Purim retrospective by Judy Lash Balint
February 27, 2002
Since I'm away from Israel for this Purim, I glanced back at a diary entry for Purim 2000. Hard to believe how different the atmosphere was just two years ago.
Chag Purim Sameach
Purim Bus Ride, 2000
It doesn’t pay to travel by car in Jerusalem. Not only is traffic and parking a major hassle, but it’s far too easy to miss out on neighborhood color when driving the shortest route from A to B in a private vehicle.
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. (Erev Shushan Purim I saw busloads of Haredim descend on the city from Bnei Brak so they could celebrate the holiday all over again...)
This year, 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 this day, so they packed him off to Bethlehem to avoid having to explain why there were so many little popes and nuns running round the city.
In the afternoon of the festival, after a swift Purim seudah, I head off to the press center at Binyanei Hauma to watch the live TV feed from the Palestine Authority and attend the press briefing with Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben Ami. As I hop on the #15 bus, I notice that the shops in my neighborhood are 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 was far more entertaining than any paper.
The #15 passes Beit Hanassi, the President’s residence, where workers are putting the final touches to the marquee which will host the pope the next day. Down on Jabotinsky Street, kids in costume are bustling in and out of apartment buildings delivering baskets of mishloach manot--gifts of prepared foodstuffs--to friends and neighbors. Most are unaccompanied by adults--children as young as six or seven years old ride the bus alone here.
As the bus arrives in town on Rehov Yafo, I see that the main post office and the banks are closed in honor of the holiday. A group of bewildered Christian tourists from Indiana get on the bus and turn to ask why everything is closed and people are running around in costume--wasn’t Purim yesterday, they wondered.
The #15 climbs up Strauss St. headed for Geula, right next to Mea Shearim. Music blasts through the windows as we approach 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 announce that the Pope is the wordly representation of the cross which has caused Jews so much grief over the centuries. But most people in the streets are far too busy enjoying the one day a year when they can act out with the sanction of the rabbis, to pay attention to the harsh words. Some men have exchanged their somber black hats for bright red, tassled Fez’s. Others wear cowboy hats, their long peyot ( sidecurls) mingling incongruously with the strings of their foreign headgear.
The women apparently had been too busy making sure their offpring were adequately decked out to bother with their own costumes. Most wear regular Shabbat clothes. But the kids, who clog the sidewalk and spill out onto the narrow street causing massive traffic jams, are happily trying out their new identities. Little Rabbi Ovadya Yosefs are running around everywhere, chased by a few Yasser Arafats and some more traditional Mordechai characters.
Everyone is hauling mishloach manot baskets. Some parents take their kids over to deposit a basket with the beggars on the street who stand back to watch the action. Our bus gets stuck in the gridlock for almost ten minutes. While we sit there , a young man in costume at the front of the bus suddenly opens the window and yells out to a pedestrian walking by holding an upturned hat: “Is that for matanot l’evyonim?” (Gifts to the poor?) Seeing a nod, he stuffs a 20 shekel note into the hat and sits back, satisfied that he didn't even have to get off the bus to perform the mitzvah. Cars hired by various charities roam up and down with megaphones blasting, offering the opportunity for others to fulfil their obligations..
A few creative young men pull gloves onto their windshield wipers, wrench them away from the windshield, and turn them on, so that they appear to wave to passers by in time to the music.
As we inch up the street, one of the megaphones broadcasts a nasty message about Education Minister Yossi Sarid and his affinity with Amalek--a theme sounded days before by Rav Ovadya Yosef. The secular bus driver sighs and turns up the volume on the radio to drown out the message.
Despite the injunction that one is supposed to imbibe enough strong drink on Purim to blur the distinction between Mordechai and Haman, there is no sign on the streets of anyone being overtly drunk. Passing the large Yakiray Yisrael Yeshiva, however, we see bottles being passed around amongst the men in the large study hall converted into a makeshift, all-male dance hall.
When I finally arrive at the press center, things there felt a little tame after all the street action. Several hours later, I take the same #15 bus back home. It 's already dark, so the holiday is technically over, but there's still plenty of entertainment going on. Back in Geula, buses clog the streets waiting to return the Hasidim back home. Scores of Gerer hasidim scurry 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 climb onto the bus holding a bottle and half full shot glasses. One sits quietly a few rows from the front, but his exuberant, and obviously quite drunk, companion plonks himself down next to a poor, unsuspecting fellow at the front of the bus.
Sizing up the situation, a young yeshiva bocher further back yells 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 replies. It isn’t clear whether he's still in costume, or whether in fact he's a genuine Hasid, with fine kapote and fur hat. But he throws his arm around his neighbor and loudly starts to tell him how he had become religious in reaction to his Reform family. In rapid fire Hebrew the Hasid tellsof 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 says, contemptuously. “They didn’t see the beautiful holiness here--could you imagine?” he asks his fellow traveler. The young man next to him quietly squirms in his seat, unresponsive. Undeterred, Hasid goes on--describing how a life of soccer matches, work and TV is a complete waste of God’s gift of creation. Finally, before rolling off the bus at Kikar Zion, Hasid invites the man to study with him and experience the fulfillment of Torah learning. “Anywhere, any time,” he says, in his parting effort, before the doors of the bus swoosh shut.
In the square, the Bratslaver boys, those whirling dervishes of Hasidism, are just warming up for their evening’s performance. Their white heavy knit kipas visible among the curious crowd gathered around as they bob up and down to the music.
The bus carrys on, past the stately YMCA building across from the King David Hotel. A dozen tourist buses disgorge their passengers to take part in the kitschy Israel/Arab folklore evening that takes place every night in the ornate auditorium.
A few more stops and we arrive at the elegant Belgian Consulate at the top of Jabotinsky Street--revelers can 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 arrive at my stop. No car ride could have provided this kind of entertainment......