During the recent blizzard, I was reading America, a Catholic magazine published by the Jesuits. I was surprised to see a small article by one of my classmates from Rabbinic School at Hebrew Union College.
Rabbi Dan Polish was explaining to the Catholic readers the similarities of Purim and Mardi Gras about which I had once written an article for a comparative religion class over fifty years ago. The department of inter-religious cooperation of The Anti Defamation League, then associated with B’nai B’rith International, published that article, as I worked for ADL in the summers during my rabbinic training.
That also was the Purim that I snuck a Dixieland band into the choir loft of the sanctuary of HUC during the Megillah reading (the Book of Esther). When Vashti’s name was mentioned at the beginning of the Megillah, the band popped up and played “The Stripper.” The mood was Mardi Gras and Purim, both, as the band accompanied the reading. Three professors left the service in protest. It was the 60’s and the band was part of the outrageousness of Purim. Celebration! Release! More on this another time.
We know that Purim is the last day before the month’s spiritual and physical preparation for Passover, just as Mardi Gras is the last day before lent, the month-long spiritual preparation for Holy Week and then Easter, which is on the last day Yontif of Passover.
Purim and Mardi Gras are blasts of Jubilation and excess, imbibing and gorging, before solemn religious preparation for major Holidays.
However, what my classmate didn’t say, or what might have been edited in the article, was that Mardi Gras is about personal release, before a period of individual atonement, and Purim is a community release in celebration of redemption. We were saved from Haman in Persia. We were saved from the Amalakites, the metaphor for Jewish oppression over the millennia. Our ancient faith was saved from destruction, time and again over the years. Against all odds, our people survive, and it is incumbent upon us, to preserve Judaism, and the Jewish people in our own time in our own place. In our own way.
Nevertheless, as the holiday approaches, I am reminded of a Purim, of a Megillah reading, without joy. A somber Purim. No one was laughing.
It must have been 1946. It was Purim. The magnificent synagogue (I later learned) was a copy of an historic synagogue in Poland, except this was a brick structure, not wooden as in Poland.
This was the “Conservadox” shul.
We belonged to both Congregations in town. I had never been here for Purim. The mood in the shul felt somber as we walked up the stairs to the huge sanctuary.
At the Reform Temple across town, the Rabbi’s wife, who was from Palestine (the Land so called pre-Israel) led happy Purim songs as she sang and played the accordion. There was clapping and there was singing the songs that we had learned in religious school. Everyone sang.
I remember a quiet as we came up the stairs, almost like that on the High Holydays.
The table on the landing was covered with small, white, pieces of chalk. People were picking them up as they went into services. My father explained that the chalk was to write Haman’s name on the bottom of your shoes. I remember that it seemed scary when he put Haman on my sole. It was like stepping in something on our farm.
There was a group of strangers sitting together at the front near the bimah. Their clothes seemed different. They seemed sad. Before the service, the Rabbi spoke to them in what I thought was “Jewish” ( Yiddish) which I heard at my father’s parent’s home. This was the first time that I heard Yiddish at services.
During the Megillah reading Rabbi Shapiro paused before saying Haman’s name and then seemed to shout it, and then there was a thunderous sound in that sanctuary. Drowning out the sound of the groggers, that thunderous noise came from the congregation as we stomped our leather shoes on the wooden floor to blot out the name of Haman written on our soles. I can still remember my fear rising as the colossal sound rose each time the villain was mentioned. People constantly rewrote Haman’s name as it was blotted out.
The strangers down front seemed to be crying. It was upsetting against the din.
Years later I learned why that Purim was so somber. The “new people” were new immigrants, Holocaust survivors, who were sponsored by the congregation.
They had Haman on their souls as well.
Hitler had killed their families. Nearly killed them. Probably in post traumatic stress, my guess is that for many of them, they couldn’t feel that Haman was really defeated.
As for the congregants, World War II had just ended. Jews were still behind barbed wire in refugee camps in Germany and throughout a Western Europe. There was fighting in Palestine. The State of Israel had not yet been established. (Later I learned that many in the congregation were involved in illegally sending arms to Israel, as were many in the Reform congregation. )
While the redemption of Purim was an historic reality, I think that it hadn’t yet wholly sunk in for those Jews in that shul that year. Perhaps it was so that night at the Reform Temple and in other congregations as well.
The frightening thunder of the shoes on the wooden floor, blotting out Haman’s name, (looking back) might have been an effort to will themselves to feel the redemption that had indeed, taken place.
I also researched Mardi Gras cancellations.
Other than during a strike by city employees in 1979, the parades were only cancelled during wars: The Civil War, WWI, WWII, and The Korean War.
