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Ancient Jewish celebration of Purim still holds relevance


Cantor Ivor Lichterman holds the scroll of the Book of Esther. It does not contain the name of God and thus is the only book in the Jewish Bible that the faithful touch. Scroll handles are used for all others.

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The Jewish holiday of Purim — a celebration of Queen Esther and Mordecai overcoming a plot to kill the Jews in Persia — dates to the 5th century B.C., but its message is as relevant as today’s headlines.

Cantor Ivor Lichterman of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sylvania pointed out that ancient Persia is modern-day Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called for Israel’s destruction.

“Purim is about our freedom to practice our religious independence,” Cantor Lichterman said.

“The story of Purim is fascinating,” said Rabbi Yossi Shemtov of Chabad House-Lubavitch.

“The message is that it was 1,000 years since the beginning of the Jewish people and it was the first time we were under threat of complete annihilation, with only one avenue of rescue.”

The sole means of escape offered by the Persian authorities was for the Jews to renounce their Judaism, he said.

“Ironically, the Jews were not so religiously observant in that period, but nonetheless there was not even one Jew who took that avenue of escape,” Rabbi Shemtov said. “Our people made a unanimous decision that as a Jew I shall live, no matter what comes.”

The Book of Esther is the only one in the Hebrew Bible that doesn’t contain the name of God, Cantor Lichterman said. Because of that, it is the only book in the Jewish Bible that can be handled directly, not just by scroll handles, and the cantor said he is free to write in its margins and attach sticky notes directly on the parchment.

Purim, which begins at sundown on Wednesday, is a uniquely festive Jewish holiday, celebrated with carnivals, parties, and elaborate musical productions.

When the Book of Esther, known as the Megillah, is read in the synagogue, children wear costumes and enthusiastically shout, boo, hiss, and spin noisemakers called groggers every time the name of the villain, Hamen, is mentioned.

“One of the goals is to have fun,” Cantor Lichterman said.

Another fun way to observe the holiday is Purimspiels, featuring remakes of popular mainstream songs with lyrics that tell the Purim story.

At B’nai Israel, for example, 13 classic rock tunes are recast for the musical “Old Time Rock and Roll Megillah Scroll.” The songs include “Help Me, Esther,” a remake of “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Louie Louie” is changed to “Hamen Hamen.” The musical is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Conservative Jewish synagogue, 6525 Sylvania Ave., Sylvania.

Rabbi Moshe Saks and Cantor Lichterman will chant the Megillah at 7 a.m. Thursday at B’nai Israel.

The Purimspiel “The Megillah According to Broadway” will be presented at The Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim, the Reform Jewish congregation at 6453 Sylvania Ave., Sylvania, at 5 p.m. Sunday, featuring highlights of the best tunes of Broadway, Cantor Raina Siroty said.

Among the parody songs will be “Shalom, Esther,” based on “Hello, Dolly,” and “Oy,” a takeoff of “One” from A Chorus Line.

Rabbi Sam Weinstein will make a cameo appearance during the beauty pageant, Cantor Siroty said.

Congregation Etz Chayim, 3853 Woodley Rd., Toledo, will have a Megillah reading at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Rabbi Jonathan Bienenfeld said.

“It’s the story of God in more contemporary history where God’s name is veiled. And to a great extent it’s very difficult to know God is there,” Rabbi Bienenfeld said. “Yet somehow or another when we read the Megillah and take the story in its entirety, God’s presence becomes very apparent. We need to do that sometimes, take a larger swath of history to see the patterns, directions, and providence of God a little more clearly. It’s an important reminder to not get bogged down in the day-to-day but to pull back and see that he’s there.”

On Thursday, Chabad House will present “Purim in the Jungle” at Etz Chayim at 5 p.m., with registration required by calling 419-843-9393.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re having a drum circle,” said Mushka Matusof. “The menu is going to be all jungly, with African and tropical dishes.”

Purim in the Jungle will show children how to make rain sticks, learn jungle survival skills from Boy Scouts, and make hamentaschen, the traditional Purim cookies.

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