Hamentaschen in Qalqilya

The day before Purim and just past Kfar Saba, our bus made a sharp left turn.  Within minutes we had breezed through the checkpoint (it’s always easier to go in than out) and entered Qalqilya.  It feels strange when I first visit places whose names I learned from newscasts during the second Intifada.  But it was sunny and quiet as my friends and I entered the UNRWA hospital to meet with some local doctors.

It was a proper Palestinian welcome, meaning more food than we could possibly ever eat.  One of the doctors  spoke with us about problems with the local health system.  Particularly, he described redundancies between the four major sectors (Palestinian Ministry of Health, UNRWA, NGOs, and private health care) as well as major gaps in care, particularly specialty care.  As I tried to think back to my first year global health seminars to remember the term for proper coordination between health initiatives- is it “harmonization“?  something caught my eye on the plate of cookies being passed around.  Dark filling oozed out between three pinched corners of dough.  I looked around again, and saw them everywhere.  Mixed in with other cookies, they were serving us hamentaschen in Qalqilya, on erev Purim.hamantasch

The doctor concluded his remarks by telling us that he believed that the Palestinian people want peace, and it is the Israelis who are unwilling.  I rolled my eyes, mostly because I have heard the mirror version of that statement from more than enough Israelis.  The microphone was handed off to a young man who worked at the hospital, who told us about what it was like to study abroad, then come back to Qalqilya, where it is a harder life, but there’s a sense of cohesion and community and identity that he wanted his children to have.  He spoke briefly about losing his cousin during the second Intifada, and about his mother dying of cancer (a not very treatable type, but still) after not getting a permit to enter Israel for treatment.

When he finished, the doctor grabbed the microphone back.  He had misspoken, he told us, when he had said that the Israelis didn’t want peace.  Through this NGO, perhaps we had heard of it, Physicians for Human Rights, he had met many Israelis who he knew wanted peace.  He knows that they are a minority opinion within Israel, but he hopes that they will get stronger.

So do I, I thought, so do I.

We then travelled on to Nablus.  We were supposed to meet with medical students there, but a Very Important Dignitary heard through the grapevine that there actually were American tourists in his town, and invited us to meet with him in his office and drink tea and eat kanaffeh (which tastes sort of like mozzarella cheese topped with fried dough and simple syrup, and may be an acquired taste.)  He gave us a speech about how he believes that previous violence, which he once supported,  was a deep mistake by the Palestinians, and how he now believes that negotiations are the only way forward, and how important it is that the current negotiations succeed.

He spoke with the voice of a lawyer and a politician, but I more or less believed him.  I can’t see into his heart, but he is a powerful player here, and of everything he could have said, he used the time to lobby us to lobby our government to make the negotiations succeed.  There was a time for questions at the end, and I asked him what might increase trust between Israelis and Palestinians.  He misunderstood my questions, but part way through his answer, I noticed he was addressing me as if I were Israeli.  Was it the question I asked, or did I look particularly Jewish right that day?

After lunch, which was late,  I split off from our group to try to head back to Beer Sheva in time for the Purim Megilla reading.  A doctor we were travelling with walked me to the bus station.  He referenced our conversation last year outside of ma’arat ha-makhpela, the tomb of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) in Hevron.  He said he’d been touched by what I’d said there, to the point where he’d told the story to several groups.  I said that I appreciated hearing that, since I had started to think I’d been a bit overdramatic that day.

At the bus station, speaking a mix of English and Arabic, I attempted to ask for a bus either to Ramallah or Jerusalem.  “Ween al-bus al-Ramallah? Ween al-bus al al-Quds?”

“oh, Yerushalayim?” asked a Palestinian man, in Hebrew.  Again with being read as Israeli, despite the fact that I am not, that I spoke only English and bad Arabic.  Not right, but not wrong, either, according to the local rules of who is an insider and who is an outsider.  “yes, al-Quds” I told him cheerfully, and he pointed me to a bus that would take me as far as Qalandya checkpoint.

We hit traffic along the way, in a long line of cars snared by a checkpoint.  Once we got through, the driver really gunned it.  If I die in Palestine, I thought to myself, it will be from a traffic accident.

The driver let me off with two other passengers and told me to follow them past another traffic jam to the checkpoint.  Cars with Israeli plates periodically drove down the shoulder, forcing us off of it.  I looked more closely, some women wore hijabs, all the boys had tight haircuts.  Israeli Arabs, or Palestinian citizens of Israel, returning from day trips.  More identity parsing.  They grinned sheepishly as they sped by.

One of the other passengers told me he was going to Tel Aviv.  “Inta bishtarril fil Tel Aviv,” do you work in Tel Aviv? I asked him.  He answered affirmatively. We spoke for a few minutes more, then as we reached the checkpoint, said to me with a smile in English, “and now you are home.”  Again with the Jew-dar?

I entered the chicken cages, or cattle chute, or whatever you want to call the part of the checkpoint that is for pedestrians.  Metals bars on either side of us, so narrow a space that a few of the men stood slightly sideways, a wire grate and barbed wire coils above us.  Most people stood bored, leaning against the bars, a few checked facebook on their phones.  The line slowly crept forwards, a few people let at a time through the magnetically locked revolving door.

When I finally reached the end, I put my bag through the X-ray, and walked through the metal detector.  The border policewoman,  from behind sheets of bulletproof glass, buzzed the buzzer at me  and motioned for me to go back.  I was confused.  Had I set off the metal detector?  I walked through it again and again she buzzed at me.  This time she turned on the microphone and said, coldly, “akhora.”  Go back.

So I stepped back until she called me, and she said “passport” and I held it up for inspection.  “Visa”, she finally ordered me, still giving commands the way you tell a dog to sit or stay.  In Palestine I was a Jew, and now in this limbo-world of a checkpoint, I am an enemy until proven otherwise.  She studied my visa for a while, it may have been the first student visa she had seen issued in Kathmandu, and then without a word, she let me through. And then I was back in Israel proper and I could breath again. I thought of the border policewoman, drafted at eighteen and behind the plates of glass, barking orders through a microphone, only able to see threats and enemies. Of everyone I’d met that day, she seemed the most imprisoned.

I took another (Arab) bus to Jerusalem, and then a taxi to the new bus station, and then a bus to Beer Sheva, and then a taxi to the megillah reading.  By the time I got there, they were halfway through.  I saw my friend dressed as Wonder Woman and went to join her.  I listened as they chanted the story of Esther overturning the plans for the Jews to be massacred, listened as instead their (our?) enemies were massacred.  The numbers of those slaughtered in the megillah kept increasing.  It seemed a bit too similar to the stories of massacres that we, Jews and Palestinians, are raised with, and who started it depends on where you start counting, and I don’t know how it ends.

The megillah wasn’t much fun this year.  It reminded me of something a friend had shared on facebook, how the carnival-like atmosphere of Purim isn’t true joy, and another thing a friend and teacher shared, that for those of us who are finding the Purim story troubling, to remember what the rabbis taught about drinking until we know longer know the difference between Mordechai and Haman.  I was stone-cold sober, but right then the difference between the two of them was rapidly shrinking.


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.”

“Passport, please.”

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.

Purim in Galut