This was the second time in three years that I left Eretz Yisrael for Purim. Two years ago I went to Istanbul, this year I went to Athens. Both times, I went because a long weekend seemed like a good excuse to travel, and both times I found Purim in that city to be a powerful experience.
In Istanbul, I had been warned that security was high, and I faxed in my passport and an application to visit, with references, a few weeks in advance, to the Jewish community, asking to attend services. In return, I was sent the address of the synagogue, and the time of the megilla reading. A few hours before it was time to go, I asked at the hostel for directions to that address. The hostel employee was curious why I was going to such a random neighborhood. “I’m Jewish,” I said, “and It’s Jewish holiday. I’m going to a synagogue there,” perhaps incautiously.
“I’m not Jewish,” said the hostel worker, defensively. “I don’t know anything about that.”
“That’s ok,” I said. I just want to know if this is the right train stop. He assured me that it was, and I headed out.
I got a bit lost on the way there, but as the police presence thickened, I started to think I was on the right track. The Istanbul Jewish community had been targeted by al-Qaeda several years before, with dozens killed.
I found a building completely unmarked, where I expected the synagogue to be. A woman approached the building with her two children, and I went up to her, and asked in English, and Hebrew, if this was the synagogue. She edged her children behind her, so that she stood between me and them, and asked, “who told you that?”
I told her I had an email, I was here for the megilla reading. “I don’t know,” she said, and slipped inside.
Soon, the rabbi came out, with the security guard. The rabbi cross-examined me in Hebrew. I must have passed the test, because he turned me over to the security guard, who eventually let me in. (This was fairly involved, I’m not describing it here out of respect for the community and their safety.)
I went upstairs to the women’s section, the spectator seats, and people were friendly. Hebrew was our common language for the most part and several women had spent time there.
When the reading was over, they gave me mishloach manot with marzipan and other Turkish goodies, and we waited for permission from the security guard to leave. The woman from before, with her children and husband, walked me a few blocks towards my train station, no longer scared. And I went home to my hostel, thinking about the story of Esther in a community that was scared of destruction.
Greece was mellower.
Late in the afternoon, I left the tourist area and went back downtown to sort out directions to the synagogue. I had emailed for time and directions, and was instructed to bring a passport, but there was no application, no pre-screening. I logged on to the Athens wifi, and finally found on google maps what looked like the synagogue, not far from the tourist district and only two blocks from where I had been earlier. I accepted this in the spirit of purim, of surprises and reversals, and retraced my steps.
(these posters were all around Athens. Not exactly sure what they meant but didn’t get the sense that the people who put them up liked me very much. Or studied history)
I found the block where I expected it to be, and as I turned onto the street, a man in a black jacket and jeans stopped me, and casually asked where I was going. “I’m going . . . there,” I said, pointing vaguely, not sure if he was security or a nuisance, but he nodded, and stepped aside.
Unlike in Istanbul, the building was clearly marked with a Jewish star and Hebrew words. In fact, there were two buildings like that, facing each other. I stood there confused in the middle of the street, and two more men in unmarked jackets came over to me, and asked politely what I was doing.
“I’m looking for the synagogue.”
I gave him my passport, and he flipped through it, less interested in the ID page than in the visas. I see you’ve been to Israel he said, looking at my student visa.
“I study there. Well, I live there,” I told him.
“very good,” he said, handing it back. And then he had one last question. “What day is today?”
“Purim,” I said with a smile, almost, and he smiled back and pointed me to the synagogue.
Inside, an old man in a loud plaid shirt came up to me and said something in greek.
“purim sameach,” I replied, in Hebrew. ‘I’m hear to hear megilla.”
“ah, medaberet ivrit, you speak hebrew. Welcome.” He gave me a booklet with the text of the megillah, with a garish cover and a greek translation, and a siddur when I asked for one. I took a seat in the back of what appeared to informally be the women’s side.
The service went on and on. Mincha, the afternoon prayers, for Shabbat, I recognized, and said, even though most of the community seemed to be sitting and standing without much participation or understanding. Then there was a long section of responsive readings, some of which were from tehilim, psalms, but most of which I didn’t recognize.
The pews filled in quickly, and it was clear that it was a tight-knit community. Greetings were enthusiastic, with multiple kisses and hugs.
It was standing room only by the time the megillah was read, and it was read quickly and indifferently, and the enthusiastic chatter in the back was unabated.
I tried to be philosophical about it, but might have ended up a bit sarcastic. “Elohim,” I thought. This community has so much love for each other, that when they come to the synagogue to hear the megillah, they are so overcome with excitement that no one can hear the megillah.”
Sometimes people forgot to “boo” and stomp for Haman’s name, other times they booed for words that only vaguely resembled “haman.” Most people sat there quietly or chatted with their friends.
It seemed to be a ghost of a Jewish community, loyally showing up for something, but they no longer knew for what. There were no costumes, no masks, no l’chayims, no joy.
I thought of the Purims of my childhood, with the rabbi’s wife reading the megillah for the women with silly voices and hats for each character, the rabbi reading for the children while dressed as the genie from Aladdin. I thought of Purim at Tikkun Leil Shabbat in DC, where I chanted the decrees against the women in the same mournful used for the lines about the destruction of the temple, and that was our living, growing tradition.
And the reading finished, and I put away my books and grabbed a pamphlet on the Greek Jewish community and went back to my hostel.
The next day, on the ferry to Aegina, I found the pamphlet in my bag and started to read.
(picture of most of me, taken on the ferry by a sweet old man named Demetrius. My arms aren’t really that buff; I’m wearing all my sweaters.)
“Founded 3rd century B.C.E., Philo Judaeus . . . influx from the Spanish Diaspora . . . heroism in the Balkan wars.
And then. “ In August 1943, 48,674 of Salonikas Jews were sent to Auschwitz. About 1,950 of them returned alive, bringing the community’s losses to 97%.”
“In the Bulgarian occupation zone . . . deported to Treblinka . . . out of 4,200 Jews, 200 survived.”
“In the Italian Occupation zone . . . German rule in September 1943 . . . 12,500 Jews, 92% murdered.”
All in all, 87% of Greek Jews were slaughtered.
And I understood what I had seen in the synagogue. This was the aftermath of the Purim story, with no Queen Esther, threatened destruction, with no miracle. No wonder the community was almost dead.
The Purim story is a story for exile, it’s a promise of a miracle for people who are vulnerable and threatened. And I felt a longing to go back to Israel, which was established hastily and desperately, with a high human cost paid by people who did not deserve such things.
My views on the state of Israel are, and will continue to be complicated. But sitting on the ferry, holding that pamphlet as the boat was docking at Pireaus, Greece, on the evening after Purim in the year 5773, I was deeply grateful for the state of Israel.
And then I came back to Israel, and my facebook feed reminded me that it was 19 years to the day, on the hebrew and secular calenders, of the Baruch Goldstein Massacre, and the news told me that a Arab man had been savagely beaten in Tel Aviv on Purim by a group of Jewish revelers.
I know what Purim means in Galut/exile. I don’t know what it means in the land of Israel.