In this article Jack Isaacs reflects on the differences between Purim celebrations this year and last year and how even a pandemic can't dampen the teachings of the Megillah and what Purim means to us.
The setting is Leeds, the year is 2020, and the JSoc have organised a Purim to remember. Comedy acts, inflatable sumo wrestling suits, food and unlimited alcohol were all to come after a Megillah reading with one of The Beatles, someone in a full hazmat suit and a Pizza Express chef (who just so happened to also be me) amongst the other weird and wonderful costumes of attendees at Leeds Hillel House. The celebrations continued into the following day, Leeds uni students went to lectures dressed as Greek gods and still feeling the effects of a fun night before. This all just a fortnight before all our lives changed into a cycle of national restrictions which we still find ourselves in almost 12 months later. That hazmat suit had become a sign of things to come.
Fast forward to 2021, Purim 5781 is far from the events of the year before. At home and away from life in Leeds for almost 3 months, the Purim feeling began by receiving a parcel in the post from the fantastic Chabad family at Leeds Campus. A pack full of goodies, mishloach manot, a gift deriving from the Megillah which we give to family and friends, with the added bonus of a grogger (noise maker) to be ready to drown out the name of Haman.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis warned to “celebrate safely” and South Manchester Synagogue delivered on that front. “It was so tragic that on the very day when we celebrate our physical survival, there was danger to our lives and, through us, to others. This Purim, therefore, let us guarantee that we will celebrate safely.” - Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, February 2021.
The shul provided three outdoor Megillah readings in the Shul car park, inviting families to come at different times to sit in their cars to listen to the Megillah and then going home with a “McDovids” (delicious burgers and chips by Rabbi Dovid Lewis). It was a great success given the unique circumstances, providing that same old Jewish community feeling in a new way, with the added bonus of a little cheeky bit of whiskey (not my drink of choice but hey-ho). A year previous, the Jewish students of Leeds were sat in a specially designed indoor Israeli Shuk (market), feasting on tasty typical Israeli cuisine by Chana Sorah (Chabad Leeds Rebbetzen). Here, the Pizza Express Chef was united with a Pizza Express waiter (yes 2 Jewish students have worked there) and a Purim quiz took place, but unfortunately there were no such games this year.
But the lessons, 3 in particular, from Queen Esther and Purim could not be more relevant to this “Pandemic Purim”. One of Haman’s complaints against the Jews was that they were “a dispersed and disunited people.” In response, Esther told Mordechai to gather all the Jews, noting that we are stronger together. The best answer to hatred, or experiencing a global pandemic in our case, is unity.
Secondly, Esther set forth a plan for action, and her Uncle Mordechai dutifully obeyed. Because of her leadership, Esther saved her people, and the Megillah was named after her. This demonstrates that Hadracha is more important now than ever before, as the Jewish leaders of the present and future we need to embody Esther’s leadership of the Jewish people from such a testing time.
A third and final lesson I want to include from the Purim story is to never lose hope. After Esther’s tribulation was over, she requested her story to be documented. What was she trying to accomplish by telling us this story? What is her message to us, the Jews of the present? The basic message was that no matter how hopeless your situation may seem, NEVER LOSE HOPE.
Purim 5780 to Purim 5781 was certainly a journey no one expected, but the hope that Esther requested we never lose is proving a light at the end of the tunnel is flickering in the now shortened distance - thank you to our Prime Minister The Right Honourable Boris Johnson MP for his roadmap to lead us (hopefully) to the end of this! Continue to stay safe and B’H Purim 5782 takes us back to Leeds and my Pizza Express chef’s hat, horizontal-striped t-shirt, apron and chef’s trousers can be dusted off and worn again as we party and celebrate together.
Chag Purim Sameach!