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Purim Feature in Ukraine, Cross Dressing, Vodka and Songs Mark the Story of Esther

February 26, 2002
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The Purim spiel here is a bawdy affair.

Cross-dressing Jewish community officials with gold teeth and uneven breasts, solicit young King Ahasuerus — who, predictably, chooses Esther.

A Nazi-costumed Haman loses his eye patch when he is tossed to the ground, spanked and ejected from the scene.

Everyone sings, eats hamantashen and drinks vodka.

The region around Vinnitsya, a city four hours southwest of Kiev, once boasted dozens of shtetls and hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Today, those who survived the Cossacks, czars, Nazis and Communists — and who chose not to emigrate to Israel or the United States — number only some 8,500.

After decades of Soviet-enforced atheism, few keep kosher or Shabbat and fewer read Hebrew — but the Purim celebrations last for weeks.

“I only started observing Jewish holidays after the Soviet Union fell,” said Yvgeny Zilbert, who read the Book of Esther publicly 12 times last March. “Now I’m making up for lost time.”

This year, Zilbert hopes to beat his Megillah-reading record. As director of Mishpakha, a local organization rejuvenating Vinnitsya’s Jewish culture, he is the traveling celebration broker of the Vinnitsya region.

Last Purim, Zilbert visited David and Sima Geller, both 72, in Braslava, the former home of the famous Rabbi Nachman of Braslav.

David Geller brightened when he saw Zilbert, who was wearing pink, googly-eyed glasses and a yarmulka.

“Before, people were afraid,” Geller said, raising a glass of his sweet, homemade wine. “Now, we can celebrate Purim every day if we want to! L’chaim!”

Sima Geller bid Zilbert farewell with a half dozen of her hamantashen wrapped in a strip of newspaper.

Continuing on to the town of Tulchin, two hours from Vinnitsya, Zilbert told a sobering story. Before World War II, Tulchin supported 20 synagogues. The wartime ghetto there was known as “the noose” because it strangled the Jews without food or other necessities.

Today, there are no synagogues. The remaining Jews meet in a narrow, unheated room in the former palace of a Polish count who fought Napoleon.

Nearly 50 Tulchin Jews, wearing babushka scarves and furred hats, greeted Zilbert last Purim, huddling together to hear the Megillah.

Alexander Pressler, a chubby 12-year-old, leapt out of his seat twirling a noisemaker each time the name Haman was read. After the reading, community leaders played a tape of Hebrew prayers.

Only young Pressler could sing along with the words. Children have taken advantage of Jewish learning opportunities since the collapse of the Soviet Union with much greater ease than their elders, whose entire lives have been spent in strictly-enforced secularity.

But everyone joined in the final song, which was in Yiddish.

The day after Purim, Zilbert headed three hours south to Mogilev-Podolsky, a town on the Ukraine-Moldova border that was notorious for its World War II-era ghetto.

Several hundred of the town’s remaining Jews filled an auditorium to hear Zilbert’s Megillah reading. Next, five youngish women in blue velvet dresses — a group that calls itself Shayna Kholem, Yiddish for “Beautiful Dream” — took the stage.

They harmonized upbeat Yiddish and Ukrainian folksongs to new and traditional melodies, accompanied by guitar, pre-recorded synthesizer music and an energetic audience.

Shayna Kholem’s composer, Irina Boreshevskaya, 38, explained the enthusiasm.

“Imagine it. You have a difficult life. You go to a festival, like Purim, and” hear “sad music?” she asked. “It’s to forget your problems.”

The week after Purim, Zilbert introduced a 30-year-old math teacher, Sasha Tsondekovich, who was traveling some 100 miles to the small town of Bershad to spread Purim cheer.

On the drive, Tsondekovich discussed his young Jewish theater group, which performs Sholem Aleichem plays several times a month in shtetls around the region. The purpose of this trip was to visit an elderly woman who last attended a Jewish function when Tsondekovich’s Chanukah play came to Bershad four months earlier.

“Oy vey, Maccabey!” shouted Vera Shvartsman Cheyved, 78, answering the door with a loving, toothless smile — unconcerned or unaware that the Maccabees were from the story of Chanukah, not Purim.

“Oy,” she repeated for emphasis, and the grin disappeared momentarily as she said to Tsondekovich in Yiddish, “I’ve had a lot of bad things in my life.”

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an indignity she has been spared. She was ghettoized, orphaned, shot, starved, dressed in rags, left childless, torn from her husband, exiled, denied religious freedom and, more recently, stripped of adequate health care.

“But oh, how I love to sing on Purim!” Cheyved said, the light returning to her scarf-framed face as she clasped her chubby hands to her bosom like a little girl receiving a gift.

Cheyved propped her enormous figure against the bed frame in her tiny flat. Playfully shaking in her massive blue housedress, she sang half a dozen romantic Yiddish songs.

Returning from Bershad, Tsondekovich remarked that Cheyved’s rosy Purim demeanor is unsurprising.

“Our sense of humor,” he said of Vinnitsya’s Jews, “is how we survive.”

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