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Jeremy M Staiman

Ghost of Purim Past

Photo Credit: Jeremy Staiman

Uncle Abe was a brilliant architect, who worked his entire career at a world-renowned firm in Manhattan. He was a key member of the teams which developed the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, the Sydney Opera House, the Bank of China headquarters in Hong Kong, and many other prestigious landmarks. 

Today, Uncle Abe is declining with dementia. His work was his life, and he never had children, so we, his nieces and nephews, are his closest kin. His rapid descent began around 7 months ago, not long before the war, and we have made an effort to visit him in the Queens, NY facility he now calls home. Since October 7, we have not traveled, as most of the time our two sons have been in the Army, and they and their families have been our top priority. 

When they were released (at least for now) from the IDF about a month ago, it was time to plan another trip to see Uncle Abe. 

And to visit family, and to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of a great-niece. 

And yes, to breathe in some air which was not saturated with the heaviness of our war. Not to escape the reality which has surrounded us, but to de-stress with a change of scenery, and spend time with our families in the USA.

Is that so terrible? 

Believe me, we agonized about whether it was the right thing to do. My son has repeatedly told us that he and all the others are fighting in Gaza so that the rest of us can lead a normal life, and continue moving forward. It’s important to the soldiers that we do things to enjoy ourselves, and not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the events which, for most of us, are the greatest national trauma we have experienced in our lifetimes.

We went. We enjoyed. Immensely. We will soon return to Israel.

But somewhere along the travels of this trip, I was abruptly hurled back 47 years, to the first great trauma of my life. 

After visiting Uncle Abe, we spent the night at a cousin’s place in Manhattan, just across the street from the new Lincoln Square Synagogue, famously founded and led for many years by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who was later was a founder of the beautiful city of Efrat. 

In the morning, our cousins took us for breakfast several blocks away. It was then that I saw it. The subway station at 72nd street and Broadway. 

I don’t know whether that stop is considered a historical landmark, or if the NYC Department of Public Works is running behind in their renovations, but the station looks exactly the same as I remember it from Purim eve, 1977. 

Photo Credit: Jeremy Staiman

I was instantly transported back to that very same station, an innocent 15-year-old, a walking zombie, sobbing along with a group of walking zombies, all headed to the subway, on our way back to our dormitory in Riverdale. 

None of us would ever be the same.

As part of Rabbi Riskin’s high school, we had assembled at his Shul for Megillah reading and the Purim Mesiba (party) earlier that evening. We had practiced a Purim Shpiel (play), which good-naturedly poked satirical fun at our school, at our teachers, and at Rabbi Riskin.

And, at our Menahel (principal), Rabbi Pinchas Bak. To his friends and colleagues, he was “Pinky”, but never to us students. 

Although a young man of only 33 years, he was very accomplished. Rabbi Bak was warm, talented and beloved. I remember my interview with him before I got into the school. I was a small-town boy interviewing at the hot start-up New York school. I was probably trembling at the time. He smiled and said to me: “Don’t be nervous.” Suddenly, I wasn’t. 

I played the part of Rabbi Bak in the Shpiel, but we never got to finish the performance. 

Somewhere in the middle, Rabbi Bak keeled over and fell to the floor.  

An ambulance came, after what seemed like far too long. People crowded around. The students were ushered outside the building.

After some time, Rabbi Riskin gathered us into the legendary circular sanctuary of his Shul, and we sat awaiting news. As I recall his words, he quoted the verse from Tehillim (Psalms): “‘יקר בעיני ה׳ המוותה לחסידיו, Precious in the eyes of G-d are those of his righteous who die.’ No one really understands what those words mean. Rabbi Bak is gone”. 

There was nothing the paramedics could do. There was nothing anyone could do. He had died on the spot. They called it a cerebral hemorrhage. He left a wife with 5 young children and twins on the way. 

And he left us literally in a state of shock. For most of us, it was unlike anything we had ever experienced. We had never seen death up close. We had never lost a close leader and mentor. 

We had never lost someone who could smile and tell us not to be nervous. 

In a reversal of the original Purim story, which brought us from darkness to light in an instant, this Purim cast us down from our joy and merriment to profound mourning in the blink of an eye. Rabbi Bak’s funeral would take place on Purim day, back in the round Shul where we had just received the devastating news. 

But until then, the hour was late, and we needed to go back to our dorm and get some sleep. So we walked as a group toward the 72nd street subway station, our huddled group shuffling along in a stupor as we wept.

Secretly, I wondered if G-d had missed, and maybe He meant to hit the kid who had been playing Rabbi Bak in the Shpiel. 

I remember a man passed us and smiled. I knew what he was thinking. 

“Look at that group of Purim-drunk teenagers. They must have gotten smashed, and they’re so wasted that they’re crying.”

I wished he was right.  

__

The war in Israel is a generational trauma. Purim 1977 was a personal trauma. I’ve tried to think about which one was greater for me. 

On the one hand, Purim has never been the same. The Ghost of Purim Past looms large over me annually during this season. In recent years, we have spent the most uplifting and meaningful Purim meals with family and friends, and I can almost say that the specter looming over Purim since 1977 may finally have subsided for me. 

On the other hand, I don’t think that Simchat Torah will ever be the same, for me or any other Jew. We will try. We will celebrate. But we will remember. We will shudder as we remember. We may shed a tear, and then we will determinedly return to dancing with the Torahs. 

On Simchat Torah, 1,300 families will shed many tears, as they remember their loved ones, reciting Kaddish on that day for the rest of their lives.

Which trauma is the greatest for me? I don’t think I have to choose. I think I have to keep moving forward. 

After all, that’s what our soldiers tell us they’re fighting for. 

About the Author
Jeremy Staiman and his wife Chana made Aliya from Baltimore, MD in 2010 to Ramat Beit Shemesh. A graphic designer by trade, Jeremy is a music lover, and produces music on a regular basis -- one album every 40 years. He likes to spend time with his kids and grandkids slightly more often than that.
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