Perhaps that’s what the people in the shul were feeling that Purim. They were grateful for redemption, even though redemption was not complete.
Their thundering feet might have been a prayer of thanksgiving and defiance. Their stomping feet might have been the release that year.
Just as we conduct model seders (s’darim) before Passover, so will we have a Model Megillah reading during Shabbat Services on the second Friday in February. Read on for a catalogue of Purim themed drinks for the ad lo yadah. (Holy Confusion)
So, this might not be a year for costumes, except for the kids, (though wear one if you will) but we can energize the Model Megilla on Zoom and take up our tradition of “crazy hats,” or the hat of your favorite team, for the reading of the Megillah.
The Levins will lead us in joyful Purim songs. Join us!
Rabbi Fred Pomerantz
We are approaching the one-year mark of the Covid-19 shutdown and many of us will be reflecting on how many things are different than they were just one year ago. This period has been referred to as a ‘war’ and I lean toward agreeing with that description. We have masked and rationed and hoarded and quarantined and made sacrifices. And, we have lost. There has been so much loss. Many of us have lost friends and family over the last year without the chance to say good-bye or take part in the traditions of mourning that provide the support needed to move forward. Many have lost time with our family, jobs, careers and businesses. Yet, as the winter stretches on, the days are growing longer and the vaccines are becoming a little more available. There is progress and it feels like everything is just a little lighter every day.
It will take years to sort through the impact that the pandemic has had on our lives. What will the takeaways be? Will it have strengthened us individually? Nationally? Religiously? How will we want to view this year from the rear-view mirror?
When I look back over the last year as a leader of the Agudas Achim community, I’d like to think that we have been able to answer the needs of our membership during this unprecedented time. We made phone calls, we developed a zoom presence, and we have even expanded our offerings. One of the beautiful aspects of Judaism is that it adapts to an ever-changing world and I think we are continuing to adapt as we move forward. Looking back over the year I see strength and commitment and a caring community that gives me confidence in our future.
We will continue to incorporate the technology that is available to us so that as many people as possible can be reached. If you have thoughts or ideas regarding how we can do that better, please reach out to me. We will meet in person again, just not yet. Until then, stay smart, stay strong and stay healthy.
Judy Siegel, President
Thought for the upcoming months:
“Compassion is contagious. Spread it!”
Traditions & Tales #4
The Blessing Of Challah
by Karen Blocker
On Thursdays, I would walk especially quickly home from school because I knew I would be met with the tantalizing aroma of my Bubbe (grandmother) Sarah’s Shabbos challahs baking! Stepping into the house, I went directly into the kitchen and there they were! Under the embroidered challah cover, the special cloth that covered our Sabbath bread, were more than the traditional twin loaves, but normally near an incredible dozen of perfect, fragrant, golden breads! Our Sabbath table would have the twins and the remainder would always be sent out to observant family and friends, especially my father’s employers- hotel owners not favoring bakery products.
The word “challah” comes from a Torah reference in which G-d instructs Moses to share a part of bread with local Jewish priests. Our modern interpretation of making this reverent offering, as I practiced with my Bubbe Sarah, was to “offer” a tiny, cupcake-sized bread which was to be incinerated in the oven before baking our challahs. When I was not in school, I was able to braid this weekly delicacy, or create “bulkele,” sections, which required less fussy techniques. Using brushes whose bristles were chicken feathers, we covered oven-ready breads with the gloss of beaten eggs to create golden crusts!
Challah plays a very significant role in the Sabbath ritual. Following the “Kiddush,” the blessing over the wine, the twin challahs are uncovered, held upward together as an offering, and are blessed. The bread is then sliced or torn and distributed to each person at the meal or gathering to share. Salt is often used on the challah symbolizing the eternal connection between G-d and Israel, as salt never decays or spoils.
Today’s challah has become very popular with non-Jewish people as well and is often used for delightful French toast, croutons, and breadcrumbs. Challahs are also often created in different shapes for ceremonial occasions: enormous sizes to share at group Shabbat services and major Jewish holidays. As another example, a round bread signifying the circle of life would be prepared for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Last week, in the Age of Corona, as time at home has been my constant companion, I sorted, stacked, rearranged long-forgotten kitchen pots, pans, and particulars. There, in the back corner of a large storage closet, they were. Blackened by decades of Thursday challah baking sessions, endless numbers of dozens of Shabbats, I found my Grandmother’s Challah pans!
It was every memorable Thursday once again!
If you have a family tradition or tale to share, please call Karen at 845-796-0892 or email her YOUR story to email@example.com. We would like to share your contributions in future newsletters or even in a special edition newsletter!
