In Israel and US, many refuse to let virus infect their Purim partying

Holiday meant for spreading drunken joy brings worries of spreading germs as well, but some communities find workarounds for quarantines as others hope for divine protection

Jewish ultra-Orthodox men celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim in Bnei Brak, Israel, Tuesday, March 10, 2020.. (AP/Oded Balilty)
Jewish ultra-Orthodox men celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim in Bnei Brak, Israel, Tuesday, March 10, 2020.. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Israel has imposed some of the world’s tightest restrictions to contain coronavirus, but that did not stop ultra-Orthodox Jews from hitting the streets Tuesday to celebrate a treasured religious custom: drinking on Purim.

Israel, which has 58 coronavirus cases, has imposed a mandatory two-week quarantine on anyone entering the country and banned public gatherings of more than 2,000 people, among other measures. The directives meant the cancellation of Israel’s best-known Purim parade, in the city of Holon near Tel Aviv. Other public celebrations were also canceled or scaled back.

But for ultra-Orthodox residents of Bnei Brak, a town east of Tel Aviv, it was Purim as usual on Tuesday.

Thousands were on the streets, including staggering teenagers swigging red wine straight from the bottle.

Men, women and children wore costumes that ranged from tame, like a unicorn, to more politically controversial.

Ahuva Alfa, who said her son was dressed as “a Palestinian throwing rocks,” told AFP she had no concerns about contracting coronavirus.

“Rabbi Kanievsky said there won’t be corona in Bnei Brak, so there won’t be corona in Bnei Brak,” Alfa said, referring to Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox community.

“During the Gulf War he said no (Iraqi) scud (missiles) will land on Bnei Brak, and he was right!”

Jewish ultra-Orthodox girls wear face masks during celebrations of the Jewish festival of Purim in Bnei Brak, Israel, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

As visibly drunk people spilled out of synagogue, including one person with what appeared to be vomit on their chest, Rivi Bard told AFP that Purim partiers “don’t feel coronavirus”.

“What happens happens. God is in charge, we do what we need to do on this special day,” the 30-year-old said.

He also claimed that the Ultra-Orthodox were likely at less risk than others, given the lack of casual physical contact among members of the deeply religious community, though Purim dances often involve men doing the hora while holding hands.

“We never hug or kiss so it’s not changing many things for us,” he said.

In the West Bank city of Hebron, Purim also took priority over virus concerns.

Soldiers guarded the colorful annual parade in the city, which was attended by resident Baruch Marzel, who insisted there was “no problem holding parades here,” despite an outbreak in Bethlehem some 22 kilometers (13 miles) away.

“Hebron is a holy city,” he told AFP, suggesting God would protect it.

Jewish ultra-Orthodox girls wear face masks during celebrations of the Jewish festival of Purim in Bnei Brak, Israel, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

In normal times, Purim is characterized by joyous synagogue gatherings, colorful costumes and raucous street parties. The holiday marks the victory in ancient times of Persia’s Jews over Haman, an adviser to the king who wanted them killed. According to the story, a mass execution is averted when Queen Esther, who had previously concealed her Jewish faith from the king, tells her husband about Haman’s plot. In the end, it is Haman who is killed.

In some communities, neighbors banded together to help bring some of the holiday’s partying to those stuck in quarantine.

In one West Bank settlement, neighbors blocked traffic and set up a large table with food and drinks outside the home of one family that had been forced into isolation after taking a trip abroad, to try and bring the party closer to them without getting too close.

“The quarantine is a challenge, but the community is saving us,” the resident of another settlement where dozens of fathers were quarantined after taking a ski trip together told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

In Jerusalem, which celebrates Purim a day later than most other places, large gatherings for megillah readings took place in some synagogues despite authorities’ pleas to refrain from large crowds.

Ultra Orthodox Jewish men and children read a Scroll of Esther in Jerusalem, March 10, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The quarantines and ban on large gatherings also posed a challenge for some. A representative of the Chabad Hasidic sect said it was sending people to homes under quarantine to read the Book of Esther, while keeping a two-meter distance.

Many synagogues were also livestreaming the reading of the the megillah so that people could watch from home. Some synagogues were holding multiple readings at different times to limit the size of the gatherings. Worshippers also have been told not to kiss Torah scrolls and to refrain from the custom of kissing their hands after touching a mezuzah, a small box containing a prayer scroll posted on doorways.

“Judaism celebrates the value of life before the ritual aspect,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president of Ohr Torah Stone, a network of 27 Jewish educational and social service institutions. Working with Tzohar, a modern Orthodox organization that does outreach programs to secular Jews, he said they together are sponsoring 533 Purim services that are expected to serve some 50,000 people.

“The whole idea of Purim and everything going on with the coronavirus are really consistent with each other, because Purim was a time of insecurity,” he said. “That’s what we celebrate, the fact that we can overcome adversity.”

Israeli teenagers dressed up in costumes ahead the jewish holiday of Purim walk in the city center of Jerusalem on March 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In the US, some hard-hit communities were forced to pare back their celebrations.

In the Seattle area, where most of the coronavirus deaths in the U.S. have occurred thus far, Temple Beth Am canceled all in-person Purim programming from Sunday through Tuesday. It planned to send videos and recordings of the services and celebrations to congregation members.

Another Seattle synagogue, Temple De Hirsch Sinai, canceled a Purim carnival scheduled for Sunday. It was sending resources to children in its preschool and school so they could celebrate at home.

Media wearing protective mask film outside the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue, New York on March 10, 2020, at the center of a Westchester County outbreak (TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)

One of the biggest jolts has come in the city of New Rochelle, a few miles north of New York City, where the rabbi of the Young Israel synagogue has the virus. The synagogue has been shut down by health authorities and all its Purim festivities canceled. Dozens of families from the community are in self-quarantine after learning last week that one congregant, a 50-year-old lawyer, had tested positive for the virus.

On Tuesday, the National Guard was sent to the town to enforce a 1-mile cordon meant to keep the virus at bay.

New Rochelle’s Beth El Synagogue canceled some youth-oriented celebrations scheduled for Monday evening, and planned to livestream the megillah reading so congregants could watch from home. Some synagogues in New York City canceled Purim carnivals that had been planned for the weekend.

Yirmeyahu Gourarie performs a Purim reading from the Book of Esther for residents under self-quarantine due to potential exposure to the new coronavirus, Monday, March 9, 2020, in New Rochelle, N.Y. (AP/John Minchillo)

There as well, Chabad recruited 45 student volunteers from a Jewish secondary school to read the megillah on Monday evening and during the day Tuesday outside the homes of about 120 families from the community who are quarantined.

Many of the isolated families may not have the traditional handwritten megillah scroll, said Rabbi Motti Seligson, Chabad Lubavitch’s media director.

“These volunteers are coming out to help them participate in the holiday and let them know they are not forgotten,” he said.

A self-quarantined resident who claims to have tested positive for COVID-19 listens beside his window as volunteers perform a Purim reading from the Book of Esther, Monday, March 9, 2020, in New Rochelle, N.Y. (AP/John Minchillo)

At Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum said Purim services, the Megillah reading and a 1980s-themed party were still on track to take place Monday night, although anyone feeling sick was urged to stay home.

Kleinbaum said the synagogue, one of the largest in the country with a primary mission of serving LGBTQ people, has a history of resilience

”Our synagogue went thru the AIDS crisis — we know what it is to live with a plague,” Kleinbaum said. “We’ve had this commitment to having services even when only a few people show up, and we’ll continue having them until we’re told to shut down.”

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