Purim in my past

The various meanings of Purim.

Purim revelers in the Nahlaot neighborhood (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Purim revelers in the Nahlaot neighborhood
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
How wonderful it is that Jews all over the world can celebrate Purim in a festive manner. For many, Haman and Hitler seem linked. In the first instance, under leadership of Mordecai and Esther, the Jews triumphed; Haman and his hordes were killed. Sadly, Hitler managed to destroy six million of our people before he finally got his due.
For young ones, part of the essence of Purim relates to making as much noise as they can. The first Purim I can remember was in 1947, when Jews were still reeling from what had happened in World War II. Some of the shock came from meeting survivors and hearing their horrendous tales. Another factor was learning about the heroism of American Jewish soldiers during the war, even though none of us yet realized that 550,000 Jews – close to 10% of all the Jews in America – had fought in the various branches of the US military. Our fellow Jews were in every major battle, distinguished themselves, won medals and sacrificed their lives. There is a plaque in every Atlanta synagogue with names of men and women who were killed in the line of duty.
For us youngsters, Purim was a time to openly demonstrate our anger about what had happened in Europe. My 1947 Purim was lively. A fan of Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey and Hopalong Cassidy, I made it clear to my parents that I needed a cowboy costume and a cap gun. Being an only child, my parents did not want to argue with me too much, so I had a cowboy costume a few weeks before Purim. My jodhpur pants stuck out just right, my cowboy vest was perfect (although I did not have any cigarettes in my pockets) and of course I had a cap gun that for some reason was able to shoot two caps at a time.
I went to shul with my father. The sanctuary was packed. Lots of kids were in costumes, although no adults except for Rabbi Hyman Friedman and his wife Shulamis were costumed. I spotted a lot of groggers around but no other cap pistols, but what did I care? I was well armed for Purim. I fired my cap gun there for the first time when Haman’s name was intoned. The blast resounded. Everyone looked at me. I could read their thoughts, “The rabbi’s grandchild – what is he doing?” I did not stop; I had bought a major supply of caps and I used them liberally.
When the Megila reading and the rest of the davening were finished, we had wonderful poppyseed hamentashen from the Manhattan Bakery. I was having fun with my friends. I let them use my gun and caps and they had a good time shooting them off. I think my bubbie and zadie were not sure what to make of me, but I knew how much they loved me – plus my bubbie made her legendary hamentashen, which we enjoyed eating at the Purim feast the next day.
TWO DECADES later, I experienced the great joy of Purim as an adult. In 1967, a Chabad team came to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where I was the Jewish chaplain. A Chabad rabbi from Detroit had contacted me and asked if I would be open to receiving several Chabad representatives for the holiday. It struck me as a great idea, particularly for the 20 or so youngsters who were children of Jewish officers plus a few children of Jewish civilians who lived in Lawton, the town near the fort.
The rabbi asked me how many I thought would participate in the Megila reading. I told them that in addition to the youngsters, I hoped to do publicity which could bring 50 soldiers and maybe more. The three Chabadniks arrived at the airport in Oklahoma City and I drove them to our training base for the artillery group, from which most soldiers would go to Vietnam. I arranged cots and places for the emissaries to sleep; of course they brought their own food. They also had small gifts – mishloah manot, from the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The biggest complication came when I told the head of the delegation that the chapel where we davened had a revolving religious piece that had an ark on one side and a cross on the other. I took them over to see the cross. After examining it closely, they decided that they would cover it with army blankets, which I could easily get. We tied the blankets around it. The solution sounded fine to me.
The Chabad representatives had brought a large Megila to read from, even though I had a small kosher one that I had bought in Jerusalem when my wife and I studied there. We awaited as children arrived in costume. Most of the girls were dressed as Esther the queen and the boys as either King Ahasuerus or Mordechai (not Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey or Hopalong Cassidy).
About 60 soldiers came straight from a day of training, still in the uniforms that they had been wearing when they were out in the field practicing their artillery skills.
The Megila reading by one of the Chabad gentleman was accompanied by the noise of groggers sent by the Rebbe. They were used with great gusto; for the soldiers it was a pleasant interlude before many of them were off to Vietnam. When the service was over, the Chabad team opened a large box filled with hamentashen individually wrapped in cellophane paper. There were so many that the soldiers were able to take them back to their barracks with them.
Early the next morning, my assistant drove them to a nearby air force base where there was no Jewish chaplain. I did not go with them, but my assistant told me that about 25 trainees went there to hear the Megila and enjoy the hamantashen. This two-base operation worked well because Purim was on Saturday night and Sunday morning that year. Of course the Chabad team had arrived on Thursday night.
Out in the artillery fields and in the oil fields we celebrated Purim.
MY PURIM spirit initially blossomed in Atlanta and what I felt back then has expressed itself in many ways during my seven decades. At the Jewish Theological Seminary where I studied for the rabbinate, the students’ Purim party after the reading of the Megila was more than joyous – it was raucous. I was not talented at doing imitations, but many of the other students were. They did Saturday Night Live style parodies of our professors. Not many of the professors were present, so the parodies could be painfully exact, and so they were. We had many bottles of liquor – wine and beer – and of course plenty of hamentashen. The climax of the party was provided by Raphael Ostrovsky, a joyful Jerusalem- Birmingham student (now a rabbi) who somehow managed to play “When the Saints Go Marching In” on a shofar – a feat I did not know was even remotely possible and that I have never seen (and probably never will see) replicated.
The most wonderful Purims we have celebrated in Israel for the last 40 years, be they clear or snowy, relate to our progeny. To be able to see your three children and eight grandchildren in a variety of costumes from cowboys to motorcycle drivers to cheerleaders is the greatest joy of all. We hope and pray that they and their families will celebrate this most joyous of days for many years to come.
Purim sameah!