The Triangle may suffer heaven’s wrath for lacking a good kosher deli, but the place had plenty of Yiddishkeit on Sunday during Cary’s fifth annual Jewish Cultural Festival, in celebration of Purim, the festive holiday sometimes called the Jewish Mardi Gras.
Purim, which officially takes place Tuesday, is known as the one day Jews are commanded to drink more than they can handle, but there was little evidence of alcoholic exuberance at the Cary Senior Center, where the festivities were held.
However, Rabbi Ariel Edery of the Beth Shalom congregation in Raleigh expounded on the Rabbinic texts that gave rise to Purim’s life-affirming and joyous excess. The holiday commemorates the Jews’ escape from extermination under ancient Persian rule, with clear resonances in recent modern history.
“It’s a mitzvah, an obligation, a duty – not so much to drink the wine, but to enjoy life,” Edery explained. “Abstention is actually a sin in Jewish tradition.”
The focal point of the celebration in Cary was the Magnolia Klezmer Band, which filled a rec room with the strains of a once-vibrant Eastern European Jewish culture. The Triangle klezmorim turned on their Borscht Belt charm and regaled the audience with “Wedding in Crown Heights,” “Those Were the Days,” “Tumbalalaika,” “Urim Burim,” “Moldavaskaya” and other schmaltzy titles evoking the Old World, singing both in English and in Yiddish.
An estimated 1,500 people turned out for the 3-hour affair, jointly sponsored by Beth Shalom, Chabad of Cary Learning Center and the Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary. In addition to the orchestra, there was skee ball, a scrap exchange, a food pantry drop off and a pair of lectures by local rabbis.
Albert Gerschman, a Fuquay-Varina resident who sells security systems components, said Cary’s Purim celebration, involving several synagogues and organizations, is not like the Purim he remembers at his synagogue growing up in Brooklyn.
“The difference is that this reaches across and builds bridges,” he said.
The visitors included Ray Gonzales, who is not Jewish and didn’t know anything about Purim before attending the lectures. Gonzales, a rehabilitation engineer with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said the rabbinical approach to alcohol reminded him of the Greek ideal of the Golden Mean and made a lot more sense to him than boozing or teetotaling.
“The whole moderation thing he was talking about – that resonates,” said Gonzales, who lives in Cary.
Edery, originally from Argentina, quoted from the The Talmud (ancient and medieval commentary), and other sages. He said Jewish sacred writings both exhort drunkenness on Purim and counsel against such excess, indicating that alcohol can be enjoyed but shouldn’t be abused.
“Wine has a place – there’s a place for relaxation,” Edery said. “Life is to be enjoyed, not to be endured.”
Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar, a Texas native now at the Chabad center in Cary, lectured on the Scroll of Esther, the Biblical chapter that tells the story of Purim.
Cotlar noted that Esther is the first Old Testament book where the Israelites are called Jews, and also the only of the 24 books of the Jewish Bible that doesn’t mention God directly.
“It’s a holiday of concealment,” Cotlar explained. “In hindsight, it’s like a movie. There had to be a director here, there had to be an author.”