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The Year they Canceled Purim

HaTzofe, 13 Adar 5702

As Purim quickly approaches, many are asking themselves: How should Purim look this year? How can we celebrate Purim when our whole world has been turned ‘upside-down’? How can we celebrate in light of the war? In light of so much pain and suffering? Should we cancel Purim altogether?

Unfortunately this is not the first time in Jewish history we have had to navigate the question of Purim during a painful period.

On December 12, 1941, almost 800 Jewish refugees set sail on the MV Struma from the port of Constanța, Romania, to escape the clutches of Hitler and the Nazis and build a new life in the Land of Israel. The 75 year old vessel, previously a cargo ship carrying cattle, was chartered by the Revisionist New Zionist Organization and the Betar Youth Movement. From the very beginning, the ship was fraught with problems, including overcrowding and mechanical issues. 

After several engine failures,  on December 15th the Struma was towed into the port of Istanbul, Turkey. Passengers were told that they would receive entry permits to Mandatory Palestine. While mechanics made attempts to repair the ship’s engine, a 10-week standoff between Britain and Turkey ensued. Britain, per the terms of the White Paper and their policy on Jewish immigration, refused entry to the passengers. Meanwhile, Turkey refused to allow the passengers to disembark the unseaworthy vessel. While anchored, passengers hung signs off the sides of the ship in English and Hebrew reading, “SOS, “Save Us,” and “Jewish Immigrants.” Some sent postcards describing the desperate situation. They survived thanks to the kindness of Istanbul’s Jewish community, who fed them and brought supplies.

But on February 23, 1942, the ship, whose engine was still not working, was towed back out into the Black Sea and set adrift about 10 miles off the coast, where it would meet its fate. The next day, shortly before dawn on February 24th – just one week before Purim – the Struma was sunk, killing all passengers except for one sole survivor. Years later it was revealed that the Struma was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine, allegedly by mistake.

In response to the tragedy, the National Council, responsible for the local government, education, welfare, and security of the young Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine, decided to cancel all public Purim celebrations, parties, parades, and dances. The Religious Zionist newspaper, HaTzofe (13 Adar 5702), included a special reading composed by Chief Rabbis Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog and Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel to be recited in synagogues following the reading of Megillat Esther:

Congregation of Israel! On the day of Purim, we conclude the reading of the Megillah with a blessing of thanks, which is also a prayer, saying: ‘Who fights for us, judges our claim for us… Who punishes all their foes for the sake of His people Israel; The God who saves.’

This blessing-prayer must burst forth from our lips and our hearts, during these days, when the adversary and enemy have proclaimed war upon us, to destroy and annihilate us like the sinister plot of the wicked Haman, who pursued us with every means of destruction and annihilation throughout the Diaspora, by sea and dry-land, wherever his hand conquered and controlled. 

On this day, the seventh day from the tragic drowning of our precious brethren, standing before our eyes is our tortured brethren, who escaped death from the hands of the enemy, and hoped to ascend to Eretz Yisrael, after torture and terrible hardships, sunk to the depths of the sea.

This terrifying and shocking event will fill the cup of our sorrows, the cries and distress of Israel shall rise before the God of Justice, the Holy of Israel and their Redeemer and Savior in times of trouble, this dismal event shall arouse and awaken the feelings of mercy in man, those in whose hand it is in and whose duty it is, in their faithful mission, to save those plucked from death, who wander by land and sea. 

With hope and faith strong and firm, finish the reading of the Megillah of the past with a blessing for the future, saying: Who fights for us, judges our claim for us, takes revenge for us, may He fight the fight of the oppressed of Israel from the hands of their oppressors. During these days of Purim, He will show us His wondrous salvation, and about us it shall be said: ‘For the Jews it was a time of light and joy, happiness and honor.’

While there is no escaping the tragic events of October 7th, and the pain and suffering in the months which followed, perhaps a different response is appropriate today, in a world with a Jewish state. Today, we can celebrate our independence, our right to immigrate to Israel freely, and our ability to defend ourselves. We are no longer helpless, subject to the mercy and whims of other nations.

Instead of canceling the Purim festivities in light of the war, perhaps the appropriate response is to make Purim more meaningful this year; celebrating with more intent. Not to ignore the pain and suffering, Heaven forbid, but to give it purpose, context, and meaning. And just like in the Book of Esther, may we too merit to see a turnabout from “grief to gladness and from mourning to a holiday.”

About the Author
Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as Rabbi of Har Nof's Kehilat Zichron Yosef, Rosh Kollel of the Sinai Kollel and Hovevei Zion's Kollel Boker.
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