Purim is a happy holiday that affirms Jewish survival and continuity throughout history. We’ve imagined what each character in the Book of Esther might have imbibed on such a happy occasion, plus a few others to fit the mood.
Which cocktail (or mocktail) resembles who you’d be in the Purim story? Find your drink, or try the whole M’gillah. L’chaim!
The Estherito Mojito* is pleasant and refreshing, with a pleasing presentation, garnished with sprig of mint.
The Mordechai Mai Tai* is steady with fortitude, blending rum, Grand Marnier, amaretto, and fruity flavors.
The Vashtini*, reminiscent of a Bloody Mary, is spicy with a strong bite, horseradish, Tabasco, and all.
The Groggy Grogger, named for the noisemakers we use at Purim, is a pick-me-up that packs a punch.
The Persian Fling, a named for the place where the Purim story occurred, is luscious, warm, and cozy.
The Shushan Slammer is a nutty nightcap made with coffee liqueur, Irish cream liqueur, and more.
The Frozen Persian, which includes Bailey’s Irish Cream, Kahlua, and ice cream, is pure decadence.
*Recipes can be made on-alcoholic.
Discussion and Movie Night:
We are excited to announce that we will be offering an opportunity to view a wonderful movie and have a discussion with Joel Fendelman, the director/producer of the movie after the viewing.
The movie, David, is set in the ethnic neighborhoods of South Brooklyn and tells the story of a 10-year old Muslim boy that befriends a group of Orthodox Jewish Boys who mistake him for being Jewish.
We will provide a link for you to view the movie at your convenience between Feb 25 and Feb 28 and then you can attend a (virtual) discussion at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday February 28th with the Director/Producer of the film.
Keep your eye out for the email with more information or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You will need internet access to stream the movie and Zoom capability to participate in the discussion.
UPCOMING HOLIDAY DATES
Purim Begins Thursday, Feb 25
Purim is the Jewish holiday in which Jews commemorate being saved from persecution in the ancient Persian Empire. According to the Book of Esther in the Torah, the villainous Prime Minister Haman convinces King Ahasuerus to kill all the Jewish people of the city of Shushan. In the end, the Jews are saved by the heroic Queen Esther, who was married to Ahasuerus. When Ahasuerus discovers that his wife Esther is Jewish, he decides to reverse Haman’s decree, and instead of the Jews being killed, Haman, his sons, and other enemies are killed instead.
Passover Begins Saturday, March 27
Passover (in Hebrew, Pesach) commemorates the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The holiday originated in the Torah, where the word pesach refers to the ancient Passover sacrifice (known as the Paschal Lamb); it is also said to refer to the idea that God “passed over” (pesach) the houses of the Jews during the 10th plague on the Egyptians, the slaying of the first born. The holiday is ultimately a celebration of freedom, and the story of the exodus from Egypt is a powerful metaphor that is appreciated not only by Jews, but by people of other faiths as well.
We are sad to report that Gilda Bluestone, the mother of Sara Herbstman, passed away on Monday, January 4, 2021.
We are also sad to report that Peter Tishler, the brother of Carl Tishler and the brother-in-law of Bonnie Katz, passed away on Monday, January 18, 2021.
We send our condolences to both these families for their loss.
Upcoming Zoom Shabbat Services * All begin at 7:30 p.m.
SPONSOR AN ONEG – No schlepping necessary!
In an era when we are not meeting in person, our zoom Shabbats have been a silver lining. Friends and family have joined us from all over the country for a relaxed Sabbath service. You can still do a mitzvah and sponsor one of the evenings in honor of a special event in your life; a birthday, an anniversary, the birth of a family member… anything that brings you joy.
Multiple families can share their special occasions for each Oneg since we have a limited number of Shabbat services. We will post each family’s name and the special event that evening and in the newsletter associated with that Shabbat.
Please consider choosing a Shabbat, email us the information (the occasion to be honored or remembered) by the first of that month, and send us a donation (See below for how to donate). email@example.com
Thank you for your donations!
Dues and Donations Information
It’s that time of year. You will see membership dues notices in your mailbox (or email) shortly. The board chose to keep the dues the same this year and we hope you will renew (or activate) your membership. We need you.
The leadership is committed to providing some of the lowest dues in the country so that we can offer membership to as many people as possible while maintaining our open door policy. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough to cover our costs. We count on donations from those that can afford to supplement the dues and help us cover our costs.
Donation checks should be made payable to Congregation Agudas Achim and mailed to mail to PO Box 714 Livingston Manor, NY 12758.