Topsy-turvy Days

"The Martian poor cry out, 'Give to us or die!' The rabbinic sages roar, scream, moan and groan, and they modestly and humbly beg you, 'Please! Look through the pages of this modest, humble pamphlet.'"

Those introductory lines of a colorful e-mail that landed this week in the inboxes of many ultra-Orthodox Jews, appeared to be more than just a Purim holiday joke. It seemed to be satire from within, directed at the ultra-Orthodox charity industry and even the most prominent of rabbis who volunteer to come to its aid. No one who looks at an ultra-Orthodox newspaper or listens to ultra-Orthodox radio can escape the flood of commercials aired by one charitable committee or another. Every ad is accompanied by a telephone number by which one can make a donation via a credit card.

The thousands of charitable organizations that serve the ultra-Orthodox public all compete for pennies donated by ultra-Orthodox families. The loudest, most manipulative campaigns, which bear the seals of approval of preeminent gedolim (rabbinic greats), are the biggest earners. The competition reaches a fever pitch on the eve of the High Holidays, in the fall, and during the days leading up to Purim, when Jews are obligated to give gifts to the poor. Ads promise that those who donate will "avert the evil decree" (during the High Holidays, when a Jew's fate for the coming year is sealed) or be "saved from evil" (during Purim, which commemorates the deliverance of Persian Jews in antiquity from an evil plot to annihilate them). An obstreperous pamphlet published by one "charitable committee" takes these screaming campaigns to a new level in its claim that generous donations to Martian coffers will ensure that donors "merit salvation and the ultimate redemption, speedily in our days, Amen!" This claim is accompanied by colorful pictures of costumed, occasionally bleeding figures with a variety of deformities and defects; crying infants who represent the poor, and bearded men who represent rabbis who will impose horrible curses on those who dare not contribute ("You will die!"). Those who donate are promised that "no serial mystic rabbi will touch the money for at least five minutes," and that "for the sake of good luck, a peerless Hassidic leader will eat a colossal kugel with a golden, heirloom pitchfork."

The anonymous editors stress that "there is not [in their "appeal"], nor was there ever, any intimation of scorn, heaven forbid, for any of our esteemed sages, long may they live," and that their intention was, rather, to "shed light on the donation box industry, and on the suffering of the downtrodden whose suffering is two-fold: first, their personal suffering, and second, commercialization and recycling of that suffering."

Smoking begins on Purim

Ultra-Orthodox tradition grants nearly sweeping approval of smoking on Purim, even among the "infants of Beit Rabban" - in other words, innocent children. But in recent years, some have attempted to spoil the ultra-Orthodox child's use on Purim of firecrackers and consumption of cigarettes, in their mandated topsy-turvy celebration of the reversal of the evil plot against Persian Jewry. Research presented by the Ministry of Health and the Israel Cancer Association suggest that the average ultra-Orthodox smoker - and there are many - smoked his first cigarette as a child on Purim. How early does this smoking begin? To judge by the approach of a prize-laden campaign organized by the "Hayim Bri'im Bihesed" (Healthy and Righteous Living) organization and the Maccabi health maintenance organization - at a very young age. From today and until Purim ends, "Every child who is at least 8 years old who refrains from smoking or possessing cigarettes, or products containing tobacco," and who presents a signed document from his parents attesting to his abstention from smoking, is entitled to participate in a raffle.

Torah sages have always pondered and deliberated the identity of Amalek, the archetypal enemy of the Jews, who is associated according to the Midrash with the villain of the Purim story, Haman the Agagite. That question still occupies every interpreter of text in every synagogue: Are we truly commanded to obliterate him?

Does he represent religious persecution or the root of evil? Last week, the weekend supplement of the ultra-Orthodox Yeted Ne'eman paper raised questions regarding "an aspect of Amalek" among the previous generation of Zionist leaders. The article was based on statements made by Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, the late revered "spiritual counselor" of the Ponevezh Yeshiva during the establishment of the State of Israel. Rabbi Dessler accused secular Zionist leaders of "abandoning the burden of Torah," and maintained that, "as their pride grows so does their impudence and their desire to impose heresy, heaven forbid."

Did he associate them with Amalek? Not necessarily, but the author of the article commented that Dessler did consider the Zionists "an aspect of Amalek." The article also cites statements by Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, a contemporary ultra-Orthodox leader, who maintains that the People of Israel "are at root more exalted even when the Almighty's will is not being done."

During a year in which Defense Minister Ehud Barak is (supposedly) threatening to overturn arrangements that permit yeshiva students to defer military service, scaled-down IDF infantry uniforms are still a popular costume among ultra-Orthodox boys at Purim, along with police uniforms, cowboy gear and Biblical characters. But Doron Aryeh of the Sifrei Geula book and Judaica store, in Jerusalem, which at this time of year mainly sells Purim costumes and accessories, says that the leading children's costume in the ultra-Orthodox street, this year is the "Hatzolah volunteer." Paramedics who serve in the Hatzolah ("Rescue") organization are a symbol of the new, Israeli, ultra-Orthodox masculinity, on the one hand, and absolutely kosher, on the other.

They sport reflective vests, beepers and two-way radio handsets, and ride motorcycles so that they are the first to arrive on the scene of any terrorist attack or incident that yields injured. Thank goodness, the Hatzolah costume has eclipsed the popularity of the Zaka uniform among Jerusalem children during the height of the period of suicide terror, when Zaka volunteers were busy recovered the remains of the dead for proper burial, in keeping with Jewish law.

Most important, designers of the newly popular costumes took pains to circumvent the judicial dispute that divided Hatzolah into two organizations, Hatzolah Israel and Ihud Hatzolah: The simple Hatzolah symbol is the only one that appears on the vest and cap sold at Sifrei Geula.