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In Israel, the Jewish holiday of Purim feel less celebratory amid war

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Today in Jerusalem, a festive parade rolled through the city center in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim. It's the first time in more than 40 years the city has hosted an official Purim parade even as many say now is not the time for public celebrations. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Onlookers watch as musicians, colorful floats and gigantic puppets glide down one of Jerusalem's main streets. Purim commemorates the biblical story of a foiled plot to annihilate the Jews hatched more than 2,000 years ago in ancient Persia. The unsuccessful extermination is usually raucously celebrated with fun and farce. Anat Hefets is there with her 4-year-old twins. She says she's anxious to get back to somewhat normal times in Israel.

ANAT HEFETS: This is our hope. We want to keep living our life. Of course, we have our brothers and sisters in Gaza. We will never forget them, but we still want to keep and live our life.

KAHN: She's speaking of the Israeli hostages taken in the Hamas attack on October 7, in which more than 1,200 people were killed, according to Israel. More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its military response, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The U.N. says more than a million Palestinians are facing famine. For many Israelis, the controversy over whether to celebrate Purim centers on the hostages - 134 still being held in Gaza, according to Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: Hostage family members, with some reluctance, led the parade, like Sharon Calderon, whose brother-in-law remains captive.

SHARON CALDERON: Well - how do you say? - if you can't beat them, join them. We tried to cancel it. We didn't succeed.

KAHN: But others along the route had a different opinion.

TOM BALKAI: (Speaking Hebrew).

KAHN: Shame, shame, Tom Balkai shouts at the participants.

BALKAI: It's too big. It's too happy. It's not belong to this situation.

SHUKI ZEHAVI: (Speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Hebrew).

KAHN: At the morning at the synagogue in Jerusalem's Fuchsberg Center, Rabbi Shuki Zehavi reads the traditional Purim story.

ZEHAVI: (Chanting in Hebrew).

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISEMAKER RATTLING)

KAHN: Congregants boo and rattle noisemakers at every mention of Haman in Hebrew. Haman, who was an advisor to the Persian king who hatched the plot to kill the Jews. Rabbi Zahavi says Purim's playfulness allows Jews to face their fears, which feels particularly cathartic this year.

ZEHAVI: It almost feels like Haman is showing up this year as not a figment of our imagination, a real character right here in the land of Israel. We then have to ask ourselves, what instincts are we allowing ourselves to play out?

KAHN: The Purim story continues that after the annihilation plot is spoiled, the Jews, citing self-defense, kill tens of thousands of their enemies. Yesterday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu evoked Purim during a visit with Israeli troops. He defended his plan to enter Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah to root out Hamas fighters, who he called the modern-day Haman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

KAHN: "As in ancient times, like our brothers, we are also united," says Netanyahu, "in the fight for total victory in the elimination of Hamas." President Biden has warned Netanyahu not to enter Rafah, which is teeming with more than a million displaced Palestinians. The biblical and modern-day comparisons are not lost on many at Jerusalem's Purim parade, like Lior David, there with his wife and three kids, all wearing bunny ears and footsie pajamas.

LIOR DAVID: I think this is the story of Israel. We just want to defend ourselves. We want just, you know, to live in peace.

KAHN: A story that, for now, remains unfulfilled. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMIENE SONG, "MARKING MY TIME FT. BADBADNOTGOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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