“The phenomenon of ultra-Orthodox children who smoke close to Purim is widespread and long-lasting, even though in recent years there have been attempts to fight it with only partial success," Israel Cohen, a Vizhnitz Hasid who grew up in Bnei Brak, says.
“Like most of my friends, I started smoking around the sixth grade," he said.
In recent years, the Health Ministry has been promoting awareness in ads in the ultra-Orthodox media in an attempt to prevent smoking among children. Media consultants Avi Blumenthal and Manny Hadad are responsible for promotion in the ultra-Orthodox sector, on behalf of the ministry.
“I smoked my first cigarette on Purim, around the age of 10, just like any other ultra-Orthodox child in those days,” Blumenthal said. “To be precise, it happened a few days earlier, I was secretly practicing the right facial expression. The cigarette was a symbol of masculinity and so, there was no way to avoid it.
“I admit I was disgusted and nauseous, but what child is capable of giving up a status symbol that makes him an adult and tough? I smoked no less than three packs of cigarettes each year around Purim. I regret it now because that is why at the age of 17 I felt comfortable about smoking regularly. Almost a full pack a day for ten years, of course, except Saturdays and holidays.”
And how did you quit smoking?
“At the age of 27, I was a spokesperson for a government office and on one of the holidays, we were given a voucher to buy a book. I passed by a bookstore, and because I was in a hurry, took the first book I saw at the entrance. It was Alan Carr's book about how to quit smoking. I had no intention of stopping and decided to read it from a cynical point of view. I don't have an explanation, but since then I haven't smoked for 14 years and counting. I even hate when people smoke around me."
Haredi media advisor Rafi Perlstein said that within the ultra-Orthodox public, smoking in Purim is particularly significant in the Hasidic sector: “As a child, I remember dozens of young children standing inside the synagogue and smoking. It was a very common phenomenon.”
Perlstein, who advises on Haredi matters to a number of local authorities, said that over the years the phenomenon had been diminishing, but is still far from disappearing. “Today there is much more awareness – the Health Ministry, the HMOs, and a number of municipalities in Haredi communities have done a lot of campaigns. Nowadays you see less smoking among kids, but it still exists. Seeing an 11-year-old with a cigarette and a bottle of whiskey is something that you can still witness.”
It should be noted that despite the popularity of smoking among ultra-Orthodox children, among adults, the percentage of smokers is much lower than in the general population. However, the Haredi Institute for Policy Studies found that, although among non-Haredi Jews, the number of smokers fell from 24.6% in 2010 to 22% in 2017, during those years the number of Haredim smoking rose from 7% to 10.6%.