It’s not all dismal. Children in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim wear costumes on Sunday in preparation for the Purim holiday. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Israel Marks Purim under the Cloud of Coronavirus

Strict government directives could put a damper on what is supposed to be a merry holiday

The festival of Purim began on Sunday evening and continued on Monday (except in Jerusalem, where it is observed a day later).

Purim commemorates how the biblical Queen Esther rescued the Jewish people from mass slaughter in ancient Persia. Often referred to as the “Jewish Hallowe’en,” it usually involves colorful costumes, and in Israel, they overflow from ebullient parades and massive celebrations in which young and old, secular and religious, gather together.

But this year, it is different.

Some 50 Israelis have tested positive for coronavirus. As many as 80,000 are under a 14-day home quarantine, with the government on Monday night taking the extraordinary step of ordering all citizens returning from abroad to join them.

Large gatherings are now forbidden, the Health Ministry last Wednesday having nixed assemblies of more than 5,000 people – effectively canceling the carnival.

Ronit Zwebner, an interior designer who lives in Jerusalem, has been under quarantine with her husband and daughter since Wednesday. The couple had been in Switzerland, while their daughter was traveling in Thailand.

“I don’t think anything’s going to be happening [for us] at Purim, quite frankly,” Zwebner told The Media Line. “I think it’s just going to come and go.”

She said her grandchildren were being looked after by their father while their mother was in isolation, adding, however, that she was grateful to have gone grocery shopping before the quarantine went into effect.

“We’re registered with [the Health Ministry] and they know that we’re in self-quarantine… but we haven’t really heard from anybody there,” Zwebner said. “I don’t feel any of the hardships, I have to say. It’s more the idea of it that I find difficult: that you’re not going to be able to go out for two weeks.”

Others who have self-isolated described the experience less positively.

Dan Katz, who lives in the northern town of Shtula, near the Lebanese border, decided to self-quarantine on Sunday after discovering that he had traveled on the same train as a man later diagnosed with COVID-19. A business consultant who is married with four young children, Katz will spend the upcoming weeks alone in his home office, which is adjacent to the house.

“We decided that we need to listen to the [Health Ministry’s] rules in order to be safe for our community around us,” Katz told The Media Line. “Most of my work is online, so I can keep on working. The economy all over the world is changing and it’s affecting everyone.”

Katz said his wife’s hydrotherapy business had been hurt by the virus, as many in his community canceled treatments upon hearing that he was in isolation.

“There’s a lot of panic outside. Some people think that they can’t get close to us,” he said, adding that for him, the idea of not being able to see friends or family during Purim was “very devastating.”

“I’m working on myself mentally and spiritually to accept [things], and to be grateful for all that I have,” Katz said. “That’s exactly what Purim is all about: being connected to yourself and realizing that [God] is everywhere, so he can also be with me by my side in quarantine.”

With coronavirus driving Jews worldwide into quarantine, religious organizations are making the traditional Purim reading of the Megillah, or Scroll of Esther, more accessible. Listening to the Megillah being recited is one of the central commandments of holiday.

Tzohar, an Israeli organization of Zionist Orthodox rabbis, and the Yachad program of the Ohr Torah Stone modern Orthodox movement have partnered to broadcast Megillah readings online and host 550 Purim-related activities around Israel that are in line with the Health Ministry’s coronavirus guidelines.

Rabbi David Stav, chairman of Tzohar, told The Media Line is was decided that Jews do not have to be physically present to listen to the Megillah reading.

“Usually if somebody wants to fulfill the commandment of listening to the Megillah reading, he has to hear it directly by ear from the one that is reciting the verses,” Stav said, emphasizing that listening to the Megillah via telephone, radio, online or television was generally not acceptable under strict religious law.

“Under these circumstances, it’s not realistic to think that every home will be able to provide a kosher Megillah and to assume that everyone will be able to read it by themselves,” he said.

“I wish all of us a happy Purim, and that we overcome this,” Stav said.

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