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Purim in Wartime: Bucharest celebration brings haunting past into present

BUCHAREST — It was fitting, somehow, that on Purim, the holiday where up is down and down is up, the only Ukrainian refugee I could find among the 200 people attending Wednesday night’s megillah reading at the Choral Temple in Romania’s capital was a Moroccan Jew from Marakkesh.

Zakaria Maarif, who is 23, spent the last three years traveling around Ukraine on a kind of self-exploration journey. During some of that time, Maarif said, he had studied Talmud in Uman, the famed final resting place of Reb Nachman of Braslav, whose grave has become a place of sacred pilgrimage. But mostly he lived in an apartment near Kyiv’s Central Synagogue.

Thus it was Maarif’s good luck to be among the first people to secure safe passage out of Ukraine when Russian bombs started assaulting the country on Feb. 24. Rabbi Moshe Azman, spiritual leader of the Central Synagogue, started immediately to requisition buses, hire drivers, work out routes and make arrangements to ensure there would be someone to meet the refugees when they arrived on the other side.

“I heard about how the Jewish community wanted to help people flee, and signed up,” Maarif said.

Maarif, a Moroccan-Jewish refugee from Ukraine.

Maarif, a Moroccan-Jewish refugee from Ukraine. By Larry Cohler-Esses

The journey from the synagogue in Kyiv to this one in Bucharest was anything but direct. Refugees exited Ukraine to Moldova, a trip Maarif described as “a bit rough.” But he said that Azman had arranged with his Chabad colleagues in Moldova’s capital of Chisinau—also known as Kishinev, site of notorious anti-Jewish pogroms in 1903 and 1905—to provide the refugees places to stay.

Those ready to make aliyah went from Chisinau to Iasi, Romania, site of one of Europe’s oldest functioning synagogues and newly transformed into a major staging point for the Jewish Agency. Others were flown to Cyprus, where they were hosted by Chabad while plotting their next steps.

Maarif, having fled Kyiv so abruptly that he neglected to bring his passport, was unable to get an Israeli visa. Which is how, stranded in Bucharest while waiting for a replacement passport, he ended up in the pews of the recently-refurbished Choral Temple for a slate of Vaudeville-style Purim performances.

Located a few steps from Bucharest’s Old Town, Choral is Romania’s most impressive synagogue, and has a fraught history. Its Moorish-style construction in the 1860s was stymied by an arsonist protesting the extension of Romanian citizenship to Jews; it was damaged again by an earthquake in 1940 and by far-right militias’ vandalism of Bucharest’s Jewish neighborhoods in 1941. During the iron rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu, it was slated for demolition but spared after international protests, and the latest renovation was completed in 2015.

Among the stars at Wednesday night’s raucous and political Purim celebration were not only Romania’s chief rabbi, Rafael Shaffer, but the country’s queen of television and film, Maia Morgenstern, best known internationally for her role as the Virgin Mary in Mel Gibson’s controversial “The Passion of the Christ.”

After the megillah reading, a young woman in the uniform of a Communist youth group from the Ceaușescu era gave a dramatic, satirical speech, gesticulating cartoonishly.

The performance would have brought death sentences on the whole congregation had it taken place during Ceaușescu’s actual rule from 1965 to 1989. But the young woman lampooned his ideology mercilessly with the brio of someone who never had to experience or bear memory of the real thing. She was rewarded with gales of laughter from the pews, with some of the older congregants feeling a special jolt of transgression.

A woman dressed in the uniform of a Communist youth group from the Ceaușescu era.

A woman dressed in the uniform of a Communist youth group from the Ceaușescu era. By Larry Cohler-Esses

Then Morgensten came on stage, accompanied by a trio of viola, accordion and violin, to perform a dramatic reading based on the Yiddish song “S’Brent,” (“Burnt”) – a stark, accusatory jeremiad bemoaning the utter destruction of a Jewish shtetl.

It is burning, brothers, it is burning.
Our poor little town, a pity, burns!
…The tongues of fire have already
Swallowed the entire town.
…And you stand around
While our town burns.
…Take up the tools to put out the fire,
Put out the fire with your own blood.

This was not typical Purim material. But then, this was not a typical Purim. Everyone understood: in the country next door, towns were burning as they spoke.

Morganstern, 59, is idolized across the country, and along with her secular stardom, she is the director of Romania’s state-funded Yiddish theater. When she finished, congregants sat silent for a moment before bursting into wild applause.

A sprightly klezmer quartet was next, playing a series of holiday favorites that inspired some worshippers to get up and dance. One, a white-bearded man with an irrepressible smile, spun right by me as he jumped, turned and danced across the width of the floor area beneath the bimah.

Celebrating Purim at the Choral Temple in Romania.

Celebrating Purim at the Choral Temple in Romania. By Larry Cohler-Esses

Then, on his way back, he unexpectedly grabbed me as his partner. It was Rabbi Shaffer.

I am a dancer so bad that even my wife refuses my hand. But there I was, snagged into doing Hasidic turnarounds with one arm up in the air with Romania’s chief rabbi. After about two minutes I begged off, tuckered out, and Shaffer moved on, undiminished, to another partner.

Born in 1957 in Transylvania, near the Hungarian border, Shaffer grew up in a secular family and moved to Israel at the age of 17. There, he grew more observant and eventually studied at Kollel Hazon Ish, a prestigious yeshiva in the ultraorthodox town of Bnei Brak. He became the rabbi of Bucharest in 2011 and the country’s chief Jewish leader in 2017.

“I hired him after he agreed to meet me, with his black hat and all, at one of Tel Aviv’s roughest bars,” recalled Israel Sabag, head of the Joint Distribution Committee’s program here. “That’s how I knew he could deal with different kinds of people.”

When he finally took a break from his boisterous dancing, I asked Shaffer what had been his biggest challenge in returning to the country of his birth and leading its Jewish community.

He stopped and thought a second, and finally said in very good English, “To learn to speak the language of the community.”

The author dances with Rabbi Shaffer.

The author dances with Rabbi Shaffer. By Larry Cohler-Esses

He wasn’t thinking of Romanian, of course. Instead, it was “to learn how the congregation members think, how they feel, what they don’t like and what they like, what’s sensitive for them and what’s not, and translate all this into a language that they can relate to.”

By then, Maarif, the Moroccan refugee, was long gone and the shul was almost empty; it seemed like it was time to go home.

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