Purim in a world turned upside down

Little girl putting hamentashen in a purim basket.
Little girl putting hamentashen in a purim basket. (TARIK KIZILKAYA / iStock / Getty Images Plus; tovfla / E+)

As Laurie Mangold walked through Congregation Sha’are Shalom recently, a bulletin board caught her attention. Attached to it was a Purim scene of costumed hamantashen.

It went up in the Leesburg synagogue last Purim, and nobody thought of taking it down since.

Mangold, the synagogue’s executive director, said it was an eerie reminder of just how much has changed since the pandemic brought the world to a halt.

“The frivolity of dancing hamantashen on a bulletin board really stands in contrast with the horror of COVID-19,” Mangold said.

Purim, which begins at sunset on Feb. 25, is the final Jewish holiday of this pandemic year, with all the changes in Jewish observance and celebration that came with it. And the Purim story, with its absurdities, danger and abrupt reversals in fortune, seems emblematic in a year in which the world was turned upside down.

Purim 2020 began on the evening of March 9, as the mysterious virus was said to be coming closer. The accommodations congregations made to the coronavirus felt monumental. But hindsight is 20/20, and Jews throughout the Washington area have come to realize that those adjustments were minor compared to how Purim will be celebrated this time around.

“You think back a year ago and none of us had any idea how transformational [COVID] would be in our lives,” said Rabbi Hannah Goldstein of Temple Sinai in Washington. “It’s a painful anniversary in a lot of ways. Purim is one of those holidays that’s just silly and fun. As every other holiday that we’ve had in the pandemic, we’ve had to totally rethink how we approach it.”

Last year, social distancing wasn’t universally enforced and “the only masks that people were wearing were the ones that were part of the costumes,” Goldstein said.

The initial worry people had was spreading COVID-19 through touch. Rabbi Nissan Antine, of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, recalls how on the Shabbat before Purim he made an announcement asking congregants not to kiss the Torah. At the time, Antine “thought that was such a big deal.”

Rabbi Hyim Shafner, of Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, said the world then was unaware of the kind of threat COVID would pose, and people didn’t take it so seriously. The Modern Orthodox congregation, like most synagogues, went ahead with its Purim events, including a party for 150 young adults. In a playful reference to coronavirus, the congregation gave out Corona beer. Shafner dressed as a doctor.

“Then it seemed funny,” Shafner said. “It was really the very beginning of the pandemic, and all we knew was, use hand sanitizer. It sounds like we were living in some kind of primitive era when we knew nothing about disease.”

But as March progressed, the situation changed rapidly. Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac said his synagogue had initially planned to go ahead with its Purim carnival. That’s what he told a reporter from The Washington Post.

“But by the time that story was printed, we had already canceled it. So within 48 hours, our entire perspective had changed,” Raskin said.

As people were ordered to stay in place, many believed it was only temporary.

“It was a question of will this be a three-week shutdown or a four? And then our timeframe kept lengthening,” said Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Potomac. “For nearly two months, pretty much weekly, we would look back and say what amateurs we were a week ago.”

Purim 2021 will largely be celebrated virtually. A number of congregations plan to livestream their megillah readings. Beth Sholom will also host socially distanced readings, both indoors and out.

Sha’are Shalom is holding several activities in its parking lot with people social distancing from their cars.

A bulletin board at Congregation Sha’are Shalom covered in Purim decorations up since last year. (Photo courtesy of Laurie Mangold)

“It gets people out,” said Mangold, the executive director. “We still don’t think it’s the same, but we’ll be able to see each other at least through the cars.”

At Congregation Beth Emeth, Executive Director David Markovich said the Conservative congregation plans to host virtual gatherings including a cocktail hour, costume contest and hamantashen-baking competition.

“Technology exists to allow us to continue to engage with each other and come together to celebrate holidays like Purim,” Markovich said. “Of course, this can’t fully replace interacting with each other in person, but we can continue to find creative ways to bring us together during the pandemic.”

During the year, Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church has noticed “Zoom fatigue” starting to settle in. When the pandemic began, attendance surged for her Reform synagogue’s virtual Shabbat services, she said. This was due in part to their accessibility. But in the past few months Schwartzman has seen attendance numbers dip.

“I think people started to get worn out of it. And so our congregation has started to rethink what we’re doing,” she said. “And as a result, we’ve added some things into our service to try to spice it up.”

For all the talk of a new normal, said Rabbi Kenneth Block of Temple Beth Torah in Chantilly, life in the pandemic is profoundly weird.

“It’s as if we’re on the moon,” he said. ”We’re astronauts, or we’re in a submarine or we’re stationed in the Arctic. It has that feeling. And we all miss being physically together. We’ll look at each other on the screen, but it lacks what everyone is lacking. And that’s the meaningfulness. There’s a good reason why human beings aren’t lighthouse keepers anymore.”

Antine said the pandemic showed him that his congregation could survive even without regularly meeting in the sanctified space of the synagogue building.

“I used to think that the strength of our community was so dependent on the physical space,” Antine said. “But now I see how strong the community is and how communal bonds have transcended that physical space.”

Dobb said the pandemic taught him how humanity can adapt when it needs to. He said that will be a useful skill when combating climate change.

“Our society endured a year of collective hardship and solidarity because science told us that an invisible threat was deadly unless we made drastic change,” Dobb said. “As a Jewish environmental leader, serving a very green community, I admit to feeling an odd sense of hope that we can take what we learned from COVID and finally apply it to the more dire climate crisis.”

What will Purim 2022 be like is a question for the future. While everyone hopes that the new vaccines will usher in a post-pandemic world, Shafner said this Purim offers a deeper message, one straight out of the topsy-turvy Purim story.

“I certainly didn’t think this year we’d still be in COVID during Purim and Passover,” Shafner said. “So I’m hoping a year from now will be normal, but who knows? One thing we learned is that life is unpredictable.”

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