Sunday, May 22, 2005

Purim Countdown

March 1st – our “mivtzva” (campaign) for Purim Mishloach Manot, is formally launched. Observant Jews traditionally give mishloach manot packages to one another on Purim. It is one of the four obligations of Purim, the others being the obligation to hear the Megilla (Purim story) , the obligation to give tzdekka to the poor, and the obligation to have a Purim Seudah (festive meal). In the religious community, people prepare platters of cakes, cookies, and goodies to give to each other (one is supposed to give two types of food to two people). This year, a group of women has decided to prepare ready-made platters and sell them, with the profits going to a local fund which gives food coupons to needy people. Notices are put up throughout the city, and, since this is the modern age, notices are put up on the Safed website ( and the local e-newsletter. Within hours, we have received a phone call from the States, as well as local orders. A good start.

March 4th – Rosh Chodesh Adar, the first day of the month of the Hebrew month of Adar. This is the day that the kids have been waiting for all year, since, between Rosh Chodesh and Purim (approximately two weeks) there is little actual learning that occurs in the schools.. Every day, there’s another activity…a trip to the sports center in Metulla for the day, a hike on Mt. Hermon to see the snow, sport day,, dance day, breakfast day, etc. The religious high schools have a few nighttime activities, notably the “crowning” of the Rabbi/Rabbitzin of Purim. (The Rabbi is crowned at the boys’ school; the Rebbetzin at the girls’). These evenings include skits, songs, dancing, and a general atmosphere of craziness. During these two weeks, I am unable to keep track of which child is where, and which one will return home at what time…it seems as though the porch light is on constantly.

March 5th – standing in line in the supermarket, the woman ahead of me is buying flashlights and batteries. No one doubts why she’s buying these items, and a discussion ensues…are you preparing? Have you bought anything? Remember last time….? Most people, at least in the area in which I live (sparsely populated) don’t seem to be in a panic about the impending war and Iraq’s intentions…maybe fatalism has struck, or maybe we just don’t think that we’re going to be a target. The most annoying thing about the whole experience seems to be the lack of baking soda available in the stores – baking soda is one of the “anti-gas” items that we were instructed to stockpile, and there seems to be little available in the meantime for anyone who wishes to bake.

March 6th – Bomb blast on a Haifa bus yesterday. This time, one of the boys who was killed was from Tsfat, a friend of Avishai’s, and Avishai goes to his funeral. This is the first time that I personally know a family of a terror victim, and I dream about his family. Avishai and his friends spend most of the evening together.

March 7th – At 11:30a.m., Hagai walks into the house. Why is he home early? Seems that his teacher broke one of the “rules”, and the class ended. Purim is famous as the holiday of “l’hafochu” – everything is turned topsy-turvy. In that vein, the schools traditionally let the kids make “the rules” during these weeks, and every school posts it’s “takkanon” on the bulletin board near the office for all to read and notice. Gum chewing is allowed during classtime. Teachers have to start every class with a joke. Every class period has to have at least 3 breaks for “singing and dancing”. Any teacher who is late to class has to end early. And so on. Hagai’s class drew a chalk line down the middle of the board, and made the “rule” that if a teacher wrote on the “wrong” side of the line, the class would end. Sure enough, the teacher’s chalk touched the wrong side of the line, and 20 boys head home early.

March 8th – Shabbat ends, and we turn on the radio, to hear of another terrorist attack, this time on a home in Kiryat Arba, where terrorists invaded the home of a couple and shot them while they were eating their Shabbat dinner. The woman turns out to have been the beloved teacher of one of the girls doing her national service in Tsfat, and we try to comfort her. Again, too close to home.

March 9th – Margalit comes home with a “It’s a Mitzva to be Happy” paper from her kindergarden…the girls (it’s a girls class) are supposed to dance daily at home for at least two minutes, and if they have their paper signed every day that they did so, they get a prize at the end of the week. I only hope that these kind of things help her forget the images of the blood-stained Kiryat Arba living room that she just saw last night on the news, on the bulletin that interrupted her Walt Disney Robin Hood movie.

March 10th – Hagai comes home early from school. Why is he standing in my office at 11:30a.m., waiting for the keys to the house? It’s Sport Day in his school, and he doesn’t like sports (at least, not when he’s not making up the rules), so they just let him go home. Schools can be…lax…in Israel. Hagai spends the rest of the day on the computer, playing virtual sport.

March 12th – This year, I’ve promised myself that I won’t wait until the last minute to buy the costume accessories for purim, so I head up to town with Margalit, Hagai, and Yochi. The rule in our house is that we don’t buy costumes, but each child has a budget for accessories – a crown for the royalty, black nailpolish for the ghoulishly-dressed, and the all-important colored hair spray for anyone over the age of 10. We walk into the store, which is crowded to bursting with all the other families who decided to shop early. Margalit, who is planning to dress up as a “Flower Queen”, immediately finds a crown and septer, some glittery nail polish, and some lip gloss, and is happy. Yochi finds the color hair spray that will make her into an acceptable “punkistit” for the 7th grade, puts in in my hand, and heads home…she doesn’t want to be seen hanging around with us. Hagai can’t make up his mind, and wavers between a sword that looks like it’s entering his head from one angle and exiting from another, or fangs that squirt blood, or a mask that looks like Boris Karloff. At some point, some smart-aleck kid opens one of the stink-bombs that the store sells as a gag, and the store empties. Hagai grabs some hair spray and the squirting fangs, shoves them in my hands, and runs home. I must remember this system for encouraging quick decisions in the future.

