack of consideration shown by an institution like the Technion.”

The technion agreed to reschedule the class.

On the surface this seems to be a simple story. A Jewish state takes time off on Jewish holidays. The university perversely refused to recognize this, therefore they were in the wrong and MK Ben-Ari saved the day. This is certainly how the Haredi papers were portraying the story and also how it was portrayed two days later when the Jerusalem Post decided to bring it into the mainstream press. But there is more to this story than meets the eye.

It is simply not true that the Technion ignores Purim. The Technion academic calendar says that there are no classes or exams on the day before Purim, the exact day when this class was being held. The class on lil Purim in fact contradicted their own schedule. The real question that needs to be asked is why there even was a class scheduled on lil Purim.

One possibility is that the university didn’t see their schedule as interfering with Purim. It was a secular institution and so secular understandings of Purim should govern its actions.

Secular and religious Jews both celebrate Purim in Israel, but in different ways. The scheduled class ran from 7:00-9:00pm. This is the time when congregations usually do their evening megilla reading. However, it is well before the time most secular Purim parties start. Purim is one of the preeminent party nights in Israel.

It may also be a response to increasing religious rigidity. The mitzvah of hearing the megilla reading at night can be performed anytime from nightfall to dawn. This rule goes back to the mishnah (Brachot 1:1) that ruled that any mitzvot that is normally performed after nightfall can be performed up until the next dawn if necessity demands it. Even chabad accepts this. Given the scheduling conflict there was no reason the students couldn’t have scheduled a megilla reading after class.

There has been an increasing trend in Israel for certain Haredi Jewish communities to demand accommodation even outside of private Haredi spaces in the name of “freedom of religion”. They usually insist that there is one and only one way to be Jewish and that secular institutions are preventing this.

The increasing rigidity is making secular Israelis wary of religious claim Continue reading

Categories: Building a Just Israel | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Countdown to Purim, 5772: Purim in St. Petersburg

The history of the St. Petersburg Jewish community in some ways mirrors the story of Purim.

During the time of the czars, Jews weren’t officially allowed to live in St. Petersburg but all through the 19th century the population grew. By the end of the 19th century, slightly over 20,000 Jews lived in St. Petersburg. Eventually they were able to build a synagogue. The synagogue, now known as the Great Choral Synagogue, opened in 1893 and is still standing today. Today the St. Petersburg Jewish community numbers 100,000 Jews.

During the Communist era the city was known as Leningrad. Leningrad was the site of a major seige by Hitler’s armies in World War II. As the Nazis advanced towards Leningrad Jews in outlying areas fled to the city center. Those Jews who could not flee were trapped, tortured, and killed. The two year seige left the city starving and eating sawdust. Jewish survival was complicated by Nazi leaflets that blamed the Jews for the suffering in Leningrad. The siege was one of the deadliest in history. Over 1.5 million people, Jews and non-Jews, died.

Today St. Petersburg is a thriving Jewish community. The Great Choral Synagogue, run by Chabad, is the scene of many Jewish social and religious programs. It also has a Progressive Jewish synagogue housed in Sha’arei Shalom synagogue to cater to the city’s more non-traditional Jews.

St. Petersburg has also hosted a Limmud FSU conference. The conference, organized by Russian Jewish volunteers, gathers Jews from across Russia for two or three days of Jewish learning and cultural events.  Among the participants from St. Petersburg were Lena Utkina, a student of landscape design, and Dima and Natasha Zicar, Jewish educators.  You can find brief portraits of them here.

Translation of Introduction and Song Lyrics

Hello, I’m Liya Geldman. Continue reading

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Countdown to Purim, 5772: from Broadway, “The Book of Mormon”

Brought to you by the students of Hebrew Union College, a parody of the Broadway Musical, the “Book of Mormon”. The video below shows their parody of the song “Hello” , which is itself a parody of Mormons making house visits.

Each year the American Reform Movement sends its first year rabbinical, cantorial, and education students to Israel to learn about Israel, polish up their Hebrew, and deepen their knowledge of Jewish thought and text.  The video above is set on the campus where they study in the heart of downtown Jerusalem.

To see the whole story of Esther told by hamentaschen eating missionaries , visit YouTube.

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Countdown to Purim, 5772: Western Style, in memory of the Fogels

The director of the video below, Shlomo Blass, is a friend of Udi Fogel, who was murdered together with his wife and three of his six kids little over a year ago. He developed the video in memory of his friend and writes:

In the clip I tried to take a Torah subject and make it accessible to the general public in a light-hearted way that does not impinge upon the meaning. I had help from a talented animator and illustrator, Ofer Winter. My decision to use Purim was not just because the holiday falls close to the date of the murder but because the main message of Purim is “Na’hafoch’hu” . That means that it is God who is running the world, even at times when everything looks black. The wisdom, of course, is not just to know that but also to live it. To me, Udi embodied that powerfully, with a smile and a natural humility. (Source: Israel Matzav)

After retelling the story of Purim as a Western, the video continues with a traditional explanation of why the story of Purim never mentions the name of God. The story of Purim is meant to show us that even when things are darkest, God is still at work albeit hidden.  This stands against an alternate reading that the Purim story is about human beings taking care of themselves rather than relying on God to save the day.

