By Ira Stoll
Did the Hasidic Jewish community in New York bring coronavirus upon itself by refusing to cancel in-person Purim megillah readings?
That’s the narrative being pushed by The New York Times, which, in a news article, reported, “Celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which fell on March 10 this year, were canceled by many Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox synagogues. But many Hasidic groups observed the festival, drawing people to gatherings where they may have been exposed to the virus.”
As is so often the case with The New York Times and Jewish matters, the newspaper has it wrong. Start with the basics: In Judaism, holidays, and days, begin at nightfall. So the Sabbath begins on Friday night and lasts into Saturday. Purim, the 14th of Adar on the Hebrew calendar, was widely observed on Monday night, March 9. There’s another reading of the Book of Esther the following morning and some people might have a festive meal afterward, but the big Purim celebrations were Monday night, March 9, not, as the Times inaccurately reports, March 10. Perhaps the paper will run a correction on this point as it has on so many other matters of Jewish ritual and law over the years, or perhaps it will display its disregard for accuracy by failing to publish a correction.
The Times article makes it sound like, by Purim, everyone except for those reckless Hasidim was already sheltering in place, locked down, or in an informal self-imposed quarantine. But that gets the timeline wrong. Broadway theaters and the Metropolitan Museum of Art didn’t shut down until Thursday, March 12 — more than 48 hours after the night of Purim. On March 10, New York Times reporters were still commuting via subway, and movie theaters in New York City were open. New York City Public Schools were open through Friday, March 13, and the mayor only announced their closure on Sunday, March 15 — nearly a week after Purim. The Museum of Modern Art in New York remained open until Thursday, March 12 and only closed starting Friday, March 13.
So why pick on the Hasidim?
The Times doesn’t have any scientific count of what percentage of Reform, Conservative, or Modern Orthodox congregations “canceled” Purim. “Many” may have canceled, but many also went ahead and observed the holiday in person. I personally attended a megillah reading on Monday night, March 9 at a non-Hasidic congregation in Massachusetts. A local news outlet published a slideshow of a 2020 Purim carnival at Temple Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Framingham, Massachusetts. The Los Angeles Times published a news article late in the afternoon of March 9 with the following passages:
“We’re trying to manage the delta between vigilance and panic,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am, a large Conservative congregation whose Purim events are especially popular among young families. “As of now, nothing is canceled. We’re encouraging people to come.” …
“With the Purim carnival [Sunday] we went back and forth whether or not to cancel it, and it was packed,” Kligfeld said. “It was overflowing.”
As for those congregations that did cancel Purim celebrations, they didn’t get much adulatory treatment at all in the moment from the Times. The newspaper was apparently holding back and reserving the extensive-photo-essay plus a column treatment for Ramadan: “Some mosques, where men and women normally pray shoulder to shoulder and crowds spill into the streets, have made efforts to space out the faithful to prevent contagion. Others, from Paris to Brooklyn to Mecca, toward which all Muslims pray, have shut their doors altogether.”
It’s gotten to the point where the double standard is widely recognized in the Jewish community. The Times coverage informs the mayor’s response, which then is repeated again by the Times. David Greenfield, a former New York City Council member, tweeted over the weekend as crowds filled New York parks to enjoy the warm weather: “Message: do whatever the heck you want if you’re not Hasidic.”
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.
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