Ups and Downs of the Holiday of Lots

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
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Over the years, Purim has had its ups and downs. Sometimes marked with exuberance and at other times barely noted, its lot in America has not been a happy one. In New York of the 1860s, for instance, fancy dress balls and masques were all the rage. “Astonishing the lovers of fun and good society,” as one eyewitness put it, these events “attained the height of a spectacle ranking among the finest in conception and execution [ever] witnessed in New York.”

One such fancy dress ball, held at Manhattan’s Academy of Music in 1864, delighted the eye as well as the spirit. The academy, a staid bastion of kultur, was transformed into an exotic Persian Temple while two guests dressed as Queen Esther and Mordecai respectively took to their so-called “chariots,” leading a procession that culminated in a series of bows and curtsies before another guest decked out as “Prince Carnival.”

Sometime later, as Purim balls fell out of favor, the holiday seemed destined to become a vestigial occasion, marked by only a minority of American Jews. For a host of reasons having largely to do, I suspect, with the calendar, Purim failed to capture the American Jewish imagination. Sandwiched between Chanukah and Passover, it also lacked the high drama of the first and the intense ceremoniousness of the second.

Women’s involvement with Purim provides by far the sharpest index of the holiday’s fate and fortune. During the interwar years, when Purim seemed to be honored more in the breach than anything else, a number of concerned Jewish citizens attempted to persuade their female co-religionists of the holiday’s many virtues. Purim is the holiday “closest to the feminine heart,” wrote Betty Greenberg and Althea O. Silverman, authors of the “Jewish Home Beautiful,” an enormously popular guidebook to Jewish ritual matters whose recommendations and recipes debuted in the 1930s. Everything about it, especially its “Cinderella-like” heroine, Queen Esther, satisfies the “dramatic urge in every woman’s soul.” By their lights, even the ritual of shalokh moness was to be feminized. The exchange of food gifts is truly a “womanly practice,” Greenberg and Silverman wrote encouragingly, noting how it drew on the fairer sex’s alleged affinity for intimacy, community and what, in some quarters, was called “kitchen Judaism.”

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin and Miriam Isaacs, authors of “What Every Jewish Woman Should Know” (1941), a volume intended for the “intelligent” Jewish reader, also understood the holiday as an exercise in femininity. Of all the festivals, they wrote, Purim is the “Jewish women’s special holiday.” Women, therefore, should “make the most of it.” Dress your offspring in costumes; bake hamantashen and set a “gay and colorful” holiday table strewn with masks, noisemakers and figurines of Esther and Mordecai.

Until quite recently, these attempts fell wide of the mark. Purim remained the calendrical equivalent of a poor cousin. Today, in striking contrast, Queen Esther and Mordecai enjoy unprecedented popularity, testament to a renewed interest in things Jewish. Purim circa 2003, combining elements of both Halloween and Saint Patrick’s Day, has experienced something of a revival, especially within the yeshiva world where much is made of it. Purim carnivals have become eagerly awaited occasions; costumes (the more outlandish, the better) are enthusiastically doffed and great quantities of alcohol are consumed con brio by growing numbers of celebrants.

Even the so-called “womanly” attributes of the holiday have changed in ways unimaginable decades before. As more and more women work outside of the home, opportunities for creating and exchanging shalokh moness have become fewer and fewer, prompting many to turn to technology for a helping hand. The result: computerized gift-giving.

Instead of preparing and distributing dozens of individual gifts, people now pool their resources and, for a modest donation, arrange for their local synagogue or favorite charity to create one large communal goodie bag to be sent to those whose names have been placed on an electronic list. While participants concede that something is lost in the process — a sense of intimacy, perhaps, or aesthetic pleasure — the benefits of the system outweigh its deficits. Everyone stands to gain: Women have one less thing to do; the exchequer of the synagogue or charity is enriched and the bonds of community are strengthened.

In the spirit of Purim, let’s drink to that!

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