Purim in the Good Old Days


“So how was Purim celebrated when you were a kid?” asked a friend. Now that’s an interesting question, because from the time I was a young kid until the time I became an old kid, things changed considerably – not to mention after that!

 My earliest recollection of Purim was from when we lived in East Baltimore. My father, a”h, was the cantor of a shul called Bais Hamedresh Hagodol. I recall his beautiful reading of the Megilla, when suddenly, Beryl Simowits (not his real name) brought in a huge gregger, which was actually a type of noisemaker that was used to announce air raid drills. Those were the war years, and the shul had a supply room that housed (in addition to the “greggers”) air raid warden helmets, gas masks, and stacks of a magazine entitled Death to Hitler. The magazine’s front cover featured a large imaginary photo of the Nazi beast hanging like Haman. The contents of the magazine included articles about what was occurring in Europe and photos of the horrors inflicted by the chayess (beasts). It was difficult to comprehend what was happening to our people. Purim was celebrated – but in reserved tones, because people began to realize that a crazed and dangerous Haman actually existed.

But returning to our miseh…during the reading of the Megilla, Beryl did the unthinkable, he twirled the huge noisemaker. The sound was like that of the machinegun fire heard on gangster shows! My father stopped reading the Megilla and stared in the direction of the booming sound and signaling for the kid to be quiet. Of course, once he resumed reading the Megilla and mentioning the name of the chaleria Haman, Beryl gave the gregger another twirl, and that was his final twirl. Father would not continue until the gregger and/or its operator was removed.

All teachers know that when they finally remove a menacing kid from the classroom, a new one is created, right? So vayokom bahndeet chodosh (a new troublemaker arose), who created another furor by firing a cap pistol when Haman was mentioned. It must have been understood that ayn ledawvor soff (there was no end to the problem), so the cap-firing kid was allowed to remain provided he fired no more than three shots per Haman!

The next morning, the Megilla was once again read but with a smaller group. Following services, we went downstairs. No gourmet meal, you understand; the main course was bobelach (chickpeas) and beer! On one occasion, a beer bottle was filled with water and resealed, which greatly surprised the beer guzzler, who used unprintable language after taking a sip from the bottle.

At home, we sat down to a delicious meal prepared by my mother, a”h, who was a fabulous cook. These were the days when foods were prepared from scratch, so to speak, and they were super delicious. My uncle Mordechai Lichtenstein and his wife Pessa Lichtenstein and family were invited, and it was good to be together. There were other guests at the Purim feast as well. My cousins Aaron and Rifka and I presented various skits, and our imaginations ran the gamut, so to speak, using whatever items we could find as props.

The years, like Ol’ Man River, kept rolling along. We moved from East Baltimore to Forest Park, an area that some described as a “Gahn Eden,” until it, too, was abandoned by Yidden. On Purim, I attended a shul and a shteibl in Forest Park. The shul was called Tifereth Israel, and it was located on Garrison Boulevard, a block or two from the Beth Tefiloh congregation. Rabbi Bak and Cantor Jacobs were the rabbi and cantor of Tifereth Israel. Rabbi Katz was the sexton and, in addition to his regular duties, taught members of the congregation. Rabbi Hertzberg’s Beth Abraham was the shteibl. Many members were Holocaust survivors whom the Hertzbergs treated like family. Purim at Beth Abraham was a leibedig place with a style all its own. Most tunes were joyous, and the tefila brought back memories of their lost world.

Years later we relocated to the Park Heights neighborhood. We now attended the Upper Park Heights Shaarei Zion Congregation, housed at its present location but in a large cottage, where my father became the chazan of the shul. In addition, he opened the shul every morning and at times called members to have a minyan. The Lower Park Heights branch still existed, led by Rabbi Israel Tabak and Cantor Greenberg. Rabbi Tabak would occasionally visit the new shul and spend Shabbos with our family. At other times Rabbi Norman Samson and Rabbi Stanley Levin were acting rabbis, who taught Torah to members of the congregation. The shul also had a fine Hebrew school led by Rabbi Ari Neuberger.

Nu, you may say, that’s history, but what about Purim? Vahrt vahrt (wait, wait) and you’ll hear the rest of the story. In those early years, Purim was subdued compared to how it was celebrated in Forest Park. Many of the congregants were Americanized Yidden, so to speak. My dad was instrumental in making the place more leibedig (lively) by his good-natured spirit and optimistic approach. There was talk of a separation from the Lower Park Heights shul, and a person with a good sense of humor was needed to keep things calm!

When the Megilla was read, the rabbi put up his hand when the booing of Haman was overdone. Usually he was obeyed, but at times the crowd wanted to boo Haman to death, so to speak.

The wheels of time kept turning, and my father-in-law, Reb Mordechai Greenspan, a”h, became the shamash (sexton) of the Beth Jacob Congregation, which was located on on Park Heights just above Northern Parkway. Purim in Beth Jacob was festive and well organized. The youngsters wore various creative costumes. I recall one of the girls wearing a nun’s outfit, which had all of the characteristics except for the tsailem (cross). I believe she wore a Magen David!  

Purim today is more leibedig than in the past, and hopefully the Jewish people will be zocheh to see the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash (Temple), where Purim will be celebrated with great joy: bimhayrah beyamaynu – may it be quickly, in our day!

A happy Purim to all!




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