Purim: Looking back and looking forward

A look at Purim in all its dimensions

THE WRITER at Key Gate, the major entrance to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. (photo credit: DAVID GEFFEN)
THE WRITER at Key Gate, the major entrance to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
(photo credit: DAVID GEFFEN)
 “Oh today we will merry, merry be and nosh some hamantashen.”
“And Haman he was swinging while Mordecai was singing in Shu-Shu-Shushan long ago”
“Hava narisha, rash rash rash rash berashanim.”
The songs of Purim wait in our minds, waiting to emerge as the holiday approaches. Since last year’s Purim, a pandemic has overwhelmed us, but we will try as hard as we can to infuse our days with joy. Our children will parade around in their costumes. Hamantashen of all flavors will be eaten. The air outside will be filled with the chanting of the Megillah and the sounds of raashanim and groggers – noisemakers.
Purim is coming. Most areas of the country will celebrate for one day. Jerusalem and the other ancient walled cities will triple the fun of Purim: on Friday, Shabbat and Sunday.
In Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where I was a chaplain from 1965 to 1967, I was able to offer more than 800 Jewish military men and women a special Purim. It was 1967, and I was fortunate to have (with help) an unforgettable holiday celebration. Among the celebrants, there were the children of doctors, dentists and attorneys who had been called up for the Vietnam War.
They had already begun their professional practices after finishing their studies in their various fields. In the late 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, most professionals did not have to serve. The military did not need them. However, the reality of that three-decade period was the Vietnam War. Since so many trainees were drafted, they also had to be cared for, so doctors, dentists, lawyers, nurses and physical therapists were drafted. There was plenty of work for them. Chaplains could not be drafted. We had to volunteer, and we received a lower rank than the professionals, no matter how many years of schooling we had. It was not antisemitism; it was anti-clericalism.
In December of 1966, I received a letter from the Chabad rabbi in Detroit. He wrote a very kind letter with a wonderful idea: The Lubavitcher Rebbe had decided that for Purim 1967, every US military base around the world should be visited by Chabad shluchim (emissaries).
The Detroit rabbi wrote that he and several of his hassidim would like to come to Fort Sill. They would fly to Oklahoma City, where we could pick them up. They would be with us for Shabbat and Purim, which that year fell on a Sunday. They had gifts from the Rebbe that included hamantashen and groggers. They would bring a Megilat Esther, a scroll on which the Book of Esther is written, and read it for us in the evening and morning. I quickly called the Chabad rabbi in Detroit and sealed the deal.
When they arrived on Thursday night, I posed a question to them that was very important to me: “Could you go on Sunday, after the celebration at Fort Sill, to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, about 50 miles to the south of our fort, and read the Megillah there?” 
After that, I assured them, they could fly back to Detroit from Dallas. Since we had the famous Simpson Torah, which had come to the Oklahoma territory in a wagon during the land rush, I said, “We would be honored for you to read our Torah, too.”
MY ASSISTANT and I drove our three guests, just like the angels who visited Abraham, from the airport to the Jewish chaplain’s small office. An announcement had been sent to all Jewish personnel about the Chabad rabbis coming for Purim. The mail service officer at Fort Sill permitted me to send mail to all the Jewish personnel at their bunks and tents. I acquired a list with their names and addresses because at that time every new trainee who came to Fort Sill had to fill out a form that asked their religion. The names of everyone who wrote that they were Jewish were sent to me immediately. They were only going to be at Fort Sill for two months before they were sent to Vietnam.
In our building we had an oven and a refrigerator. The three visitors took out their own food to eat, asking me and my assistant to share, but we declined. They then put everything else they had brought into the refrigerator.
At about 10 that night, Jewish men started to line up outside the building. They wanted to have a private session with the Chabad Hassidim. Our visitors agreed, and for the next two hours they held individual meetings. Each soldier received a gift from the Rebbe. My assistant brought army cots into my tiny office building, where our guests slept.
On Friday, my assistant drove the rabbis around the post. They met with the chief chaplain, Father McMahon, a Roman Catholic priest. He received a gift. They then went to see the one-star general who was the deputy commander of the post, and he, too, received a gift for him and his wife.