March 14th – Hagai ran off to school with a good deal of excitement today…today is “Yom HaTalmid” – Students’ Day. In the elementary schools, during that crazy week before Purim, the 6th grade takes over the school for one day, filling in the roles of the staff. During that day, the principal is relegated to one of the classrooms, and spends the day sitting at a desk taking orders from the new “teacher”, while one of the other 6th graders takes over the running of the school for the day. It’s not unusual for a parent to call the school on that day and find that the “secretary” can’t spell puberty, much less act like someone who has reached it. The classes are taught by other 6th graders who imitate the mannerisms of the teachers and aides, and the day usually ends with a skit in which the 6th graders parody their daily lives in the school. It’s a lot of fun for the kids…most teachers, too, enjoy seeing how they are viewed by their students.

March 16th – Tomorrow begins the 3-day Purim vacation…though Purim is really only a one-day holiday, the schools recess for 3 days. So today is the day that the kids go to school dressed in their costumes. As I drove margalit to Gan this morning, dressed as the “Flower Princess”, we passed dozens of kids who were outfitted in an array of costumes which rival anything that Halloween has to offer. Hagai had whitened his face, smeared fake blood over it, stuck in some plastic teeth, and left for his Talmud Torah as a vampire. (I used to worry that the school would disapprove of such non-Jewish themes in my son’s costume choices until I began to hear what the Rabbi’s sons were dressing up as!) Yochi borrowed one of Yoni’s old shirts, braided her hair, put on a jeans skirt, and went as a cowgirl. Later during the morning, the gan-age children (kindergarden) parade through the streets in their costumes, and many adults who have no reason to be outside at 10:00a.m. find themselves with errands to do, coincidently at the time that the gan Purim parades begin.

March 17th – when I made aliyah almost 20 years ago (!) I was told that “it always rains on Purim”. Sure enough, the springlike weather is scheduled to end this afternoon, and thundershowers are forcast for this evening, when we go to the Megilla reading. I am sure that there is some symbolism in this somewhere, since it really HAS rained almost every Purim since I’ve been in Israel, even during drought years. But I haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe one of my Kabbalistic neighbors….

Another interesting coincidence is that, 12 years ago, the Gulf War ended on Purim day. This year, the war with Iraq is threatening to break out again on Purim…we can actually stretch Purim a bit, since Purim in Jerusalem stretches through Wednesday, (Many kids in Israel celebrate Purim with their families, then hop on a bus on Purim afternoon, and celebrate it again in Jerusalem!) Purim has always had some strange connections to evil in our day…there are a number of eerie connections to the Nazis and the Nurmburg trials, and present-day mystics have also made some unsettling connections between Purim and the wars against Saadam Hussain. The outbreak of war on Purim is still unsure, but many people are aware of, and unnerved by, the coincidences.

March 18th
Twelve years ago, preceeding and during the Gulf War, the hotels in Israel were empty. Little did we know then that AFTER the war ended, the Jewish Agency was paying the hotels to KEEP THEIR HOTELS EMPTY…most of us just assumed that tourism hadn’t yet rebounded from the war. Two months after the Gulf War ended, the reason for these empty roms became evident to Israelis – overnight, 14,000 Ethopian Jews were airlifted out of Addis Abbaba as rebel soldiers stood ready to attack the city, and brought to Israel. The hotel rooms were prepared, and the immigrants were whisked, in an orderly manner, to their new (temporary residences). These individuals were almost the last Ethopian Jews left of a community whose history in Ethopia goes back to ancient times.

At that time, the Israeli government decided not to bring the Falash Mura to Israel. The Falash Mura are Ethopians whose ancestors (within the last 150 years) converted to Christianity, due to tremendous pressure by the government and the local churches. The mainstream Ethopian Jewish community has maintained a distance from the Falash Mura, and doesn’t support their absorption in Israel, but in recent years, the Israeli government, along with the religious establishment, has made a policy decision to bring the Falash Mura to Israel and facilitate their integration into Israeli society, including conversion to Judaism. Tsfat hosts hundreds of these immigrants, whose numbers grow weekly, as, planeload by planeload, the community returns to their Jewish brethren.

When my family and I entered the synagogue last night to hear the Megillah, our normally spacious quarters were packed to the rafters with new immigrants who had come to join us in celebrating their first Purim. (Since the story of Purim occurred after the ancestors of the Ethopian Jews had already left the Land of Israel 2500 years ago, they had no Purim tradition in Ethopia). The new Israelis sat mesmerized, mothers with babies on their backs, most adults still wearing the traditional African white robes, while their children danced around, made up as clowns, astronauts, queens, kings, cowboys and princesses. The Megilla reading wasn’t a quiet affair, since the numerous new immigrant children joined the numerous “veterans” in noisemaking, but for all involved, another circle was closing.

We learn from Jewish tradition that in the days of Messiah, all the holidays will be cancelled except for PURIM (Midrash Shachar 9:2). Why a one day, "minor" holiday be part of us forever? The message is very strong. When everything seems hopeless and dark, just like in the time of Esther and Mordechai, when we were destined to be wiped out. There is a possibility for salvation (v'nahafoch Hoo). We need to remember it all happens through the power of UNITY.

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