Thursday, March 1 marks the holiday of Purim. Some would call it premature, but since the weekend, Israelis of all ages have already begun taking to the streets dressed in all manner of costume and fancy dress in preparation and anticipation of this day.
Soon after Hanukkah, Israeli parenting forums on social media lit up, just as they do every year, with enquiries of where to buy outfits for their children. There were questions about the best place to buy from, if ordering online would be an option and if the delivery would be on time, if the advertised sizes are accurate and to be trusted, or, if anyone wanted to participate in an exchange instead.
All those weeks ago, shopping malls and other outlets moved their regular products to make way for their Purim supplies, and walking into the stores until Purim is over will guarantee that one will be bombarded with colorful garb for children and adults alike. This may or may not include oversized and zany glasses, masks, hats of all shapes and sizes, wigs and beards of all lengths, colors and styles, plastic and rubberized noses and ears, capes, wands, swords, crowns, tiaras, face-paints and other accessories.
Ready-made costumes have also been on display and range from generic princesses and gender-specific or gender-neutral vocation-themed outfits, to very specific Disney, Marvel or DC Comics and Star Wars characters. For those who have been able to find time and energy to invest in homemade costumes, the humor and creativity is to be admired.
Many people refer to Purim as the “Jewish Halloween” and as many cities around the country are preparing for carnivals and parades that will be held on Thursday; with all their floats and larger-than-life characters, one could be forgiven for thinking that they are in a Mardis Gras.
For those who have even a cursory knowledge of the book of Esther, it is clear that nothing even remotely resembling these themes is to be found within the scroll. So, how did dressing up become the emphasis of Purim?
According to various rabbinic sources, the reason is a combination of superstition, and evolving tradition that first manifested in Italy in the Middle Ages. In a story of assimilation and syncretism, Jewish people took on practices that their fellow Italians were participating in and justified it by getting rabbinic consent.
Their explanations are that the story of Purim is all about disguises, and that dressing up is akin to putting on a different persona. Mordechai was able to be royal for a day when he was dressed in the king’s robes. Esther hid the fact that she was Jewish to save her people, so pretending to be something else is the overriding theme for the day. In addition, the fact that God is not mentioned in the account, it is almost as if he masked himself; therefore, wearing of masks is encouraged for this holiday.
How do Believers in Israel celebrate Purim?
Some, like this family, do not dress up in costumes at all. Others participate in involuntary school and work-related dress-up parties wearing bought or thoughtfully handmade and creative costumes. In a non-official survey, most Believers said that they try to put the emphasis of Purim on reading the book of Esther and giving gifts and giving alms to the poor.
Most Israelis, including Believers, buy or bake the traditional stuffed, triangular-shaped cookies called Hamantaschen. This is a plural word modified from the Yiddish meaning Haman’s pouch or pocket. The Hebrew word is oznei Haman which means Haman’s ears. The pastries used to be stuffed specifically with a sweetened poppy-seed mixture but now they can be found with assorted fillings such as dates, chocolate, and apple and caramel for example. In recent years, it has become acceptable to make savory Hamantaschen like pizza flavor, and of course, there are trendy vegan or gluten-free ones too.
Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
So the Jews agreed to continue the celebration they had begun, doing what Mordecai had written to them. For Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them and had cast the pur (that is, the lot) for their ruin and destruction. But when the plot came to the king’s attention, he issued written orders that the evil scheme Haman had devised against the Jews should come back onto his own head, and that he and his sons should be impaled on poles. (Therefore these days were called Purim, from the word pur.) Because of everything written in this letter and because of what they had seen and what had happened to them, the Jews took it on themselves to establish the custom that they and their descendants and all who join them should without fail observe these two days every year, in the way prescribed and at the time appointed. These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by every family, and in every province and in every city. And these days of Purim should never fail to be celebrated by the Jews—nor should the memory of these days die out among their descendants. – Esther 9:20-28
Happy Purim to all who celebrate!