Purim bleeds into Passover. According to the mystics, Haman was the gilgul, a reincarnation for spiritual purposes, of the Egyptian killed by Moses. Esther was the gilgul of Pharaoh’s daughter who drew baby Moses from the river, mirrored by Mordechai’s (the gilgul of Moses) adoption of the orphaned Esther. Esther’s fast, now observed on the day before Purim, actually took place on Passover. Pharaoh’s entire army drowned in the sea in one day; Haman’s entire army was destroyed in one day. God is hidden, not mentioned in the Purim megillah; Moses is hidden in the Haggadah, with only a single, cursory mention in a seder that can take hours.
In the Soviet Union, where God and religion were hidden, there was a group of young Jewish friends. They knew as little about Judaism as the child in the Haggadah who knew next to nothing. Purim was an easy holiday, more safe than others. Not needing contraband such as matzah or a menorah, a Purim gathering of dissidents could be more easily “dressed up” as a children’s party. One didn’t need Hebrew books, illegal in any case, to laugh at a Purim spiel, an amateur skit in which a fellow might be clowning around in a bathrobe and a turban. Did the walls have ears? Their Purim parodies were sung to guitars, fiddles and balalaikas playing traditional Russian melodies, full of Russian melodramatic bravado. Nevertheless, plenty of Russian Jews had been arrested for less.
On a holiday based on masquerades and topsy-turvy, what could be more absurd in the Soviet Union than criminals filming their crime? In 1985 and 1990, some the dissidents took home movies of dissident Purim parties. That footage is now at the heart of a new and fascinating Israeli film, “Pur,” a documentary short that revisits these refuseniks, now in Israel — their exodus, once fantasy, now fact. They are filmed once more, watching and reacting to videos of themselves on a long ago Purim, when they were young and believed in miracles.
“Pur,” in Russian and with English or Hebrew subtitles was screened at the recent Jewish Film Festival in Lincoln Center. Next month it will play at the Jewish Film Festival in Toronto.
In light of the recent passing of Jacob Yaakov Birnbaum, father of the Soviet Jewry movement in the United States, “Pur” brings us back to a time when Soviet Jewry was in the depth of repression. The exodus of millions to Israel and the United States was still the stuff of dreams. Teaching Hebrew or any public celebration of Jewish culture outside of KGB-controlled synagogues was punishable by being sent to Siberian labor camps. At a time when the secret police infiltrated Jewish communities, to have dozens of Moscow Jews gather to revive the holiday of Purim was nothing short of heroic — and dangerous. Purim had become far more than a “minor” holiday. Now it’s a Lexington or Concord of the Soviet Jewry movement.
Anat Vovnoboy, the producer and director, grew up in the Soviet Union, moving to Israel when she was 9, in 1991 when Communism fell. Her parents would go to those parties. Now a film student at Tel Aviv University, after studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York, she has blogged about finding a VCR tape from those parties. “I could see myself as a child, watching wide-eyed as friends of my parents appeared and disappeared behind a colorful drape that served as a theater curtain. I was only a child when my parents took me to one of those plays, but being a part of such a secretive and daring activity made a lasting impression on me. … Making a film about it was my way of showing them how much their courage meant to me.”
Vovnoboy e-mails from Israel that she called her film “Pur,” rather than Purim, because this was not about the holiday so much as about Pur, the root word, meaning “fate or destiny,” she says, “and I felt that [Pur] better represented the dramatic choice the activist had to face, between their [Jewish] heritage that they were expected to repress and deny, and the regime they lived under.”
Of the people in the film, only Leonid Kelbert, a director and author of some of the spiels, was imprisoned. Kelbert, now living in Jerusalem, says in the film, “Initially I knew nothing about being a Jew,” yet he was drawn to Jewish theater, if only he could find one. “Then in some pre-revolutionary books, I read about the Purim spiel. After that I had no choice but to write a satirical Purim spiel. … We had to do everything without the government noticing. We’d gather in secret, try not to use the phone.” It was “a sort of underground.”
