My Word: The spirit and spirits of Purim

If the Purim story were to take place today, far from being strung up on his own gallows, Haman would have been invited as a guest to address the UN General Assembly

Shushan Purim celebrations amid ongoing coronavirus outbreak in Jerusalem, Feb. 28, 2021 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Shushan Purim celebrations amid ongoing coronavirus outbreak in Jerusalem, Feb. 28, 2021
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Purim, one of those quintessentially Jewish holidays, falls next week but it’s hard to get into a jovial mood. Purim, a topsy-turvy holiday when nothing is as it seems, got an early start this year. So did the party poopers. 

The festival marks the survival of the Jewish people as recorded in the Book of Esther, when Haman – the adviser of the Persian king – plotted to kill every single Jew in the empire. Esther, with the help of her uncle Mordecai, came bravely to the rescue. 

That was in the fourth century BCE. Today, it is still marked by, among other things, hearing the story of Esther read out loud – while drowning out the name of Haman; eating a festive meal; giving gifts to the poor; and holding special parades in fancy costumes. There is another curious custom: People are obligated on Purim to drink until they can’t tell the difference between “cursed Haman” and “blessed Mordecai.” Everything becomes a blur.

Emotional rollercoaster

Purim marks the start of that uniquely Israeli time frame that continues from now to Independence Day, in another two months – an unparalleled emotional roller-coaster. A month after Purim, we hold the Passover Seder when we’re commanded to remember the Exodus as if it happened to each of us personally; a week after Passover, Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day; and the week after that, back-to-back, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism and Yom Ha’atzmaut – Independence Day – modern Israel’s establishment, another miracle of biblical proportions.

The country should be gearing up for the landmark 75th anniversary, but it threatens to rain on our parades. Maybe it’s not rain, but a lot of spit.

 WOMEN DRESSED as handmaidens from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ arrive at Jerusalem’s Navon Railway Station to demonstrate against the government’s judicial overhaul on March 1. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS) WOMEN DRESSED as handmaidens from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ arrive at Jerusalem’s Navon Railway Station to demonstrate against the government’s judicial overhaul on March 1. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

The ongoing wave of Palestinian terror – which has claimed the lives of 14 people in Israel within a month – is a terrible reminder that there are still those who daily plot our destruction. This week alone, the Yaniv family buried two sons – side by side – after Hallel Menachem, 21, and Yagel Ya’acov, 19, were murdered in a shooting attack on Route 60. The following day, American-Israeli Elan Ganeles, 26, was murdered in a similar terror attack in the Jordan Valley on Route 90. How much inner strength do the families need to summon to survive the coming days, and every future Shabbat, holiday and family event with beloved members forever absent?

The attack in which the Yaniv brothers were killed took place at the same time of a summit meeting in the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba where officials from Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the US, as well as the Palestinian Authority, gathered to try to ease security concerns, particularly ahead of Ramadan. The holiday is often a time of increased terror attacks, and tension is expected to be particularly high as part of the month-long Muslim holiday coincides with the week-long Passover festival.

What followed the murder of the two brothers was also shocking. Fired up with sentiments of revenge, Jewish extremists surged into Huwara, the Palestinian village where the terror attack took place, and set homes and cars on fire. Palestinians reported one fatality and dozens of injured, many of them from smoke inhalation. IDF soldiers helped rescue Palestinian families; Jewish extremists reportedly attacked soldiers. The UN held an immediate special session to discuss the incident. 

If the Purim story were to take place today, far from being strung up on his own gallows, Haman would probably have been invited as an honored guest to address the UN General Assembly, while the Jewish state would have been broadly decried for upsetting such a powerful man in a strategic country.

If there was any consolation to be found in the situation, it was the way that President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and prominent Orthodox rabbis condemned the acts of the Jewish extremists. “Taking the law into one’s own hands, rioting, and committing violence against innocents – this is not our way,” said Herzog. That’s why the comment by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionist Party) that “Huwara needs to be wiped out” was considered so out of place and reprehensible.

Contrast this to how the Palestinian leaders deliberately incite violence against Israelis and Jews, fostering a cult of martyrdom in the education system and through the “pay-for-slay” policy rewarding terrorists and their families.

For the record – in case some antisemite has run out of excuses – although Hebrew-speakers call the traditional triangular-shaped Purim pastries oznei Haman, Haman’s ears, none of the ingredients could be used to launch a blood libel. 

EVERY YEAR children dress up for Purim as police officers, soldiers, Queen Esther, Mordecai and in a broad range of Disney characters. Incongruously, there are always ultra-Orthodox Jewish children dressed as Father Christmas, unaware of any other associations of the white-bearded old man wearing red. Borders can be blurred even without the help of alcohol.

Some of the demonstrators protesting the judicial reform have shown more dress sense than commonsense. I have noted before that groups of demonstrators have taken to wearing the eye-catching red capes and white bonnets of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel in which the women are forced to bear children for the barren ruling class. Yet strangely, many of the protesters also supported extending Israel’s Surrogacy Law to provide wombs for anyone who desires a child, which could threaten the rights in particular of socio-economically challenged women.

In one case, a woman protesting a proposed bill that had already been abandoned, dropped almost everything at the Western Wall. It was a one-woman protest at a holy site, by a demonstrator wearing just a bikini. She has nothing to be ashamed of, I was told when I declared the act shameful. But how would her supporters feel were a woman in a bikini to enter a mosque or church? Even restaurants don’t permit diners to sit at a table wearing only underwear. 

Protest organizers – who call for transparency but prefer anonymity – this week announced a Day of Disruption (reminiscent of the endless Palestinian Days of Rage). On Wednesday, thousands took to the streets – and to blocking main roads – clashing with police who were under orders to permit protests while maintaining freedom of movement.

The meaning of the words “dictatorship” and “democracy” have both undergone a change more radical than the proposed judicial reform. There are good guys and bad guys, but sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which without a stiff drink.

Former prime ministers have called for a coup d’etat, to overturn the last election results which brought Netanyahu back to power. Former chiefs of staff and leading ex-military figures are warning of or threatening civil war. Nothing is sacred. Even those who fell in the country’s wars have been mobilized into the current battle – and no one can tell who is spinning in their grave and who would be pleased to be part of the spin war if it could bring the current government down.

Leaders in the fields of hi-tech and finance have threatened to take their companies elsewhere – while accusing the government of sowing economic uncertainty. Government members, for their part, accuse the demonstrators of being anarchists, dismissing their fears.

The lack of trust between both camps is clear. The rift is real. And it’s being exploited by politicians, helped by massive media attention. Threats of civil war are terrible for the country, but good for ratings.

As if the news wasn’t bad enough, there were reports this week that the Islamic Republic of Iran (today’s Persia) had reached so close to the nuclear breakout point that it might be able to create a nuclear weapon within days. Such a weapon would endanger the whole world, not just Israel.

In the Purim spirit, it could be said that a nuclear bomb dropped by Iran would permanently cure Israel’s domestic struggles. But, of course, when sober, that doesn’t seem at all funny. Israel’s enemies – particularly those funded by Iran – are watching the events in Israel with great glee. 

As she buried two of her sons on Monday, Esti Yaniv called out for unity. “Achim anachnu,” she repeated, over and over again. “We are brothers.”

It was a cry from the heart that we should keep in mind – not only in pain and loss, but also in times of joy. When life resembles an ongoing Purimspiel satire, and everything is blurred, laughing easily merges into crying. It’s a topsy-turvy time, but everyone needs to keep track of just who is the real enemy.