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Purim, the fun Jewish holiday, is here to bring us smiles. We need smiles.

The celebrations inspire laughter and letting go. This year, many congregations will be mocking the pandemic.
Cars pick up gifts and drop of food donations Sunday at the Congregation B'nai Israel during preparations for Purim.
Cars pick up gifts and drop of food donations Sunday at the Congregation B'nai Israel during preparations for Purim. [ Courtesy of Allison Sapiega ]
Published Feb. 25
Updated Feb. 26

Purim may not be the biggest of Jewish holidays, but it’s often considered the most fun.

A year into the pandemic, that’s something Rabbi Phillip Weintraub of Congregation B’nai Israel, encourages everyone to try to find.

Jewish people celebrated Purim even during the Holocaust, he said. Israeli soldiers celebrated while deployed in Kathmandu.

“Even in the darkest times, we can find joy,” Weintraub said. “You can find a community that wants to be a sliver of light.”

The St. Petersburg congregation began marking the holiday last weekend as families picked up gifts from a drive-through and dropped off food pantry donations for Gulf Coast Jewish Services — gift giving and donating to charity are traditional Purim customs. The Banyan Bunch, a band, played as cars drove up.

A local band, The Banyan Bunch, played this week at Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg during an event marking the Jewish holiday Purim. [Courtesy of Allison Sapiega]
A local band, The Banyan Bunch, played this week at Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg during an event marking the Jewish holiday Purim. [Courtesy of Allison Sapiega]

Thursday night, the congregation will host a socially distanced concert that people can listen to from their cars and screening of an ABBA-themed Purim spiel. Meanwhile, services and readings of the Book of Esther, or Megillah, will take place online and with a limited number of people in person.

The story of Purim, which begins Thursday evening and ends Friday evening, is over-the-top, Weintraub said — all the better for the celebration.

Rabbi Michael Torop at Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg said Purim is often celebrated only by families with young kids. This year, he’s hoping everyone celebrates.

“We have experienced so much that has weighed us down; more than ever we need to find the outlet for laughter and frivolity and letting go,” Torop said. “The best thing about Purim is that it’s a farce. Which means it gives us a lot of liberty to be outrageous. It’s kind of like nothing is sacred, so don’t be surprised.”

The story of Purim is described in the Book of Esther about when Jewish people living in Persia were saved by a young Jewish woman named Esther, who became the new queen. It’s often comically retold in plays, or Purim spiels. At Temple Beth-El this year, it will be told in a Zoom spiel called a “A Pandemic in Persia.”

Torop said mocking the pandemic will be at the center of celebrations, something he’s heard other congregations across the country are also doing.

On Friday night, they will say five prayers — once through normally and once with pandemic parody words to the same tunes.

“I think there’s a natural human response to situations that cause anxiety and stress and unhappiness, and that is to find the ability to laugh at a situation because it lifts some of that tension and lifts some of that anxiety,” Torop said.

At the Chabad of Clearwater this year, the community will host two outdoor socially distanced events that require an RSVP, Rabbi Levi Hodakov said in an email. On Thursday night and Friday afternoon they will host readings. On Thursday night, a magician performed.

The part of Purim that includes giving to charity, is especially important this year, Hodakov said.

“Judaism teaches us that joy and positive energy breaks all barriers,” he said. “Purim being one of the most joyous holidays on the Jewish calendar makes it even easier to be happy, even during difficult times, giving us the strength to overcome any challenges.”

Editor‘s note: This article has been updated to correctly reflect the schedule at Chabad of Clearwater. A previous version incorrectly stated the day of a magician performance.