Conflicts & War

Ukraine’s Jews celebrate joyous Purim in spite of Russia’s war

By Marcel Gascón

Kyiv, Mar 7 (EFE).- Ukrainian Jews are celebrating the joyful Purim holiday in the midst of Russia’s ruinous invasion, which over the last year has forced many members of this religious minority to seek shelter abroad.

“The war has brought with it enormous demographic changes,” Irina Gritsevskaya, a rabbi in the Conservative Judaism movement, which unlike more traditional interpretations permits female rabbis, tells EFE.

Gritsevskaya traveled to Ukraine from Israel for the Purim festivities, which commemorate the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of Haman, according to Jewish scripture.

The holiday is celebrated with festive food and drink, the recitation of scripture and costumes.

In a small synagogue in Kyiv’s historic Podil neighborhood, Gritsevskaya reads scripture to a congregation reflecting on the changes forced on Ukraine’s Jewish communities by Russia’s invasion.

Tens of thousands of Jews who were uprooted from eastern and southern regions of Ukraine as Russia staged its attack on the country found relative shelter in the capital Kyiv or in the southwestern city of Chernivtsi, near the Romanian and Moldovan borders.

Those arriving to Kyiv helped revive a religious community that had seen many of its local faithful leave due to the war.

“A lot of people left but we are trying to build a community with people arriving from elsewhere,” Anastasia Shapiro, a ballerina who has lived in Kyiv for a decade, tells EFE. She is a native of Kharkiv, a city in the northeast that came under intense Russian bombardment in the early months of the war.

“My parents came to Kyiv in June because they could no longer live there,” she adds.

“Many people coming from warzones have arrived in Kyiv and we try to give them support and everything they may need,” Dmytro Kryplyuk, a young lawyer celebrating Purim at the Kyiv synagogue, says.

Tens of thousands of Ukraine’s roughly 100,000 Jews sought shelter in Western Europe or in Israel or were internally displaced in the wake of Russia’s invasion.

Despite the drop in population, rabbi Gritsevskaya says it is important to provide those who have remained in Ukraine the space to continue practicing their religion.

“It’s more important than ever for those who arrive in a new city where they don’t know anybody – coming to the community is the best way to overcome problems and trauma,” she adds.

The mass internal displacement in Ukraine has revived the Jewish community in Chernivtsi, a historically important hub for Jewish culture in Ukraine and which has now seen some of its congregations double with the arrival of refugees from the east.

There is a sense of warmth at the Conservative Judaism movement’s Purim celebrations in Kyiv, where everyone, regardless of age, has friends or family members fighting on the frontlines or knows people who have fled abroad.

When the rabbi concludes her reading of the Megillah, the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible in which Esther convinces the Persian king Ahasuerus not to annihilate the Jews, as ordered by his minister Haman, the adolescents in the congregation take to a stage to re-enact the scene.

Laughter erupts from the audience as the play goes on.

Later, the congregation will pray for peace in Ukraine and eat traditional pastries called hamantashen, or ‘Haman’s ears,’ in mockery of the anti-Semitic official.

“The spirit of Purim is to celebrate and embrace happiness despite the difficulties of life, and that is what we’re seeing tonight,” Gritsevskaya says.EFE

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