Ukrainian Jewish Heritage – Purim

Purim is a holiday Jews observe in memory of an ancient victory recounted in the Book of Esther. This story had eerie parallels in Europe during the bloody 20th century.

About twenty five hundred years ago, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. The Jewish people were banished from Israel to Babylonia.

Fifty years later, Babylonia was defeated by Persia, the most powerful kingdom in the world at that time.

Achashverosh was the second Persian king. Drunk with power, he executed his queen, Vashti, who refused his order to dance at an extravagant feast. The king now needed a new queen, and he sent his men in search for someone even more beautiful than Vashti.

In the capital city, Shushan, a Jewish orphan named Hadassah lived with her uncle Mordechai, the leader of the Jews. Esther was kind and gentle … and very beautiful. When the king’s men came, Mordechai said, “Don’t be afraid. Go. Don’t tell them you are Jewish. Use your Persian name — Esther. God will watch over you!”

As soon as the king saw her, he chose her as his new queen. Esther kept her secret … but to remember which day was the Sabbath, she appointed seven maidservants, one for each day of the week.

Every day, Mordechai sat outside the palace gate to wait for news from Esther. One day he overheard two men plotting to kill the king. He told Esther, who revealed the plot and saved the king’s life.

Soon after, the king appointed Haman — the richest man in the kingdom — as his prime minister. Haman wore a large medallion, engraved with the picture of an idol. All the king’s subjects were ordered to bow down to Haman. Everyone did, except Mordechai. A Jew is forbidden to worship or honor idols.
Haman was furious. When he found out Mordechai was Jewish, he plotted to kill not just Mordechai but all the Jews in the empire.

Esther revealed Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews … including her, to the king. Outraged, he ordered Haman hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

He also allowed Mordecai and Esther to write a decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves from attacks. As a result, on the 13 day of the Hebrew month Adar, the Jews defeated five hundred attackers, including Haman’s ten sons … who were hanged in Shushan.

The Jewish community of Ukraine celebrates Purim by remembering the Hamans of the 20th century — Stalin and Hitler.

Like Haman’s ten sons, in 1946, ten of Hitler’s top associates were put to death by hanging. An 11th, Hermann Göring, committed suicide the night before the execution, a parallel to the suicide of Haman’s daughter. There are rumors that Göring was a transvestite, making that an even more accurate parallel.

In 1953, Stalin was planning to deport most of the Jews in the Soviet Union to Siberia. But before he gave the order, he suffered a stroke, and died a few days later.

According to a popular story, in 1953 on Purim, a Rebbe was asked to give a blessing for the Jews of the Soviet Union, who were known to be in great danger. Instead, the Rebbe told a cryptic story. A man who was voting in the Soviet Union heard people cheering for the candidate, “Hoorah! Hoorah!” The man did not want to cheer, but was afraid not to. So he said hoorah but in his heart meant “hu ra,” which in Hebrew means, “he is evil!” So with Stalin in mind, the Rebbe’s 1953 gathering began chanting “hu ra!” That very night, Stalin suffered his fatal stroke.

Despite its tragic aspects, the holiday of Purim is for Jews a celebration of victory and survival. Across Ukraine today, Jews celebrate Purim enjoying performances depicting the history of the holiday and the unity of the Jewish people, costume parties and of course delicious traditional Jewish food… including filled cookies called hamantashen.

This year, Purim took place from sunset March 15 till nightfall of March 16, 2014 … or the Jewish Year 5774.

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