As a survivor of an attempted murder, I’m inclined to say both interpretations of the Purim story speak to important truths. Without a doubt in times of extreme stress we must rely on ourselves.  No angel came and rescued the Fogels and no angel came and rescued me. They were murdered and I survived by pretending I had been murdered.

And yet, I recall those moments when my life hung in the balance as being more centered and focused than I have ever been in my life. There was a stillness and calm that I have only ever felt before in moments of prayer. In the years since the attack I have often struggled to imagine that God could be anywhere near this broken world of ours where good people are hurt with no respect for their value or life. Yet strangely, people see in me a strong faith.

In a way I have to admit they are right. That faith certainly isn’t in God descending out of nowhere to save the day. That part we have to do ourselves. Even then our best efforts may be defeated, as was the case of the Fogels. Some enemies are simply smarter, quicker or take wise advantage of the element of surprise. Rather it is in the deep belief that no matter what happens God can turn it upside down and all around. Just as Haman set up a gallows for Mordachai and ended up swinging from it himself, so too all the evil we face can with the help of God get turned around into healing and salvation for those that come after.

Nothing will bring back the Fogels, but I pray that goodness and healing will flow endlessly from their lives and the efforts of all who love them to do good in their names. Ken yehi ratzon. Amen.

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Countdown to Purim 5772: Latin Jazz style, “Haman” by The HeartSleeves

From the HeartSleeves blog:

Haman was this douchey visor to King Ahasuerus who basically didn’t like this Jewish dude Mordecai because he wouldn’t kiss his ass, so he decides to have him killed by genocide! That’s right! I hate your ass, so I’m going to kill all of your people! No wonder Purim is a celebration of drinking and dancing and cursing Haman’s name.

What Haman doesn’t know is that Queen Esther, who is this Monica Belluci level of OMGness, is secretly a Jew! She risks life and limb and basically turns Haman’s plot on his own ass. In the end, Mordecai is living the good life and Haman is killed on the gallows he had built for Mordecai’s neck. Done and done!

Heartsleeves is an ecletic neo-soul band, Two of the band memers are Jewish:  Ben Margolis & Jared Lucas Nathanson. Ben approached Jared Continue reading

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Countdown to Purim, 5772: Parody and Counter-Parody

Last year, the Macabeats produced a snappy Purim video which somehow managed not to feature even one adult woman. Esther was a three year old baby. There were two brief frames with girls about 6 and 9. And that was it for a story where the (s)hero of the day was a woman.

Two women decided to remedy the situation with a video of their own, with all the characters being women.

To their credit, the Maccabeats do seem to recognize the problem. The two videos they’ve put out for 5772 (2011-2012) have both an adult woman, more than one in fact. (Rosh HaShanna and Hannukah )

This year’s Rosh HaShanna video shows a woman sharing a meal and the entire women’s section davening (praying) in Shul during High Holiday services. The Hanukhah video features three adult women. One even appears to be lighting a menorah of her own, though we don’t actually see her do it. Her husband hands her the shamesh and she turns off screen and reaches out as if … Another is dressed in tie and what looks like a black velvet kippah.  She actually lights her own and is seen learning text to boot! Are these ambiguous images the video version of a machlochet (halakic dispute)?

Mayim Bialik, the one-time child actress, is that third woman. She swears her hat is NOT a kippah. She is very pleased to see a woman learning in a video coming out of the Orthodox world.

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Countdown to Purim, 5772: Persians tell the story of Esther and Morachai

This beautiful film in both Farsi and English takes one on a video visit to the tomb of Esther and Mordachi, the holiest site to Persian Jews other than Jerusalem. The tomb is located in Hamadan in modern day Iraq.

The caretaker says that the burial site dates back 2500 years. The mausoleum itself was built by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. The site was restored in the 1920’s with initial funding provided by a Jewish women’s group. The place has special significance for Iranian women, not just Jews. Among the traditions associated with the place, it is believed that clothing made from cloth that touches Esther’s tomb will bring blessing and healing to the person wearing it.

There is a competing tradition that says the bodies of Mordachai and Esther were brought back to Israel and buried in Baram, in the upper Galilee.

The story of Esther and Mordachai is also part of Iranian culture. In Iran Jews are known as the “children of Esther”. The site is also part of Iran’s National Heritage list.

For more on the tomb, its architecture and its traditions, see

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Countdown to Purim, 5772: The Shlomones, “Good Groggin’

In case you are wondering where you heard this song before, Continue reading

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Countdown to Purim, 5772: Hesder Style in Australia

Today’s pre-Purim video is from teachers in Australia’s Torah MiTzion program. The Torah MiTzion program brings graduates from the Israeli army’s Hesder programs to teach in Jewish Day Schools in Australia.

The Hesder program allows Israelis Continue reading

Categories: Diaspora and Israel | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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