Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Adar 5766 - March 8, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Taste of the Purim of Yore

by C. Ofek

A box of fancy chocolates? A colorful straw basket shaped like a duck? An expensive pewter tray? A band like Tzlilei Ranena or Tzivta? Today Purim is associated with external signs based on koso, kiso vekaaso. And the Purim of yesteryear? The variety of ways to celebrate Purim was as numerous as the number of Diaspora communities. The following is a look at Purims that are now a thing of the past.

An authentic description of the klezmer bands of the shtetl makes the rounds of the assisted living center where Mrs. Risha Kovinsky lives. With amazing clarity the 86-year-old recalls the Purim tradition in the Chofetz Chaim's town of Jetel, Lithuania. "Back then there was real simchah," she says, piecing together snippets of nostalgia. "Simchah based on contentment and the joy of creating something of nothing — yeish mei'ayin."

Rebbetzin Y. S., the product of a distinguished family from Jerusalem's Beis Yisroel neighborhood, still celebrates the Purim of yesteryear. Her home is filled with pre-Purim bustle. She has already made kindel (cookies filled with nuts and poppy seeds), pladen and ulmash for her grandchildren. "Just like in the past, for me Purim is a time of doing, creating and family. Here shlach manos are all homemade," she declares as she works, filling dough, baking and packing the goodies away. And she is not the only one who clings to the traditional Purim of her childhood and tries to uphold it as much as possible.

The Roaming Plate

Jetel was considered a respected shtetl in Lithuania, says Risha Kovinsky, sharing her memories from the 30s. "There were 5,000 people living there and all of them knew how to read and write! The Chofetz Chaim zt"l was my husband's grandfather's brother and his majestic character inspired the town's residents. The Maggid of Dubna was also a resident of the town [in 1819] and there were many talmidei chachomim. The homes were low wooden houses and families lived in close proximity to one another.

"On Purim families would gather together to read the Megilloh. Every family would make hamentashen and homemade vodka and wine, which they used for shlach manos. Shlach manos were arranged in a deep glass bowl. People were not rich, yet they fulfilled the mitzvos of the day: a housewife would put food into the bowl, covering it with an embroidered cloth napkin, pull the ends down to the bottom and send her children to her relatives' homes. During the course of the round of deliveries every family would take a food item out of the bowl, replace it with another food item and close the shlach manos again with the napkin. The `roaming plate' went from one town resident to the next and everyone would take part in the mitzvah according to their ability.

"The Purim Seudah was held in the dining room of the Jewish school, Shulem Aleichem. Every family would contribute a dish to the seudaharbes, blintzes, etc. — and everyone would gather together in the school dining room where tables were set and laden heavily with food. After the seudah, a bazaar was held with token gifts donated by town residents. The money raised went to the Jewish school, which did not receive government support. During the seudah the town's Jewish band, Parda Komanda, played klezmer music with drums, a clarinet and a violin. Joy took hold of the participants and was plain to see in their dancing — rikudim shel mitzvah."

Costumes Made of Paper

The local children were also busy preparing for Purim well in advance. Weeks before Purim they would prepare a costume with their teacher — using paper! During the arts and crafts lesson every girl would choose a costume and the teacher would help her create it using leftover crepe paper. At the class Purim party, time was set aside for a Purim show in which every girl would display her costume and explain why she chose it.

The mitzvah of matonos le'evyonim was carried out behiddur. Children from poor families would knock on doors, perform a Purim skit and receive money. On Purim Night the director of the local tzedokoh fund would go from house to house, collecting foodstuffs such as challah, cooked fish, etc. and would distribute them among the needy.

"Things were always lively in the shtetl," says Mrs. Kovinsky. "People worked hard for their bread, but they always looked out for one another. They would rise above the difficulties and knew how to be happy."

In 1940 Risha's family immigrated to Russia and the splendid shtetls of Poland were wiped out by the Nazis . . . Timcheh es zeicher Amolek.

Homon the Snowman

The Jews of Bukhara took great pains to fulfill the mitzvah of obliterating the memory of Amolek — mochoh timcheh es zeicher Amolek. Mrs. Shoshanah Chimov of the Brit LeYotzei Bukhara recounts Purim traditions from her homeland.

"On Purim the streets in Bukhara were covered with snow, so we would make a `Haman snowman.' Next to the beit knesset or in the courtyard of the houses we would gather together and roll big snowballs, forming them into a misshapen snowman with long, stout elephant legs, a big head and black eyes made of coal. We used a carrot for a nose and a beet stalk for a mouth. On his belly we put a gold chain made of watermelon rinds and a steel helmet — a broken pail — on his head.

"The next day, after the Purim seudah, the boys' parade was held. At the head of the procession were drummers and all of the neighborhood children gathered to witness the fall of Haman. The groggers rattled away and the whole audience burst out singing about Haman's downfall. Suddenly the voice of the gabbai beit knesset was heard calling out, `To Haman, to Haman.' Everyone dashed off to the snowman, standing alone outside as if totally forgotten. The children drew near, carrying bottles of kerosene, rags and pieces of wood. They placed the rags and wood around the snowman, poured the kerosene on them and set it ablaze. Nobody headed home until the snowman had collapsed and melted away completely.

