After celebrating Purim as a pandemic descended, the holiday is forever changed

The Jewish holidays remind me of my old vinyl records: They have an A-side and a B-side. The origin of the holiday and the rituals for observing it, as I imagine it, are on the A-side. On the B-side is my personal relationship with the holiday.

For example, the A-side of Sukkot is found in Leviticus 23: 33-44. The Torah tells us to celebrate on the 15th day of the 7th month, to live in booths and to shake the four species — the well-known lulav and etrog, and branches of myrtle and willow, to boot.

For me, the B-side of that holiday is imprinted with a 35-year-old memory: Breathing in a whiff of the blissfully fragrant etrog, as we blessed the lulav, I became nauseous and dizzy and almost fainted. Sukkot signaled I was pregnant with my second child.

On Simchat Torah we complete the annual Torah reading from the Book of Deuteronomy and immediately begin reading a new cycle with the first words in Genesis. It’s a day of celebration, but the B-side, for me, is not joyous: my mother died on Simchat Torah in 1994.

Community | After celebrating Purim as a pandemic descended, the holiday is forever changed

Purim, however, has always been different — no B-side. For me, the holiday was never intimate. It was always simply about fulfilling the mitzvot — and baking hamentaschen filled with everything (except poppy and prune). Purim meant rummaging through my closet to find a makeshift costume and checking the trop one last time before I chanted in front of the congregation. It was also the gateway to the four weeks before Passover.

But this year, as Purim approaches and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world, the holiday has become another two-sided vinyl record in my collection. I will now always think of Purim as the last time Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, N.J., my personal Beit Knesset — “House of Gathering” — gathered in person before the virus closed our building’s doors.

So after living a year of the Jewish calendar on Zoom, I am trying to reconstruct how it felt to sit in the sanctuary and pray together on March 9 and 10, 2020. How loud was the clanking of the groggers? What was it like to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and actually feel the Amen in the sanctuary?

It is traditional in the Hebrew month of Adar to be happy and not to worry. That evening, that tradition was impossible. We could shriek and stamp our feet to erase Haman’s memory, but we would need a compassionate president and a vaccine to extinguish the COVID cloud — both in the then-distant future.

We were afraid to shake anyone’s hand or hug a friend. When our synagogue Simcha Band played, “Mishe Nichnas Adar Marbim BiSimcha” — “When Adar arrives we increase our joy” — who were we kidding? How naïve we were to think life would return to normal in a few weeks. How foolish we were to believe all of our fellow Americans would respect their neighbors’ health as much as their own.

The next morning, I left my house to daven the Shacharit service and caught the sun beginning to rise on Cambridge Road. We were going to read about the miracle of our salvation in Shushan, but for a moment, the changing sky seemed a more powerful miracle. Even before entering the synagogue, the first b’racha preceding the Sh’ma popped into my head: “Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, creating light and fashioning darkness, ordaining the order of all creation.” Surely, I thought, a God that could orchestrate this beauty every day could also squelch this new virus and restore order out of chaos.

Looking back at that morning service, I wish I had savored sitting in the pews, kissing the Torah with my tzitzit, and most importantly, seeing people from head to toe and not head to shoulder. Unbeknownst to me, that morning would be the last time I would have those opportunities for at least a year.

I can’t decide whether Purim 2020 feels like 100 years ago or just yesterday. Probably, a little of both. But one thing is sure: Purim now has a side B etched in my memory.

I will always remember the topsy-turvy holiday that ushered in a topsy-turvy world, when life-saving masks replaced costume masks. I’ll think of the eerie quiet in the streets contrasting with the “rash, rash, rash” — “noise, noise, noise” — of Purim. I’ll think of my parking-lot sunrise and the words in the Siddur that proclaim God’s goodness as She renews the creation day after day.

Community | After celebrating Purim as a pandemic descended, the holiday is forever changed

Community | After celebrating Purim as a pandemic descended, the holiday is forever changed

Merrill Silver is an ESL teacher and freelance writer who lives in New Jersey. Contact her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

How COVID changed Purim

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After celebrating Purim as a pandemic descended, the holiday is forever changed

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