“The first time I was arrested” for Jewish activity, says Kelbert, “I didn’t sleep,” thrown in a cell with foul-mouthed drunkards. “I worried that my pregnant wife didn’t know where I was. I can tell you that everyone in our theater got divorced. Their families couldn’t handle the government pressure and all that this kind of life entailed.”
The director’s parents, Asya and Vitaly Vovnoboy, veterans of those Purim parties, now living in Israel, watch together. Vitaly asks about the tape, “What year is this?”
“1990,” says Asya.
“Who’s that?” asks Vitaly.
Asya knows immediately. “That’s Misha Biezerov! Don’t you recognize him?” The passing of the years, and the aging of friends, is a masquerade all its own. “That’s Misha Biezerov. And that’s his wife.”
“His wife I remember,” says Vitaly.
“Of course, you do,” says Asya.
The camera points to a pendulum clock. It is wound with a key. We go back in time, back to Russia. Home movies of a child in snow. A parade of soldiers in winter. A Purim spiel from 1985: A “government official” from the megillah says of the Jews, “They’re not even a people.” He is asked, “Are they even a nation?” “Not even a nation…. Their culture is extinct. They have no territory of their own.” “Then they don’t exist!” “They don’t exist but still they cause problems.” Characters are understood as stand-ins for various Kremlin leaders.
Sings a character in the old spiel: “We will stop the tyranny. Our time will come. We won’t wait. The clock is ticking…”
Evegni Finkelberg, a refusenik, now an Israeli, tells the camera how the dissidents were originally supposed to meet “in the apartment of Yosef Begun,” the famous refusenik, “but he’d just been arrested. It was his first arrest. So we went to Misha Nudler’s place with our small audience.” At that party, they sang Yiddish songs, such as “Tum Balalaika.” “Narisher bucher, foolish boy,” went the song, “A stone can grow without rain. Love can burn and never end. A heart can yearn, cry without tears.”
In one spiel, a character sang of Persian Jews, or was it Soviet Jews? “More dangerous than any criminal, he was teaching Hebrew… let me emphasize, religion is the opium of the masses which makes them junkies…. Persia is writhing, tripping on this filth.”
There is a knock on the door. The singing continues. Another knock. The fear pulsates, even 30 years later. It was not the police but “when we left the apartment,” says Asya, “I was sure we’d be arrested. A gathering of Jews for a shared goal, it was obviously forbidden and very dangerous.”
The “Mordechai” in the spiel urges “Esther” into rebellion: “Do you fear for your own life? You fear this pathetic tyrant? Tyranny replaces law before our eyes. Lies and fear rule the world. Fear keeps people on their knees…. Among the kneeling, enslaved masses, will you bravely stand? …. Think, Esther. Isn’t that why you became queen? To help your people in hard times? Think.”
And so “Esther” goes to the “king,” and declares with pride, “But your majesty, I’m Jewish.”
These Purims gave the group confidence to dare celebrate Passover. Vovnoboy e-mails, “My grandmother was completely assimilated, knowing and caring very little for her Jewish origin. She never celebrated Jewish holidays, nor was she part of a Jewish community. Towards the end of her life, nearing 80,” she was with Vitaly and Asya, who “decided to conduct a seder in their home. They somehow managed to find a few pieces of matzoh.”
As they sang the “Ma Nishtana,” he said, “my parents noticed that my great-grandmother was watching from the hallway, crying. My parents began to console her, assuring her that they were not in danger. My grandmother told them that was not it; she remembered the melody. In her parents house they used to sing this song when she was a little girl. She hadn’t heard the song ever since, until that day.”
Decades pass. “We’ve gotten older and fatter,” says Evegni in the film to a reunion of their dissident group in Israel. “We did it together. It’s nice that we’re still friends. Still together, celebrating holidays. I want to keep seeing you,” says Evegni, “to reminisce, and be glad we’re here,” in the Promised Land.
“Remember,” he said, all that “has happened,” an exodus all their own.