One Man’s Opinion
By Eugen Schoenfeld
Is your larder full of cakes? Ours was. Two weeks before Purim my mother became extremely busy: It was the time to bake the shelchmanoth. The pleasant odor of freshly baked cakes and kuchens and especially the Hungarian dobos torta — a 12-layered chocolate cake — filled our home.
Look but do not touch. These cakes ended up resting on the wide steps of the ladder that led to the attic. They were waiting for Purim, when I would run all over the city distributing these goodies, these mishloach manot, to our friends and bringing their baked goods back home.
The last and the first months of the Jewish calendar — Adar and Nissan — not only were the months in which we bade goodbye to the harsh winters in the Carpathian region and welcomed with great anticipation the coming of spring. Of course there was more to it. The month of Adar, we believed, was the lucky month for Jews, and we acknowledged it as such — not publicly, of course, but inside our home. On Rosh Chodesh Adar we retrieved the mee shenechnaz and attached it above the transom of the main door.
Mee shenecnaz was a printed placard that declared in bold Hebrew letters: “When Adar enters, we increase our joy.” In the Shulchan Aruch, the book of Jewish laws and customs written and edited by Yosef Karo from Sfad in the 15th century, we are informed that if a Jew has a tort against a non-Jew, he should go to court in Adar for it is our lucky month.
In preparation for Purim, which occurs on the 14th of Adar, we began our celebration by increasing our charitable donations and the giving of gifts. Gift giving was not associated with Chanukah, for which it is a relatively new American custom that serves as a quasi-integration into the Christian culture. For millennia Purim was our day of joy and gift giving.
I must tell you about the Purim spiel, the custom of Purim performances. Customarily boys would create short, witty plays. They would go house to house and perform their plays and would be recompensed based on how elaborate the play was and how many persons participated in the play. Most often we had more than a dozen such groups dressed in various costumes perform in our home. I, too, as a young boy (I mean from the age of 6 to 9) performed Purim spiels. With the help of my mother I would put on a costume (one time she dressed me as a peasant girl), and I would visit neighbors and family and recite a simple ditty in Yiddish:
Gutten Purin Malech wie ech geh fallech
Fallech on dem stein zubrechech ich mein bain
Fallech on ded gruss zebrech ich my burd
Heint is Purim morgen is auss
Giebt mier ein krazer und varft mech arouss.
“I am the good angel of Purim; wherever I go, I fall. If I fall on stone, I break my bones, and if I fall on grass, I tear my beard. Today is Purim, and tomorrow it is over. Give me a penny and throw me out.”
Ah! As much as I like to listen to the reading of the Megillah, the tale of Purim, and to join the whole congregation in hissing, stamping feet and whistling to eradicate the memory of Haman the villain, I looked forward to the seudah, the Purim banquet, held in my grandparents’ home. It was an evening of merriment and telling of jokes as though it was a Jew’s duty to be happy that evening. Even I in my preteens was given a spritzer, a glass of wine mixed with seltzer water.
The center of the meal was the turkey with its white meat ground up and mixed with challah, eggs and various condiments in the midst of hardboiled eggs. At the head of the table next to my grandfather was the Purim koyletsch, a grand challah about 2 feet long that was decorated with dried fruits and nuts and sweetened with sugar. We had potatoes fried and sweet, honeyed carrots, and for dessert all the cakes, including various dobos tortas and many leykachs (honey cakes) and others that we received as mishloach manot.
But what is a banquet without music? How can one become cheerful without music for clapping and for stamping your feet with everyone singing? We had our visiting band of Hungarian Gypsy music consisting of a violin, a viola, a tarogato (a bass clarinet) and a cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer). They performed various klezmer melodies and various Hungarian Gypsy songs.
Yes, Purim was a holiday of utter joy, of smiling faces, of indulgences including schlivovitz, a plum brandy. It is one meal when I was also permitted an excess: to drink kracherloch, a sweet soda pop, to my heart’s delight.
Next day we began the preparations for the next holiday, Pesach. It was my task to go to the attic and retrieve the humongous (at least as I remembered it) pot into which Mother put the peeled and quartered red beets to ferment for the next four weeks to become the base for one of the most delicious soups, the Pessachdik borsht.