"As Purim drew near there was an atmosphere of great excitement in Bukhara, with a lot of cooking and baking. During the week leading into Purim the women would make kulcha, pastries in a human form representing Haman. And they would make sweets like kulcha kani [kulcha with sugar and oil], roshpira, samuta and bichek — a triangular, carrot- filled pastry resembling homentashen.

"The Megilloh reading was held in the home of one of the respected members of the community. Little children waited eagerly to rap out the name Haman with the grogger they had made two weeks before Purim. They would cut three boards of wood. Two were of equal length and the middle board was longer. Then they bore holes in the two outer boards and threaded a piece of rope or wire through to connect the middle board and mounted a wooden ring on it extending as high as the side boards. They carved decorations in upper end, which served as a handle, and when they shook it like a bell it made a loud noise.

"On Purim Night the Jews of Bukhara would hold a sort of `Leil Shimurim' to commemorate the words of the Megilloh: `Balaylah hahu nodedoh shenas haMelech' (6:1). They would sing Purim songs, including the piyut arranged according to the Alef Beis, "Kel Oseh Nekamah."

Hidden Costumes

"My parents — firebrands plucked from the fire — arrived in Israel after the Holocaust," recalls Mrs. Devorah Rosengarten, describing a more familiar Purim from 40 years ago. "They were married in Eretz Yisroel and then emigrated to Switzerland to work on a Torah program that my father was promoting. He was hired as a maggid shiur at Yeshivas Lucerne under HaRav Kopelman and I grew up in the Jewish neighborhood, Agudas Achim.

"On Purim an atmosphere of fear and suspicion hung in the air. With recollections of the horrors of the Holocaust the Jews of Switzerland, including many refugees who had fled there to rebuild their shattered lives, were afraid of what the goyim would say about them. The fear of antisemitism directed their actions.

"The costumes were a matter to be kept concealed to avoid provoking the non-Jews. I remember how I dressed up as Queen Esther and my mother hid my white dress under a loose coat. And I had to forgo the flaring hem on the snow-white dress, which was my heart's desire as a little girl. In the afternoon, after school, I was sent to the neighbors' houses to hand out shlach manos. We didn't have any relatives, because everyone had been killed. When the neighbors opened the door they didn't see a thing. Only after I took off my coat did they see the clandestine queen. The costumes were all very respectable — figures from the Tanach such as Rivkoh Imeinu, Ruth the Moabite, etc. The boys generally dressed as various types of craftsmen.

"On Purim we had to attend our classes at the government school. [There were no Jewish schools at the time.] Jewish students were given vacation days on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succos, Simchas Torah, Pesach and Shavuos. Purim was not on the list. In the morning we went to school and in the afternoon bochurim from the yeshiva — my father's talmidim — would come to our house. My mother would prepare a lavish Purim seudah. A lot of work went into the cooking because my mother prepared Hungarian food from my mother's country of origin and Polish food from my father's country of origin.

"Afterwards the bochurim would stage a yeshiva-style Purim skit in the yeshiva dining room behind a rickety curtain. There was a custom to save some kindel for Shabbos Hagodol. We would seal away some pastries in a container and stash them in the boidem until it arrived. This custom took hold because there is a connection between Purim and Pesach. The main destruction of Jewish enemies was on Purim, but Homon's fall and Seudas Esther were held on Pesach the year before.

"Back then shlach manos were all homemade. Nut and poppy-seed kindel was packed in shoeboxes along with zarbo cake, a kind of torte with shiny chocolate icing, whole pineapple and various other pastries. Little toys for children were also placed in the shlach manos, which might have derived from the need to make up for their lack of relatives and family.

"In Switzerland the joy of Purim was about consideration for others and mutual assistance for the lonely and miserable. On Purim my mother would adopt several of these needy people — the brokenhearted and mentally handicapped. She would make shlach manos specially suited to their needs and some of them would even come to our home for the seudas Purim. A great flurry of activity surrounded Purim in Switzerland and large quantities of various foods were cooked and baked. `The amount of food for Purim is enough to last until Chanukah,' Swiss housewives were wont to say."

Sana and Kubana

In Yemen Jews celebrated Purim openly without fear of the goyim. Nahafoch-hu: The Arabs respected the Jews and made their respect known.

Rebbetzin Korach of Bnei Brak recounts: "In the streets of Sana [the capital of Yemen] the children would post an image of Haman hanging from the tree and throw arrows and rocks at it. And some would put it on a wooden wagon and pull it, calling out an Arabic rhyme that can be roughly translated, "Here's Homon on a lame horse, mad and bursting." This custom was carried out after the night Megilloh reading and during the day.

"On Purim it was customary to wear Shabbos and Yom Tov clothes. People were careful to refrain from leitzonus and frivolity. Costumes were only permitted for small children. In Yemen the custom was to light candles during the seudah to distinguish simchas Purim from regular weekday simchah.

