Local Purim celebrants fret about modern-day Haman

Bob Jaffe didn't feel like crying, so he laughed.

"How does George Bush know Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction? He says, 'Hey, I got the receipts right here. My father sold them to him.'"

Jaffe, who bears more than a passing resemblance to a Deadhead, did not seem at all out of place Monday night at Conservative Temple Beth Abraham's Purim ceremony in Oakland, standing aside Harry Potters, pirates and super heroes.

But while he and thousands of other costumed revelers across the Bay Area certainly dressed up, waved groggers and chased down their hyperactive children as they would on any other Purim, the notion of war in Iraq was tangible, almost like an uninvited guest in the room. They had come to celebrate the holidays only an hour or two after President Bush's televised ultimatum to Saddam Hussein.

"The United States is going to get itself into so much trouble that we'll see the repercussions for years to come. I'm afraid it will be a disaster bigger than Vietnam," said Zvika Rimalt, a 32-year-old Israeli-born San Franciscan attending a downtown performance of "Estherminator: A Psycho-Pious Purim Rock Opera."

"The Israeli occupation of Lebanon will look like nothing compared to the American occupation of Iraq. I'm afraid America is going to learn a very painful lesson about the limits of its power."

Other Jews, however, see things quite differently.

"It's hard to feel sorry for Saddam Hussein," said Alan Titus just after the reading of the Megillah at Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland.

"The world will probably be a much better place without him."

Fellow congregant Reuven Kahane agreed.

"I don't think man can punish [Saddam] enough for what he's done. God has to punish him. I'm happy, very happy. He's an evil guy and it'll be good for Israel and good for America," said Kahane, a New York transplant who says he is the first cousin of assassinated Kach Party founder Rabbi Meir Kahane.

"I think we should have finished him off the last time. We should have been doing this 12 years ago."

Whatever Purim celebrants' feelings on the war, no one was surprised at the grim prospects.

"I've always felt the president had an agenda ever since he got into office — to finish the job his father didn't do," said Phil Hankin as strains of a Purim-themed cover-version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" played by Rabbi Mark Bloom's rock band wafted down to Beth Abraham's front steps.

"This is just another step in the agenda he's had all along, and it doesn't matter who's with him or not. He's going to finish the job."

Noted fellow congregant Sandy Margolin, "It seems the president is hell-bent on an attack. This is what I expected."

What people didn't know was the effect of the conflict on Israel. In the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam rained Scud missiles onto the Tel Aviv area. This time around, many worry those missiles could contain chemical or biological weapons.

"I'm more worried about Palestinian suicide bombers than Saddam," said Israeli-born Los Altos resident Jacob Tanz, who served hot dogs at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, where nearly 800 gathered for a carnival, Purimspiels and hamantaschen.

"This time Saddam doesn't have the power he used to when he sent the Scuds. Israel is more prepared."

Brian Feiger, who stepped out of Beth Jacob's services to feed his baby son, noted Israel possesses the Arrow anti-missile system while the United States does not.

"I worry about Israel every day, but they may be more prepared than we are," said the San Ramon resident.

"In Israel, everyone serves his or her time in the armed forces. They have a people's army so they have a different mindset."

One fewer dictator in the region has to be a good thing, added Avi Margolin on his way to Beth Abraham's services.

"One fewer anti-Israel and anti-U.S. leader who has a say both militarily and diplomatically in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be better for Israel and the people there," said Margolin, Sandy's 19-year-old son.

"I think this event will be more positive than negative. It will serve as a warning for governments that support terror. This will be a take-notice event because they'll see how willing Bush is to go to war with these countries."

Kahane, meanwhile, says Israel's failure to retaliate for the Scud attacks during the first Gulf War was perceived as a sign of weakness by the Arab world, and led to increased terrorism.

While polls show support for a war against Saddam among the Israeli populace, and Likud and centrist-to-right-wing members of Labor have given their blessings, many Bay Area Jews feel Israelis are kidding themselves.

"I'm worried about the stability of Israel and the future of the state of Israel. If a missile with nerve gas lands there," said Beth Abraham congregant, Laura Luke-Gorelick allowing her thought to trail off.

"Jews have been rising from the ashes forever, but what's disgusting is, this time it doesn't have to happen. I don't know how President Bush is going to make money from this war, but that's what it has to be about."

Rimalt believes his home country "is under the misconception that something good is going to come out of this. This is a distraction Israelis have for themselves so they don't have to focus on the economy or the security situation."

Additionally, the war could serve as a rallying point for the Arab world, according to Beth Abraham congregant Ellen Kaufman.

"Sunnis and Shiites are going to come together in a conflagration of hatred toward America and Israel. These people are going to see this as the ultimate insult," she said.

"Now we're unilaterally doing this? It's mind-boggling. I feel powerless. It's like we're all anesthetized or doped. I didn't want to go to Purim thinking about war."

Many, however, saw a natural connection between Saddam's tyranny and the story of Purim, labeling the Iraqi dictator a modern-day Haman.

"One certainty is the temptation to say what the sages have taught: In every generation a Haman rises up against us, and Saddam Hussein has a lot of Jewish blood on his hand. Saddam Hussein is a Haman. His government has paid stipends to the families of suicide bombers," said Beth Am's Rabbi Josh Zweiback, the synagogue's adult learning coordinator.

Regarding the confluence of Purim and war ultimatums, he noted, "Is it a coincidence? Yes, of course. But it's an eerie coincidence that these patterns do repeat. I hope this story ends as joyously as the Purim story: The enemies are defeated, the Jews are spared and the innocents are spared."

Feiger found it interesting that Saddam's sons were included in Bush's ultimatum, noting Haman's 10 sons perished on the gallows in the biblical story.

And while war weighed heavily on everyone's minds, many felt an obligation to honor their Jewish past by partying it up on Purim.

"We're human beings, and any opportunity to celebrate life, we should," said Danielle Izsak, a San Franciscan at the "Estherminator" show.

"I think being Jewish is all about celebrating life. I'm not doom and gloom, I'm happy to be alive and proud to be Jewish."

At Beth Am, assistant Rabbi Charles Briskin, taking a break between musical numbers as a "Cat in the Hat" Mordechai and an Elvis lookalike, expanded on a sermon he had given the Friday before, commanding Jews to celebrate, even in the midst of difficult times.

"Despite what's happening, Purim is a time Jews gather round the world to laugh in the face of our enemies," he said.

"It's not an easy time. So being able to come out on Purim and do what Jews have done for centuries and make fun our ourselves and make fun of the world around us is fun and necessary."

But San Francisco's Lorne Needle had a hard time celebrating life when so many Iraqis will soon be dead.

"Part of the reason to celebrate Purim is that we're alive, and the great majority of the Iraqi people just want to live too," he said prior to the rock opera.

"If we're celebrating because that's what we've got to do, there are a lot of people in Baghdad that are going to die, and can have no part of this celebration."

As the evening's festivities drew to a close, many partygoers traded festive camaraderie for pensive solitude, pondering a changed world.

"You may be the greatest military power in the world, but the knowledge and wisdom of when to use it really is the definition of strength. Just because you've got it doesn't mean you've got to flaunt it," said Beth Jacob congregant Mike Smith as worshippers cleared out of the sanctuary.

"There's a certain arrogance and hubris that brought down Johnson and Nixon, and hopefully it'll bring down Bush too. He wants to remake the Middle East. Well, a lot of people have tried to remake the Middle East. Good luck to him, but this is a very high-risk gamble."

Or, as "Estherminator" star Amy Tobin shouted into her microphone at the conclusion of her performance, "I want you to get

f—–g drunk right now because the world is going to hell!"

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.