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Purim under siege

All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman.
— Scroll of Esther, chapter 3

Putin’s road to war: Unhappy man surrounded by terrified advisers.
— Toronto Globe and Mail headline, March, 2022

As usual, it was a time for the Jewish people to recall an existential threat. 
 To think about an evil political leader who had genocidal intentions.

To make noise to blot out the mention of his name.

Rabbi Wolff prepares for Purim in Kherson, Ukraine, a city currently occupied by Russian forces.

But for a few dozen Jewish Ukrainian Jews who gathered last week for the reading of the Megillah on Purim, the words of the Scroll of Esther centered on the victory of Persian Jews 2,500 years ago — and on the symbolism of a holiday that was just as current as the day’s headlines. And just as relevant to those Jews’ survival.

This year, for those Jews in Kherson, Kherson was Shushan, Persia. The Haman-Putin parallel was obvious.

A month before Passover, when Jews see themselves as taking part in a historical event, they were living through history. They did not need to use their imagination to see themselves as contemporaries of the Jews in the ancient Persian Empire. Russian tanks were everywhere.

On a holiday that celebrates hidden miracles, the Jews of Ukraine were praying for some open ones. They were looking for spiritual strength in the story of their triumphant ancestors.

This year, the Jews of Ukraine are not a particular target of a modern-day Haman — the entire country is.

This year, as in the ancient story about Persian Jews who achieved victory because they took up arms against the people who meant to kill them, some Ukrainian Jews have joined the battle against the Russian troops.

This year, the words of the Megillah came alive for the Jews of Ukraine; a heroic Jew in a position of power, a Mordechai in one case, a Zelensky in another.

In Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city captured by the Russian army last month, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Wolff, one of the few Chabad rabbis who had remained in Ukraine as the life-and-death danger increased in recent weeks, led Purim services for “a lot of people” during the day — he did not offer an estimate.

The previous night, a few dozen people showed up, he said in a telephone interview with the IJN. Because of the Russian-imposed curfew, “I didn’t push people to come.”

Standing near the bimah of his synagogue, a two-story, stone art nouveau building a few blocks from the Dnieper River, Rabbi Wolff was outfitted in a wide-brimmed black sombrero and red-and-white poncho tied at his waist with a repurposed poncho.

Some people walked an hour or an hour-and-a-half, to hear the Megillah and celebrate with other Jews, he said. “They wanted to be together.”

Throughout Ukraine, according to rabbis and secular leaders who spoke with the IJN, the people who walked or drove to shul did so as an act of defiance, as an assertion of communal memory, as a statement of optimism in national survival.

Ariel Zwang, CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, recently met several Jewish refugees from Ukraine who have gone to Poland, agreed about the symbolic importance of Purim. In a Purim essay carried by Religious News Service, Zwang, whose family has roots in Ukraine, described Polina Rysker, who directs a Jewish community center near the Black Sea.

Rysker, Zwang wrote, “made time to teach local children and their parents about the upcoming holiday. ‘Remember the history of Purim,’ she told them in a resilient tone, ‘Remember the miracle and we will believe in it with you.’”

As the Russian military continued to pound the eastern and western parts of Ukraine and as Ukrainians continued to fight back, as the death toll of Ukrainian civilians and fighters mounted, as citizens of yet-untouched cities wondered who would be the next victim of Russian aggression, as the greatest refugee crisis in Europe since WW II intensified, as Jews everywhere wondered about the Talmudic dictum “when the month of Adar enters, we increase our joy,” the Jews of Ukraine turned to the familiar: a holiday that celebrates the survival of an outnumbered – in 2022 terms, outgunned — people.

While Purim this year was a subdued matter in a country under siege by its northern neighbor — with which it had once been a part of the now-defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — and while most of the country’s rabbinic leaders and uncounted Ukrainian Jews had left the country since the Russian Army began its invasion Feb. 24, some of them unlikely to return, Purim was also a time of open joy, a chance to for a few hours to escape the reminders of war.