During the seudah we would eat different types of fruit, legumes and roasted snacks in memory of Esther Hamalkoh, who ate only seeds while in the king's palace. And the men did not get drunk, but would drink just a bit more than usual until they fell asleep or until they could not distinguish between `orur Homon' and `boruch Mordechai' while drinking the wine.

"In Yemen shlach manos consisted primarily of foods to which raisins, almonds and sweet ingredients were added and forms made of cane sugar [e.g. a rooster made of sugar], which the women would make. Silver coins were also added to shlach manos for needy families."


If space permitted we could go on and on indulging in reminiscences, taking in the sweet aromas of the Purim of yesteryear without end. Readers who feel pangs of nostalgia for bygone times are welcome to recreate bits of the glory of Purim in our day and age as well.

Bayomim Hoheim Bazman Hazeh

HaRav Nachum Diamant pinpoints a few of the key distinctions between the Purim of the past and today's Purim. "Every year I ask at the yeshiva, `Why did Mordechai establish shlach manos on Purim?'

"After all, the seudah symbolizes the remembrance of the miracle, matonos le'evyonim are so that the poor, too, can eat a Purim Seudah, the Megilloh reading was also intended as a pirsumei nisso— but what does shlach manos have to do with Purim?

"Homon had the answer: `Yeshno am echod mefuzor umefurod bein ho'amim.' And Esther Hamalkoh replied, `Leich kenos es kol haYehudim.'

"Only when we are united and gathered together can we battle Homon's advice to obliterate the Jewish people. Shlach manos is intended to increase ahavoh ve'achvoh sholom verei'us among Jews. If there is someone who made me sad - - I'll settle the score with him by giving a nice shlach manos. If there is someone pathetic who nobody pays any attention to — I'll send him a shlach manos. The joy must be genuine, without any other considerations.

"I remember as a child every year on Purim my mother would send an original shlach manos. The package consisted of an entire seudah, from Hamotzi to Bircas Hamozone, for a needy family (a mother after birth or someone else who had trouble preparing for Purim). We children were the `delivery boys.' One of us would carry the cups, another the dessert, etc. Thus we internalized what shlach manos really is.

"Even simchas Purim used to be different. I remember when I was a yeshiva bochur we would put out a `Purim newspaper.' There were several of us, including HaRav Beifus [the author of Lekach Tov]. In the midst of the frenzy of preparations we found a picture of a bochur leaning over on a pile of books. We captioned the picture, `Books carrying a donkey.' We couldn't pass up the witticism. But we immediately changed our minds and axed the idea. HaRav Beifus was the one who issued the resounding, `No!' Who gave us permission to ridicule somebody else?, he asked us. Who gave us permission to make it Tisha B'Av for one person while it was Purim for someone else? That's precisely the point. Simchas Purim is allowed, but only within certain limits."

HaRav G.K., a long-time Bnei Brak resident, notes the positive change in today's Purim. "It used to be there were two prominent gabbai tzedokoh on Purim — R' Tzvi Kagen and R' Avrohom Shulman. They would go from house to house collecting contributions. Today Purim has been transformed into a day of tzedokoh and of collecting money for the needy. We have Kupat Ha'ir and everyone who reaches out his hand gets his share.

"And years ago it was quiet in Bnei Brak on Purim. The joy was in the homes. But years ago there were few yeshivas in Bnei Brak — three at most. The joy of the day was not felt in the streets at all. But today the atmosphere of joy outside gives a special tone as means become more sophisticated — bands, decorated cars, an assortment of costumes. Joy penetrates the homes."

Homemade Gifts

Today Purim is a time of gift giving, with painful indecision as we stand among the wide array of presents that the stores place on display. Once upon a time gifts were given on Purim too, but back then everything was homemade — amazing feats of yeish mei'ayin.

Mrs. Yaffoh Gelbstein, born in Meah Shearim, recalls finding time between her morning job as a kindergarten teacher and her afternoon job as a grade-school teacher to embroider a Pesach tablecloth for her mechutonim. "The tablecloth was comprised of delicate inlays, letters, flower bouquets, blossoms and leaves and I spent a lot of time on it. A lot of hard work also went into preparing shlach manos for mechutonim. We arranged homemade items like a white torte covered with chocolate, quality spreads, bottles of liquor and homemade wine on a wide, round tray called a `siniya.' And of course the crowning jewel, the kallah's handiwork." In relations among mechutonim in the Jerusalem of yesteryear it was widely agreed that the more you gave, the better.

"In Sana [the capital of Yemen] on Purim the chosson and kallah would receive presents from the parents and it was a prime opportunity to make up for any missing items," says Rebbetzin Korach of Bnei Brak. "The mother would sew and prepare at home the gift and add it to the shlach manos for the young couple."

In Baghdad as well the kallah would make nice gains on Purim. "In Iraq it was customary for the groom's family to send the bride-to-be a large, respectable mishloach manot on a silver platter," recalls Mrs. Bertha Chava. "The package included candies and baked goods and even a present — a garment specially sewn by the groom's mother or a piece of gold jewelry."


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