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Illini Hillel Centennial Blog #7: More Reminiscing with Illini Hillel Alumni

By Ezra Shelato

A big thank you to Dawn Weiner-Kaplow, Rabbi Irwin Keller, and Sara Lynn Newberger. When they sat down to reminisce about their shared time at Illini Hillel, they were kind enough to record the meeting for use here on the Centennial Blog. This post is the second of a three-part series based on their conversation.

Irwin: I feel like it’s time to talk about our Purim story. [Sara Lynn] I remember how you used to do the whole Megillah reading with puppets. My recollection is that in the first semester of my freshman year, ‘78-’79, I had been living in the Reform bayit, which was a bad choice for me as a kid right out of high school. I didn't know how to live like a responsible human being with real people. So at the end of the first semester, I moved to Allen Hall. You were living there, right, Dawn?

Dawn: I was living in Allen hall my first two years. ‘77 to ‘78 and ‘78 to ‘79.

Irwin: So you and I were living in Allen Hall. And I think I started going to Hillel because I wasn't living in the bayit anymore. And I was maybe scrounging around for more Jewish things to do. Howie Alpert was the rabbi at the time. And I don't remember exactly how it happened, but he said “I'd like to hook you up with some people, and put you in charge of figuring out how to promote Purim for Hillel this year”. Both of you, how did that happen for you?

Sara Lynn: I have no idea. I do not remember. But I was a Hillel regular. I was there all the time, so, somebody [probably] hooked me up with somebody else about Purim.

Dawn: I really think, Irwin, that it came through you, because you and I were already good friends through dancing. I think you brought me into this whole Purim project. Sarah Lynn, can you tell us about your perspective on Purim since you've been the Adar fairy for quite a while?

Sara Lynn: I remember that we started this project of “how are we going to make Purim known to people”? And so we had two things that I think we did. One was the posters, Irwin, in the days that you had to rub off letters before you could like…

Irwin: Letraset!

Sara Lynn: Letraset, right. You rubbed up those letters and they looked really nice and organized. At the bottom of them [it said] “Be happy it’s Adar, Purim is coming”. We printed them on hot pink paper, and then proceeded to staple them all over campus with a tiny little stapler. And I think Dawn has a comment about what happened when we did that.

Dawn: Yes. I lived in Allen Hall and I posted them in Allen Hall. And of course there were many Jewish students but [there were] those that had no idea what Purim was as well. And the poster said “Be happy it's Adar, Purim is coming” and people would scribble on it the way they do on a bathroom wall. And somebody wrote “who is Purim, and when is he coming?” So, that was my memory. But, hey, it brought the word Purim to somebody's mind.

Sara Lynn: And then the other thing that we did was the series of ads in the Illini paper.

Irwin: Yeah, so back in the day, before we had computers, you would look at the classifieds in the Daily Illini every day. And there was a personals section, and that's where you would always look first. So we decided, leading up to Purim, to tell the story of Purim as a series of conversations in the personals column. And so it would be like, you know, “Vashti, come to my party, clothing optional”, or something like that. And then the next day it would be, “Achashverosh, no way Jose, from Vashti”. And we did it all as a series of one-liners, which was really fun to concoct, and we submitted it. The problem was that the Daily Illini didn't print them in the order that we submitted them.

Sara Lynn: I didn't remember that at all.

Irwin: Oh, I remember being a perfectionist, and annoyed that Esther and Mordechai are talking before Vashti and Ahasuerus are talking. But ultimately, that made the game more intriguing and mysterious. I think we probably had seven or ten days worth of ups and backs between the characters in the Megillah playing out in the Daily Illini.

Sara Lynn: The other thing that we did that day, if you recall, is we did a Purim Seudah at lunchtime. We sat in the big room upstairs. And I don't remember what we ate, but we served wine at lunch. It was the first time I ever had too much wine to drink, which was not a pretty sight when I tried to go to my class after lunch.

Dawn: And I want to interrupt and say, just for the record, in those years, the drinking age was 18. So it wasn't at all an issue to serve [alcohol], and even the freshmen were 18 years old.

Irwin: So the, “Be happy it’s Adar, Purim is coming”, poster. So then Sarah Lynn started copying that every year, and then she made one with beautiful Hebrew calligraphy. And for decades, Sara Lynn, you would print them on multicolored paper, and put them in envelopes, and mail them to everyone you know with the instruction to put them up wherever they lived.

Sara Lynn: And then with the advent of computers I started sending emails, I started sending them as an attachment.

Dawn: Right, and then we printed them up.

Sara Lynn: And then this last year I decided, “it’s time for a little break, and we’ll see what happens”. And only two people complained. One person just wanted to know if I was gaslighting her, but I think she was joking. And one person just wanted to make sure I was okay.

Irwin: That was ‘79. So through ‘22 that’s about 44 years of those posters that began at Urbana. And there have been times that people have seen me putting them up, and have stopped me because they had seen them somewhere else or had got them through you.

Sara Lynn: And I had that happen with Jewish educators. I was passing [posters] out at some sort of conference that came before Purim, and somebody said “We already have these where I come from”.

Irwin: Besides the tradition of the posters, that Purim was life changing for me because it created our friendship.

Dawn: It solidified it for sure.

Irwin: You were graduating that year, Sara Lynn, and you were gonna be going to a yeshiva in Jerusalem. And Dawn was finishing her sophomore year, and was going to be doing her junior year at Hebrew University. And I was like, “I don’t want to be the one left behind.” But at the last minute I worked it out to come to the one year program at Hebrew University with Dawn as a sophomore. So we spent the next year in Jerusalem together, the three of us. And we [spent] Shabbat afternoons together. And we went to Tel Aviv to see a play together. And that year really solidified our friendship. And now we see each other every chance we get, and it’s this many decades later.

Dawn: Yeah, Hillel had a strong influence on our friendship.

Be sure to check out the Centennial Blog each week for more stories, including the third and final part from Dawn's, Rabbi Irwin's, and Sara Lynn's conversation!

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