Dr. Wendy Zierler offers Yehuda Amichai's Poem and her Reflections on Celebrating Purim during Covid

Yehuda Amichai, “From the Book of Esther,” from Hazeman (1977)

Part of a poem

This week, as we all know, we’ll be celebrating Purim, and in so doing, will be marking a grim COVID anniversary. It was last year, Purim time, that we began retreating from regular activities, steadily stripping away more and more of what we were used to in our regular everyday lives in order to shield ourselves from the virus. Many of us attended Megillah Reading by Zoom instead of in person. We refrained from giving out Mishloah Manot. We held Purim Se’udot, without guests, a harbinger of a reduced, stripped-down life that we are still living out.

This week’s Shir Hadash by Yehuda Amichai is a satirical treatment of the benefits and detriments of a stripped down, sanitized, simplified life.

It begins with the Purim story, with a focus on the less attractive, more disturbing parts of the Book of Esther: the vulgar joy, drunkenness and violence of the book, and the ugly reveling over another people’s downfall. Much like the gragger, which aims to erase the name of Haman from the story and all of his Amalekite kind, the poet sets out to filter out the objectionable parts from the Book of Esther, and in fact, from just about every book of the Bible: the howling pain of Jeremiah; the unfair suffering of Job; the unconsummated love of Song of Songs; the despair of Ecclesiastes; Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, and so forth.

Amichai’s speaker declares that he has filtered out all of this moral and emotional ugliness and in so doing has created for himself a new sanitized, censored, cut and pasted Bible.

This newly constituted filtered Bible is a tool to cope, a means of evading the pain, the dangers and contagious passion of religion and ideology. It is a necessary tool of self-defense for the weary soul. It is what we all do. We try to read things in ways that accord with our values. We try to strip away from our religious understanding those aspects of religion that threaten our ethical foundations.

But there is something absurd to what remains when the filtering is done. As Chana Kronfeld asks, what after all “is the Book of Job without Job, or Ecclesiastes without despair?”[1] The indiscriminate censorship of the Bible that the poem describes results in the filtering out not just of murderous and violent content of the book of Genesis but also of dreams, hopes, and ideals.

The censored life that the speaker now leads is not a real life; it ignores the necessary messiness of human experience. And there’s a dishonest quality to it too, as portrayed in the second stanza of the poem, where the speaker lies and replies “She’s fine, she’s fine,” to the question posed about the woman who recently died before her time. True, that line can be read in a coded fashion: her “shalom”—her eternal peace—is complete. She is resting in peace. But is this peace good? Is there a way in all honesty to refer to an early parting from this world as a good goodbye? One needs to anaesthetize oneself from reality to make such a claim.

We can all understand the impulse to lie and say “Fine thanks,” when we are feeling the very opposite of fine. By now, we are all pandemic weary, all very tired of sorrow and fear. Rather than open up, many of us would rather simply filter the unpleasantness out and burrow in, making ourselves entirely numb to pain.

This Purim, however, I believe we are beginning to witness a venahafokh hu of what we’ve been going through this past year. The numbers of COVID cases and deaths in this country are still alarmingly high, but there are actually signs all over that things are turning around. After a COVID year, we’ve finally begun to see a reversal of infection rates and death tolls. We’re also beginning to see a reversal of the past year’s filtering of our full lives. More of us will gather this Purim in person to hear the Megillah. More of us will head out on the streets and deliver Mishloah Manot. Many we know have been vaccinated and thus will able to hold a seudah with at least a few loved ones. Given the tragic, massive death toll that this COVID year has wrought, it would be obscene to answer the collective question, “Mah shelomeinu,”–“How are we?”–with “Shlomeinu tov,” – We’re fine thanks. Slowly but surely, though, we’re steadily regaining our memory of what it means to live a fuller, messier, more demanding and complex life. We await more aid from the federal government to help people regain their footing in the economy, the workplace, and to become healthy once again.  For a year now, we’ve been filtering a lot out just to survive, but perhaps now we’re beginning to let some of it back in.

As Rabbi Helaine Ettinger observes,

Purim, with its silliness and uninhibited behavior, reminds us to feel everything with joy and abandon, to love the good and hate the wicked, so that, even in the face of a mortal threat (Haman or the pandemic) we experience life fully, with all its emotions, while we are alive. The restrictions of pandemic life, the extremes in our politics, the pain of illness and loss, take their toll and can lead us to numb ourselves. Purim, falling as it does, just at the end of winter when we are often at our weariest, encourages us to celebrate life and survival. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.[2]

This year in reading the book of Esther, then, I plan not to filter out the excesses and vulgarities of the Purim story, but to let them seep in. I will take it all as a reminder of the full range of human activity, and the complicated, messy, busy, challenging lives that I hope all of us will be able to lead in the months and years ahead.

[1] Chana Kronfeld, The Full Severity of Compassion (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), p. 172.

[2] Email correspondence with R. Helaine Ettinger, 2.23.2020.