A Timid Purim During the Pandemic?

How Canada’s Jewish community celebrated Purim under the Second World War

As this will be the first time in living memory that Purim has to be celebrated in a socially distanced way, some may find it difficult to get their minds around the fact that we are supposed to feel joy. Why bother celebrating Purim, one might ask, when staring in the face of so much loss and so much continuous bad news? Vaccine delays! New strains of the virus! People have lost jobs! Yet another nursing home is combatting an outbreak!

You will be fascinated to know that this same question was on the minds of our parents and grandparents back in the days of the Second World War. I just discovered a February 1942 edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin online, with an editorial that bears the headline “A Timid Purim?”

Ottawa Jewish Bulletin 1942
Editorial on Purim, Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, 1942. (courtesy

“Of course the times are black,” the Bulletin staff of the day wrote. “Millions of Jews in Europe face disaster. Military reverses beset the United Nations [Ed: meaning the Allies]. The very cause of freedom is in grave peril.”

For the Ottawa newspaper in 1942, the Jewish festival of Purim had an obvious parallel between the ancient villain Haman — who wanted to destroy the Jews of Persia — and the Nazi villain, Adolph Hitler. Yet rather than urging the Jewish community to ignore Purim because of the grave circumstances, the editors called on everyone to consciously not hold a “timid Purim”.

“By reminding us of an event in history where the chances of salvation looked slim indeed, and nevertheless materialized, the Feast of Lots brings a message of encouragement,” the editorial continues, pointing to the support of the Americans, the Russians, the British and the Chinese to “subdue the pride of the Axis.” (Ed: Okay, just remember that this piece was written in 1942, and times and allies have certainly changed since then. )

Descendants of Mordecai

As you know from reading my research and book, “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and WWII” the majority of Jewish Canadians threw themselves behind the war effort on the home front. At least 17,000 other Canadian Jewish men and women joined the military, put on a uniform and fought on the battlefields to help win the war.

“For every time one of our sons turns his “grogger” [Ed: noisemaker], the Nazis themselves hear the rattle of their doom,” the Bulletin said. Other writers in the Bulletin during the war years likened the Jewish soldiers to the descendants of Mordecai, who together with his brave cousin Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, helped vanquish the evil Haman and save the Jewish people living in Persia in the 5th century B.C.E.

“In singing the traditional Purim melodies, we prove the final triumph of all that is good. It is strange, not true, that Hitler will be suffocated in the end,” as Haman was when he was hung on the gallows that had been originally built for Mordecai.

Carnivals and plays

In that spirit in 1942, Ottawa’s Zionist Society held a Purim Social. The Ottawa Hebrew Sunday School children performed their annual Purim concert in the hall of Osgoode School. A one-act operetta was the highlight of the afternoon.

Elsewhere in Canada during the war years, Jewish communities were not timid in marking Purim, although the seriousness of the war and what it was costing Canadian families was never far from everyone’s mind.

In March 1941, the Winnipeg Tribune reported how Canadian Jewish servicemen and women on active service would receive special “comfort” parcels of goodies from the Canadian Jewish Congress for the occasion, whether they were stationed in Canada, or overseas.

In Edmonton, Rabbi Abraham Postone of Beth Israel congregation presided over a March 1944 Purim ceremony which included a special prayer for the success of the Allied forces.

So as we mark a strange and tense Purim, the first one of its kind in modern memory, let’s learn from the wartime experiences of the Canadian Jewish community nearly eighty years ago. It took everyone joining the war effort for six years to defeat the Nazi menace. It will take a concerted, united effort to solve the battle against COVID-19.

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