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Purim in the House of Mozes

Purim was celebrated this year in Israel and perhaps elsewhere also as a respite from worrying about the spread of the coronavirus (epidemic? pandemic? panic?). In the old-age home (pardon: “parents’ home; golden age residence; 55 and better”) where my wife and I live, the residents put on a splendid Purim Spiel depicting Biblical characters from the Creation until Queen Esther and beyond. In the presentation, God spoke in English with a marked non-British accent. Delilah was suitably dressed but appeared with her walker. Etc. etc. etc.

The place where we live is called Beit Mozes (the house of Mozes), named not after the Moses who gave us the Torah but after Siegfried Mozes, a leader of German Jewry and later Israel’s first state comptroller. But the Biblical Moses figured prominently in the performance with the two tablets made not of stone but of cardboard. Like God, this Moses also spoke English with a non-British accent. What the performance may have lacked in theatricality it made up in enthusiasm and spirit. It also helped us to get to know the participants. We’ve spoken about the event ever since in admiration of the performers.

A few days earlier we heard here an erudite lecture about dressing up in the Bible with telling references to characters like Jacob standing before his blind father and pretending to be brother Esau, Tamar in the guise of a prostitute to entice her former father-in-law Judah whose sons denied her what was owed to her, and many others. The speaker reminded us that masks and other disguises, while ostensibly seeking to conceal who we are, in fact, reveal who we want to be. As a result, I think I now know better some of my neighbours.

Perhaps in order not to reveal myself, I didn’t dress up or participate. After forty years in the pulpit, doing my utmost to expose the congregations I served not only to Jewish theology and practice but also to Jewish custom and folklore and trying to lead by example, I feel that in retirement I deserve to be the one I think I am. Johan Huizinga, the famed Dutch historian, would have described me as a spoilsport. In his book Homo Ludens about the history of play, he identifies two kinds of people: cheats and spoilsports. I belong to the latter category.

That’s why on Purim I often think of the late Ernst Simon, a leading educator and religious thinker who was part of the circle of Martin Buber even before both ended up in Jerusalem. As directed by the Book of Esther, Jerusalem, being a walled city, celebrates Purim a day later than the rest of the world. That’s why Simon is said to have stayed at home in Jerusalem on Purim Day but made sure he got to Tel Aviv before the festival was celebrated the following day in the Holy City. A role model of a spoilsport.

I didn’t go to Tel Aviv: in view of corona, Israel’s Ministry of Health advises against the use of public transport, particularly by the elderly who are said to be more vulnerable. But I stayed away from Purim as much as possible, just watching my neighbours celebrating it. Once a spoilsport, always a spoilsport.

Jerusalem 11.3.20                                                                                                              Dow Marmur

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