Circus Welcomes Purim Celebrants

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Although many of the calendar's Jewish holidays are sober observations of historical events, the two-day Purim festival is one of cheer: of donning masks, using noisemakers, eating, drinking and generally making very merry.

During Purim -- which this year begins at sunset on Monday and continues for two days -- Jews commemorate the survival of ancestors who had been marked for death by Persian minister Haman in the fifth century B.C. Although most of the world's Jews mark the anniversary with cookies, costumes and kosher wine, Moscow's Jews have added yet another component to the revelry: a trip to the circus.

The local offices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, on Tuesday holds its second annual Purimshpiel at the Moscow Circus on Tsvetnoi Bulvar. The festivities are described by organizers as a family event featuring short scripture readings, music, contests and prizes, traditional Purim foods and plenty of circus clowns. Alcoholic beverages, the consumption of which many Jews believe is central to Purim, will be available at a lobby snack bar.

"There's a tradition to celebrate with organized performances and readings from the book of Esther and, of course, Jews should drink -- mostly kosher wine," said Yelena Krentsel, public relations manager at the JDC. "All the rest of the year is so serious, so for Purim there is a tradition to be joyful, to dance in the streets."

During Purim, Jews celebrate the heroism of Esther, a fifth century B.C. Jewess who married the biblical King Ahasuerus and later risked her life to save her people from Haman's palace plot to commit genocide against them.

The holiday is celebrated on the 14th and 15th days of the month of Adar, the 12th month of the Jewish calendar, as a day of rejoicing in victory over one's enemies. Because, so many centuries ago, the month of Adar began badly but ended happily -- with Jews not only surviving but also winning respect in the royal court -- Jews mark Purim by exchanging gifts with friends, making donations to the poor and reading from the book of Esther, as well as with a range of lively pastimes like playing games, feasting on sweets and toasting the holiday with kosher spirits.

At the Purimshpiel, Krentsel said the religious aspects of Purim will be de-emphasized to favor merriment, with the use of noisemakers encouraged even during readings of the scripture.

Moscow's Jewish population has shrunk in recent decades to a mere 250,000 people due largely to emigration, Krentsel said, adding that only a percentage of the city's Jews play an active role in the community.

"As a result of anti-Semitic propaganda during the [Soviet era], Jews withdrew from Jewish life, and to an extent this still persists today," she said. "But Moscow is today a friendly place to be a cultural and religious Jew. Five synagogues exist with two more operating out of private homes, and we have three cultural centers. Purim is a way to bring the community together, religious or not, and to celebrate a happy Jewish holiday."

The Purimshpiel, which is co-sponsored by the Agency for Israel in Russia, will also feature a performance by popular Soviet-era vocalist Alla Yoshpe, as well as concerts by several local choral groups. In the lobby, competitions geared toward young celebrants will continue all evening long, and traditional triangular pastries will be available free of charge.

The festivities begin at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Moscow Circus, located at 13 Tsvetnoi Bulvar. Metro Tsvetnoi Bulvar. Tel. 915-5206, 200-0668. Tickets (priced starting at 100 rubles) will be available at the door.

The Nikitiskaya Jewish Community Center holds its Purim Carnival, a holiday party for children with games, contests and a show, at 3 p.m. on Sunday at 47 Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa, Bldg. 3. Metro Pushkinskaya. Tel. 291-3039.