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Purim and Beyond
by Judy Lash Balint
March 8, 2006

Updates to Jerusalem Diaries will be sporadic until March 23 while I'm in the US for some speaking gigs.

Meanwhile, check in to the past postings at www.jerusalemdiaries.blogspot.com and enjoy the photos of Israel at http://flickr.com/photos/jerusalemdiaries/.
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For your Purim enjoyment:

Some of the best Jewish people watching in the world is available for just a few shekel on a Jerusalem bus. This is nowhere more in evidence than on Shushan Purim, the holiday observed by residents of walled cities, a day after the rest of the world has returned to normal after the raucous Purim festival. Busloads of Haredim from B'nei B'rak descend on Jerusalem just so they can celebrate the holiday all over again...

It's difficult to forget Purim 2000 when Shushan Purim coincided with the first day of Pope John Paul II's visit to Israel. Israeli authorities wisely decided that the pontiff would be better off with Yasser Arafat on that day, so they packed him off to Bethlehem to avoid having to explain why there were so many little costumed popes and nuns running round the city.

After a swift Purim festive meal, I headed off to the press center to watch the live TV feed of the pope from Bethlehem. As I hopped on the bus, I noticed that the shops in my neighborhood were already closed, the owners home enjoying their Purim seuda. I'd brought along a newspaper to pass the time, but the street was far more entertaining than any paper.

Down on Jabotinsky Street, kids in costume were bustling in and out of apartments delivering baskets of mishloach manot--gifts of prepared foodstuffs--to friends and neighbors. Most were unaccompanied by adults--children as young as six or seven years old ride the bus alone here and walk around the neighborhood unafraid.

On Jaffa Road a group of bewildered Christian tourists from Indiana got onto the bus and asked why everything was closed and why were people running around in costume--wasn't Purim yesterday, they wondered.

The bus climbed up Strauss St. headed for Geula, a continuation of the ultra-orthodox Meah Shearim area. Music blasted through the windows as we approached Kikar Shabbat, the main intersection--where the Haredim post community pronouncements. Today, the posters announce that the Pope is the worldly representation of the cross that caused Jews so much grief over the centuries. But most people in the streets were far too busy enjoying the one day of the year when they could act out with the sanction of the rabbis. Some men had exchanged their somber black hats for bright red, tasseled Turkish-style fez's. Others wore cowboy hats, their long sideburns mingling incongruously with the strings of their foreign headgear.

The women apparently had been too busy making sure their offspring were adequately decked out to bother with their own costumes. Most wore regular Shabbat clothes. But the kids who clogged the sidewalk and spilled out onto the narrow street causing massive traffic jams, were happily trying out their new identities. Little Rabbi Ovadya Yosefs were running around everywhere, chased by a few Yasser Arafats and some more traditional Mordechai characters.

Everyone was hauling mishloach manot baskets. Some parents took their kids over to deposit a basket with the beggars on the street who were standing back to watch the action. While we sat in gridlock, a young man in costume at the front of the bus suddenly opened the window and yelled out to a pedestrian walking by with an upturned hat: "Is that for matanot l'evyonim?" (Gifts to the poor?) Seeing a nod, he stuffed a 20-shekel note into the hat and sat back, satisfied that he hadn't even had to get off the bus to perform his mitzvah.

A few creative young men stuck gloves onto their car's windshield wipers, pulled them away from the windshield, and turned them on, so that they appeared to wave to passers-by in time to the music.

Despite the injunction that one is supposed to imbibe enough strong drink to blur the distinction between Mordechai and Haman, there was no sign on the streets of anyone being overtly drunk. Passing the large Yakiray Yisrael Yeshiva, however, we could see bottles being passed around in the large study hall that had been converted into a makeshift all-male dance floor.

When I finally arrived at the press center, things felt a little tame after all the street action. Several hours later, I took the bus back home. It was already dark, so the holiday was technically over, but there was still plenty of action.

At the last stop in Geula, two young men climbed onto the bus holding a bottle and half-full shot glasses. One sat quietly a few rows from the front, but his exuberant, and obviously quite drunk companion plunked himself down next to a poor, unsuspecting fellow at the front of the bus.

Sizing up the situation, a young yeshiva bocher further back yelled out: "Come sit next to me." "Nah--why should I sit with you--you're already frum! I have work to do on this brother..." the drunk one replied. It wasn't clear whether he was still in costume, or whether in fact he was a genuine Hasid. He threw his arm around his neighbor and loudly started to tell him how he had become religious in reaction to his Reform family. In rapid-fire Hebrew the Hasid told how his parents had come to visit from the States and expressed only a passing interest in the kotel. "They wanted to come here to relax," Hasid said, contemptuously. "They didn't see the beautiful holiness here--could you imagine?" he asked his fellow traveler. The young man next to him quietly squirmed in his seat, unresponsive. Undeterred, Hasid went on--describing how a life of soccer matches, work and TV was a complete waste of God's gift of creation. Finally, before rolling off the bus at Zion Square, Hasid invited the man to study with him and experience the fulfillment of Torah learning. "Anywhere, any time," he said, in his parting shot before the doors of the bus swooshed shut.

In the square, the Bratslaver boys, those whirling dervishes of Hasidism, were just warming up for the evening's performance. Their white heavy knit kipas bobbed up and down as they jumped energetically to the music.

Finally, we arrived at my stop. No better Purim entertainment in the world.

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