According to the plan approved by Israel’s coronavirus cabinet on Monday, celebrations during the Purim holiday next weekend will be curtailed. Festive meals will be limited to nuclear family members; synagogues will operate at half capacity for the fully vaccinated, or with a cap of 10 people indoors and 20 outside; and the traditional nationwide Adloyada (“until one no longer knows”) parades and customary costume parties will be banned.
Purim, the annual commemoration of the Jewish people’s rescue from Persian empire vizier Haman, as told in the biblical Book of Esther, has been of particular concern to Israel’s health authorities of late. Last February, as the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to rear its head, a toy-store owner in Or Yehuda – who returned from a trip to Italy where he contracted the virus – spent three days interacting with customers bustling to buy Purim garb. By the time that the proprietor of the “Red Pirate” was diagnosed, he had infected several people.
Less than two weeks later, synagogues were packed with worshipers reading the Scroll of Esther while unwittingly catching and spreading the coronavirus. Ditto for the other mass gatherings of kids and young adults in wacky getups drinking and dancing. It was during Purim last March, as well, that many Jewish communities in the Diaspora were hit hard by COVID.
On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that a full year has passed since then. On the other, last Purim seems like a lifetime ago. One might assume, then, that Israel’s swift and successful vaccination campaign would be cause for the kind of optimism that enables a degree of patience. Within a mere few weeks, after all, a majority of the country’s nine million citizens 16 and older will have been fully inoculated.
But seeing a light at the tunnel has had the opposite effect. If anything, it’s led to a greater push to resume all the activities that have been curbed or canceled due to the coronavirus crisis.
The restlessness only increased with the government’s announcement of a major easing of restrictions, to begin on Sunday. These include the reopening of malls, libraries and museums to the general public, and access to hotels, gyms, pools and sports event to anyone with a “Green Badge” – a Health Ministry certificate of presumed immunity, due to complete vaccination or recovery from the virus.
Coronavirus commissioner Nachman Ash is not happy.
“There are more than 5,000 daily cases and about 1,000 serious ones,” he said on Monday. “If someone had said two months ago that in [such a] situation we would open the economy, I would have called [him] crazy.”
Imploring even the vaccinated members of the public to continue to be vigilant about masks and social distancing, Ash warned that recklessness and irresponsibility will lead to another lockdown. As if retorting to disgruntled shopkeepers and parents, he asked rhetorically whether an additional closure would be “good for the economy or education.”
Judging by the behavior of many Israelis – some of whom have been violating COVID regulations to attend funerals and weddings, and others who’ve been throwing private shindigs in trendy neighborhoods – Ash’s admonitions are likely to fall on deaf ears, especially where Purim is concerned. Indeed, it’s one holiday that Israelis seem to adore.
PERSONALLY, I could never understand the attraction. In fact, well before the onset of the pandemic – as soon as my kids were out of school and in the army – I would self-isolate on Purim whenever peer pressure made bowing out of masquerading almost impossible.
My first encounter with the holiday in Israel was in 1978. I had been in the Holy Land for about nine months when I joined fellow Hebrew University of Jerusalem students on a bus trip to the northern city of Beit She’an, a venue selected for the purpose of experiencing the Adloyada procession in a development town.
As one friend with me at the event pointed out, “To watch a bunch of pot-bellied guys dressed in drag, we could have stayed put in Jerusalem, or better yet, in San Francisco.”
Rather than giving us a true taste of Judaism-meets-Zionism, the display caused us to convulse with laughter, more at ourselves for having schlepped all that way for nothing than at the participants in the parade, who were simply doing what is called for on Purim: getting soused and acting like idiots. Unfortunately, the one thing missing was booze, which made the ordeal even less festive than it already was.
To make matters worse, it began to rain, as I subsequently learned that it usually does on Purim. This led to a lot of runny makeup and drenched Orlon.
With each passing Purim, my distaste for the holiday increased. It turned to hate, however, when I became a parent.
It was bad enough that I didn’t know how or care to bake hamantashen like the other mothers in the area. But my kids always had big fantasies about the costumes they wanted me to buy or make, and friends whose parents with degrees in fields like architecture and design were actually capable of creating incredible outfits.
Nevertheless, one of the things that I loved about having made aliyah was no longer feeling left out of festivities reserved for Christians, or standing out like a sore thumb when engaging in my own. It’s a sensation that my Israeli-born children never knew.
IN ISRAEL, religious rituals and social norms intertwine beautifully in a way that is particularly noticeable on Purim. In the Diaspora, wearing costumes in public on any day other than Halloween or during Mardis Gras is out of place.
This is why I was always touched on Purim by the sight of my boys able to prance openly down the street sporting Harry Potter glasses, and my daughter wearing a Queen Esther wedding gown, along with everyone else.
Still, there are certain lengths to which even a proud Jew shouldn’t have to go in order to perform a maternal mitzvah, especially when she stinks at arts-and-crafts – which brings me to the worst Purim of memory, a decade after the Beit She’an fiasco.
The place was my son’s kindergarten. The activity was a parent-child workshop at which we were instructed to assemble our own costumes. The materials at our disposal were newspapers, scissors and staplers.
Gleefully, all the imaginative, nimble-fingered adults in the room began snipping away at old copies of Maariv and Yediot Aharonot, much to the delight of their offspring. So when my son screeched that he wanted to be a pirate, I knew I was in big trouble.
By the end of the activity, all of his buddies were bedecked in proper, recognizable costumes, concocted as if off-the-cuff by their multi-talented moms and dads. The fruits of my own labor were such a flop that all my child had to show for the afternoon was a flood of tears.
Decades later, with hundreds of similar, Purim-related tantrums and disappointments blessedly behind me, I am finally free of having to fork out a fortune to compensate for what I lack in sewing skills, and at liberty to shun the trappings of this otherwise meaningful holiday.
Yes, it’s a day whose significance is worth stressing as the powers-that-be in the coronavirus cabinet argue over the extent to which we should be allowed to celebrate it.
Purim is about victory over evil and Divine salvation. As is written in the Book of Esther, “The very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power.”
The merrymaking that so many of my compatriots enjoy, involving alcohol and funny attire, is a manifestation of gratitude to God for helping us rescue ourselves from annihilation. It is possible, thus, to express this thankfulness in less grandiose ways when called upon to do so in the collective effort to keep coronavirus infection in check.
Those unable or unwilling to comply are missing the message – and losing the plot – of the holiday.