Purim was a respite.

Especially for the Jews who were able to gather, unlike those in some Ukrainian cities where danger made such communal events impossible.

Those Jews who were able to walk to their synagogues saw Russian soldiers; in shul, they heard sirens and Russian vehicles.

The Ukrainian Jews, Rabbi Wolff said, wore “regular” costumes — nothing overtly political.

But the war, the missing faces, the friends and relatives who had become sudden emigrants, were clearly on their minds.

“The people are very frustrated with the situation. They want their lives back,” said Aviran Farin, communications consultant for Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch, chief rabbi of Kiev. “They are always hearing sirens and [Russian] planes over the city.”

Farin said Rabbi Markovitch led the evening Purim service by Zoom because of the city-wide curfew; some 30 people, “only the elderly,” came to the synagogue the following morning.

Purim, which centers around a malevolent prime minister whose name is now a synonym among Jews for anti-Semitic designs, was the first major Jewish holiday since the war began.

In Kiev, the capital, Purim services were led in the Great Choral Synagogue, by Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a Brooklyn-born member of the Karlin-Stolin chasidic group who has served in Ukraine since 1990. He had left Kiev temporarily for “my own security . . . I’m not particularly one of Putin’s favorites,” but returned to be with his adopted community on the holiday.

The dangers faced by the Jewish community were especially evident in Kiev, where even getting to shul for Purim was risky. After heavy shelling by Russian troops, the city imposed a 36-hour curfew the day before the holiday; citizens were advised to stay in their homes or shelters unless they had a special permit for working in vital services.

Nonetheless, some came to shul for Purim activities in several Ukrainian cities.

In Odessa, where Rabbi Avraham Wolff is at the city’s main synagogue, “several dozen worshippers, mostly men between the ages of 18-60 who are not allowed the leave the country, wore neon green plastic hats and goofy sunglasses — allowing the Purim levity to provide a brief respite from the stresses of daily life in wartime Ukraine,” according to chabad.org.

In Dnipro, where the 22-story menorah community center is said to be the largest-such Jewish complex in Europe, a Megillah reading drew hundreds of people.

In Lviv, the Megillah was read in the ruins of the Golden Rose synagogue in late afternoon, before the holiday officially began at sunset, to allow the handful of Jews there to get home by the 10 p.m. curfew.

Celebrating Purim “is always important — this year it’s even more important,” says Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland. The Long Island native, who has coordinated the absorption of Ukrainian refugees by Jewish institutions in Poland, is in a unique position, in a formerly communist society, one historically threatened by a bellicose Russia.

The symbolism of Purim, Rabbi Schudrich said in a telephone interview, is intensified by the presence of “a modern-day Haman” in the Kremlin today. “The world is facing a new Haman — nothing more, nothing less.”

The people’s mood on Purim last week? “A good mood,” Rabbi Wolff in Kherson said. “People were laughing.”

Drinking? “A lot of l’chaims.” To life. “A lot of vodka. We came to celebrate.”

And the standard Megillah readings, with the standard noise-making when Haman’s name was read. Did people have Putin in mind, too? “I’m not a navi [prophet],” Rabbi Wolff said. “I don’t know what’s in people’s minds.”

No one mentioned Putin, he said. “We don’t talk about politics in the synagogue.”

After Purim, back to what has become regular life.

Rabbi Markovitch left Kiev immediately after the daytime Purim service to accompany some members of the community to safety, and to obtain food and medical supplies for the Jews remaining in Kiev, Farin said.

And in Kherson, Rabbi Wolff said, he had “already” turned to thoughts of Pesach. War or no war. “We’re thinking about matzahs.”

These days are recalled and observed in every generation: by every family, every province, and every city. And these days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never perish among their descendants.
— Scroll of Esther, chapter 9

Purim’s call to fight tyrants suddenly feels very relevant.
Jerusalem Post, 2022



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IJN Contributing Writer


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