We had our own chapel, so the Friday night and Shabbat morning services went very well. One of the Chabad rabbis read the Torah beautifully. Some of the men cried when they were called to the Torah. The Chabad team brought plenty of tallitot (prayer shawls), and we provided the little Jewish Welfare Board military prayer books. For the first reading of the Megillah on Saturday night we had about 55 people present, with a few children in costumes. Sunday morning was going to be special for them.
After the reading of Megillah, the Chabad rabbis took out a bottle or two of liquor. It was clearly forbidden, but we all drank and sang and danced with great fervor deep into the night.
In the morning, 23 children in costumes, ages two through 12 – sons and daughters of the officers and some children of the few Jewish families who lived in Lawton, Oklahoma – came for the Megillah reading along with their parents.
FORT SILL was established just after the Civil War, right in the midst of the Apache and Comanche territories. In fact, Fort Sill is the burial place of the great Apache warrior Geronimo. The first Jews in Lawton were the Simpson brothers, who arrived with the Torah in their covered wagon in 1909.
It was now nearly 60 years later, and as the Megillah reading started the crowd began to swell. Some 125 men and two women came in their military uniforms for the reading.
Along with the children, soldiers drowned out the name of Haman using the groggers sent by the Rebbe. The noise grew infinitely louder as the soldiers began to bang their helmets. Haman certainly got his due out there in Oklahoma that day.
In addition to the hamantashen from the Rebbe, there were some I had ordered from Dallas, about 170 miles away. What I recall most vividly was the costume parade. As each child passed by our Chabad guests, they were each given a special gift. My late wife, Rita, had dressed our two children – babes then, long-time Israelis now – in costumes she made. The year 1967 was a different time with different styles and fashions. Practically all of the little girls came dressed as Esther the queen. Almost all the boys came as Mordechai, along with one King Ahasuerus and a Haman who got booed by everyone.
Time passed quickly, and soon we were driving to Sheppard Air Force Base, where we arrived at 1:30 p.m. (This was the army: everything exact.)
There were some children at the base, along with the rabbi of the small synagogue in Wichita Falls who came to celebrate. There were around 25 Air Force men who joined us, many of whom were sent to Vietnam later that year. The Megillah was read, and the gifts from the Rebbe were handed out. The Wichita Falls rabbi was elated when I spoke about all the good work he did for the Jewish Air Force men, since there was no chaplain at the base. When it was time to leave, I had a hired driver take the Chabad rabbis to Dallas.
I was exhausted, as was my assistant, Michael Kaufman, who immigrated to Israel a few years ago. He and his wife now live in Rehovot, near their daughter.
What a blessed Purim I and the children and my Jewish troops experienced in the midst of the Oklahoma and Texas oil fields, with cannons roaring and planes flying overhead.
WHEN WE really focus on Purim, we discover how diverse and potent it truly is.
THE WRITER’S grandchildren (and son Avie), resplendent in costume. (David Geffen)
Why should this be the case? Why should we prepare so diligently for a holiday that is so joyful for us? As a comedian might ask, “What’s the punch line?”
This winter is running by us, engulfed at times in hard rains and the fear of being infected with the coronavirus. Purim, meanwhile, is standing there, waiting for us. Will we permit it to truly enter our lives? I hope so, but it will require effort.
The Purim tale recounts what has, in various ways, exemplified our lives as Jews throughout the centuries. Tyrants from Haman to Hitler believed they could destroy us. How wrong they were. There are those who felt they could murder us mercilessly and get away with it. 
A few years ago, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg captured our faith in the never-ending existence of the Jewish people: “It was this faith that Mordecai expressed when he told Esther if she did not act to save her people, help and rescue would come to the Jews from somewhere else. Mordecai,” Greenberg continued, “did not say, nor perhaps did not know, where that ‘somewhere else’ was. One thing he knew for sure: His people would live on.”
Just this month, a 95-year-old Nazi secretary was charged with being an accessory to 100,000 deaths at the Stutthof concentration camp. Some 2,500 years ago, at the time of the original Purim, Haman and his sons were hanged on the gallows and the Jews of Persia survived. We should never forget how strong and capable we are. Certainly God keeps helping us, too.