Jerusalemites celebrate 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 that celebrates Jewish survival.
Back in Purim 2000, when, just to add to the bizarre nature of the occasion, Shushan Purim coincided with the first day of Pope John Paul II's visit to Israel. The 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 popes and nuns in costume running round the city.
In the afternoon of the festival, after a swift Purim seudah, I headed off to the press center to watch the live TV feed from the Palestine Authority and attend the press briefing about the Pope's visit. As I hopped on the #15 bus, I noticed that the shops in my neighborhood were already closed, the owners home enjoying their festive meal. I'd brought along a newspaper to pass the time on the 20-minute trip, but the street proved to be far more entertaining than any paper.
The #15 passes by Beit Hanassi, the President's residence, where workers were putting the final touches to the marquee which would host the pope the next day. Down on Jabotinsky Street, kids in costume could be seen bustling in and out of apartment buildings 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 are frequently seen riding the bus alone here.
As the bus arrived in town on Jaffa Road, I could see that the main post office and the banks were closed in honor of the holiday. A group of bewildered Christian tourists from Indiana got on the bus and turned to ask why everything was closed and people were running around in costume--wasn't Purim yesterday, they wondered.
The #15 climbed up Strauss St. headed for Geula, right next to Mea Shearim. Music blasted through the windows as we approached Kikar Shabbat, the main intersection of the neighborhood--the place the ultra-Orthodox generally hold their demonstrations and post their community pronouncements. Today, the posters announced that the Pope is the wordly representation of the cross that had caused Jews so much grief over the centuries. But most people in the streets were far too busy enjoying the one day in the year when they could act out with the sanction of the rabbis. Some men had exchanged their somber black hats for bright red, tassled Fez's. Others wore cowboy hats, their long peyot 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. Our bus was stuck in the gridlock for almost ten minutes. While we were sitting there , a young man sitting 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 the mitzvah. Cars hired by various charities roamed up and down with megaphones blasting, offering the opportunity for others to fulfill their obligations..
A few creative young men had pulled gloves onto their 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 amongst the men in the large study hall that had been converted into a makeshift all-male dance hall.
When I finally arrived at the press center, things there felt a little tame after all the street action. Several hours later, I took the same #15 bus back home. It was already dark, so the holiday was technically over, but there was still plenty of entertainment going on. Back in Geula, buses clogged the streets waiting to return the Hasidim back home. Scores of Ger Hasidim were scurrying around, still dressed in their holiday finery--their tall fur hats making them stand out in the crowd.
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 student further back yelled out: "Come sit next to me." "Nah--why should I sit with you--you're already religious! 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, with fine kapote and fur hat. But 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 of 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 Kikar Zion, Hasid invited the man to study with him and experience the fulfillment of Torah learning. "Anywhere, any time," he said, in his parting effort, before the doors of the bus swooshed shut.
In the square, the Bratslaver boys, those whirling dervishes of Hasidism, were just warming up for their evening's performance. Their white heavy-knit kipot visible among the curious crowd gathered around as they bobbed up and down to the music.
The bus carried on, past the stately YMCA building across from the King David Hotel. A dozen tourist buses disgorged their passengers to take part in the kitschy Israel/Arab folklore evening in the ornate auditorium.
A few more stops and we arrived at the elegant Belgian Consulate at the top of Jabotinsky--revelers could be seen here too. Perhaps Shushan Purim coincided with Belgian independence day this year, or maybe the Belgian Catholics were celebrating the Pope's visit?
Finally, we arrived at my stop. What a deal--a 5-shekel bus fare for all that Shushan Purim entertainment!