My Story: A trifecta of Purim memories

‘There is always a Haman and maybe there is always hope even when things look darkest,’ J said in a barely audible voice when the rabbi’s reading at her prison was over.

old purim photo 311  (photo credit: .)
old purim photo 311
(photo credit: .)
When my sisters and I were young, chubby and growing up in a Jewish suburb of New York City in the mid-20th century, before play dates and Play-Doh, Purim was like Halloween. There were no stores where you could slide in your credit card and slip out with a cool, edgy, Batmanesque Haman costume, so we basically relied on our mother to outfit us for the big day.
“Who wants to be King Ahasuerus?” she asked. I grinned a toothy, space-between-my-front-teeth grin and instantly became the top-ranking royal, the gentile ruler who held the fate of the Hebrew people at the tip of his scepter.
My older sister was designated as the heroine Queen Esther, the Jewish babe, and my younger, pigtailed sister became the megila – the scroll that recounted the Purim story. I thanked God I didn’t have to dress up as a rotund human scroll made of sheets stretched on hanger wire. My garb was a cardboard crown, a beard fashioned from copious wads of cotton and a fur-collared black cape.
My mother taught us a little Yiddish ditty that encapsulated one of the main events of Purim: mishloah manot (we called it shalach manos), or giving gifts for the Purim meal. Because snow still lingered on the streets and most fresh fruits were out of season, my mother gave us dried fruits to load onto the victual-laden paper plates we carried to our neighbors’ houses.
Haint is Purim (today is Purim), morgen is oys (tomorrow it’s finished), gib mir a penny (give me a penny), und vorf mir arroys (and throw me out).
We later went to the synagogue to hear the megila being read and we vigorously spinned a loud, tinny grogger whenever Haman’s name was mentioned. A few times, mine got stuck in my beard and finally I ripped the sucker off. I was a beardless, emasculated Ahasuerus.
CUT TO decades later, and Purim took on new meaning for me. In my newly adopted city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, I met crypto-Jews who were emerging from obscurity and hiding after 500 years. Some of them knew who they were, and their ancestors had kept their Jewishness as a closely-guarded family secret since the time of the Inquisition. Others were just finding out that, though they were raised as Catholics, their bloodline went back to the beleaguered Hebrew people in Spain and Portugal.
It was fascinating, as a writer and Jew, to find out the thoughts, beliefs, feelings and customs that had survived the Inquisition (which lasted well into the 1800s). One of the most arresting pieces of information I was told was that the crypto-Jews celebrated the Feast of Esther. They didn’t call it Purim. They related to Queen Esther and considered her an important icon because she, too, was a secret Jew. If her true religious identity were known, it would imperil her people and could mean her own death as well.
Like Queen Esther, the crypto-Jews kept their secret until they felt it was safe to come out in our present time.
In Queen Esther’s case, she revealed her religion to the king when the survival of the Persian Jews was at stake. In both cases, there was a happy ending. In ancient Shushan, Haman was hanged and the Jews were spared. In modern New Mexico, it is now quite common for Catholic Hispanics to talk openly – and even proudly – about their Jewish ancestry.
THE THIRD of my Purim reminiscences is much more recent (last year) and the edgiest of the three. In many ways, it’s as compelling as the original Purim story although far more ambiguous.
A Jewish woman from New York, whom I will call J, spent over a year in a depressing county jail in Santa Fe as she awaited her trial and sentencing. The crime of which she was accused was as heinous as they get: Purportedly, she killed her own mother, stabbing her over and over until the life drained from her body. J’s children were in the house at the time and the police interrogated them that fateful night. The prosecution counted them as witnesses against their mother. The layers of tragedy and trauma were unfathomable.
Although I am unaffiliated, I am friendly with the very open-hearted and caring Chabad rebbitzen and rabbi, Devorah Leah and Berel Levertov. The former told me that J was in jail with no one in the world to help or support her, and the latter became my prison-visiting buddy as we went to see J and tried to lift her – if only for an hour or two – out of the searing pain of her life. Sometimes I went with Rabbi Berel and other times I went alone. We always communicated afterward.
I began a relationship with J which continues to this day. She is smart, funny, sassy and was, before her incarceration, a fashionista and gambler. She suffers greatly from anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression and a lot of other labels from the DSM-IV manual of psychiatric disorders. She couldn’t tolerate the prison food, her pod mates, her separation from her kids, the torment of not knowing when her trial would be, how to get her lawyer to respond and whether she would be set free or spend a huge chunk of the rest of her life behind bars. She never wavered about her innocence and felt she was being framed. She said her mother was her best friend and she missed her desperately.
It was hard visiting J. Sometimes she was consumed by depression and wanted to die. Other times, she was on a treadmill of anger and disappointment and couldn’t get off. Rabbi Berel and I tried to distract her, divert her energy to something productive, listen to her, talk to her realistically about her situation, give her hope.
One day, I got an e-mail from Rabbi Berel asking me to come with him to the jail for Purim. I couldn’t imagine why Purim would matter to J, who knew next to nothing about things Hebraic. Her attention was on fighting for her life.
The rabbi and I deposited our keys and ID at the front desk, passed through security and were escorted to a little visiting room. J was brought in, dressed in drab prison garb, her eyes glazed, her hair covering part of her face. She mumbled that they had given her the wrong meds and she was being harassed by her podmates and surviving on peanut butter and crackers. She said she felt hopeless and was sure her life was over.
With her was Roberta, the jail psychologist, who happened to be a Jew from New York and an ally of J’s in the jail. She was very concerned about J’s emotional state. Like J, she knew almost nothing about Judaism. We were a motley crew: three New York City Jews and a rabbi, congregating in a maximum-security visiting room for Purim.
The rabbi and I looked at each other; J was so distressed and depressed that this was not going to be an easy visit. Without any introduction, the rabbi whisked out a megila. He handed J an English version of the story of Purim, and he began to recite the Hebrew version. At first J was fussy and unable to concentrate. But then she held the English version out to me, and we read it silently together as Rabbi Berel raced through the long text as though he were competing in the megila version of the Indianapolis 500. It took him less than 20 minutes with the full trop (tune).
J put down the English version and closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed. For a moment, I watched her get out of her pain and misery and into the ancient Purim story.
“There is always a Haman and maybe there is always hope even when things look darkest,” she said in a barely audible voice when the rabbi’s reading was over. The psychologist, who had never heard the megila, nodded in agreement.
Rabbi Berel pulled three small mishloah manot bags out of the pocket of his black coat, and I marveled that he had gotten them through security. We three New York Jews exchanged them and we nibbled at the hamantashen out of the sight of the guards. Then the rabbi handed us three coins to give to charity. By this time, J was giggling and grinning.
They came to take J away shortly afterward. We waited until she wasgone, and the rabbi scooped up the megila and the English text and weleft the facility. We walked to our cars in silence. What could wepossibly say?
J has been convicted and was transferred to a women’s prison. She stillmaintains her innocence. She sounds desperate and hopeless. I wonder ifshe still remembers last year’s Purim?