Somehow, a teenager wearing blackface got into the Purim party.
That much was obvious to the black Jewish woman who pointed him out to the organizers of the party, hosted by Chabad-Lubavitch of South La Cienaga, a Jewish community center in Los Angeles. Despite the fact that his face was completely covered in black makeup, he had been given a wristband at the door.
The woman asked her friend, Aliza Hausman, to help reach out to the Chabad center. (Through Hausman, the woman declined to comment for this story.) The center released a lengthy apology, saying that the teenager had slipped past the door because of large crowds, and that it was a mistake to let him stay.
Hausman, who is Orthodox and identifies as a mixed-race Dominican Jew, said that the incident was representative of a broader attitude in the Orthodox world: That dressing up in blackface for Purim is not racist.
“You put it on for a day, and you don’t have any idea what you’re doing,” Hausman said. “People walk into these spaces, and they don’t even think about the possibility of running into a Jew of color.”
Purim — the raucous Jewish holiday widely known as the Jewish Halloween — is coming on Wednesday. In rare instances, that can mean offensive Purim costumes that involve blackface, which can happen in any Jewish Purim gathering but are more common among the Orthodox. Some who condone such costumes feel that they are unrelated to American racial history, while other Orthodox Jews and Jews of color insist that the costumes are obviously racist.
“Every year there is some instance, whether it’s blackface in particular or a quote-unquote Indian costume, or Mexican-themed parties,” said Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American rabbi who writes under the pen name MaNishtana. “There’s always some kind of cultural insensitivity.”
It’s impossible to say how often Jews wear blackface costumes at Purim. Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College who studies Hasidic Judaism, said he knows of no survey data on the phenomenon. He said that blackface incidents are more common in the Orthodox community, as opposed to among “liberal” American Jews, because of the history of racial tension between urban Orthodox communities and African-American communities.
Some Orthodox Jews say that blackface costumes persist because Orthodox Jews may not know the history of racism, or because they may not have grown up with friends of color: Only 7% of Jews describe themselves as black, Hispanic or of a different racial background than white, according to the Pew Research Center.
“The history of minstrelsy is not something familiar to many, if not most, Orthodox Jews. That’s unfortunate, but a fact,” Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, the leading ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, said in an email. Shafran, along with many other Orthodox Jews interviewed for this story, said that he had never personally seen a blackface costume at a Purim celebration.
Blackface has re-entered the American public consciousness this year, with a protracted blackface scandal among Virginia politicians.
Jews have their own complicated relationship with blackface. Al Jolson, a Jewish pioneer of early cinema, wore blackface while playing the title role of the first film to feature spoken dialogue, “The Jazz Singer,” released in 1927. Historians of film have noted that many Jews used blackface roles to get their foot in the door in Hollywood in the 1910s and 1920s.
In the 21st century, Sarah Silverman, the comedian, wore blackface in an infamous episode of her 2000s satirical show, “The Sarah Silverman Program.” She later apologized for the episode. Even the rapper Drake was caught having posed in blackface for a photoshoot in 2007. This year, former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman defended Virginia’s governor after photos of the governor in blackface emerged.
A limited number of blackface incidents in Orthodox communities have made the news over the years.
In 2013, New York State Assembly Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew who represented a heavily Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, wore a blackface basketball player costume to a Purim celebration. He initially refused to apologize, saying that, on Purim, his primary concern “is not to be recognizable.” The holiday celebrates a time when Jews were saved from a genocidal plot. A popular tradition holds that, on Purim, Jews are expected to become so drunk that they confuse good and evil characters in the story.
“A lot of people just don’t realize, on Purim, in a sense, forgive me for saying this, you do crazy stuff,” he told The New York Times. “It’s not done, God forbid, to laugh, to mock, to hurt, to pain anyone.”
Hikind also eventually apologized for the incident, but his response appears to echo a holdout attitude in the Orthodox community: That Purim costumes that stereotype other cultures shouldn’t be considered offensive because they’re not about those cultures, they’re about cutting loose for Purim.
“If a Jew wears blackface on Purim, it’s certainly not to intentionally insult blacks but only to ‘become’ [an] ‘other, which is what Purim masks are all about,” Shafran wrote.
This attitude was evident in conversations with residents of heavily Orthodox sections of Brooklyn.
Ben, 25, of Crown Heights, defended the practice by saying that he hasn’t seen people dress up just as black people, but rather as specific cultures from Africa or the Caribbean.
“Meaning to say, it’s a costume, it’s not just, black,” he said.
Chaim, 30, who lives in Boro Park, said that he understood where Hikind was coming from in 2013.
“He respected the basketball player, and wanted to be like that,” Chaim said. “To look at that as racism is really wrong.”
The two men asked to only be identified by their first names out of privacy concerns.
This attitude is similar to how secular Americans respond when they are criticized for having worn blackface, according to Rhae Lynn Barnes, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University: They say it is more about emulating black people than mocking them, or that the reason for putting the costume on is more relevant than its painful cultural history. But, she added, Orthodox Jews should know that their costumes don’t exist inside a religious vacuum.
“While we tend to think of places of worship as private spaces, people are going on the subway, they’re walking through the city, they’re being seen by people who are not just in the congregation,” she said.
Heilman said that he thinks that blackface costumes are largely a response to racial tensions between Orthodox Jews and black Americans. He said that because Orthodox Jewish communities have remained in inner city neighborhoods, they’ve bore the brunt of anti-white backlash at various points since the Civil Rights movement.
“Purim is a holiday that’s built on collective memory of anti-Semitism and near genocide,” Heilman said. “The Orthodox know very well what Purim is all about.”
To be sure, many in the Orthodox community understand that the costumes are offensive, and say that every year people make the effort — at schools, at synagogues — to end blackface at Purim. Hausman said that her children’s day school, an Orthodox academy in Los Angeles, has sent out emails with Purim costume guidelines, including “No costumes or makeup that make fun of other ethnicities or denotes making fun of other nationalities.”
“It’s racist,” Reuvan Rogoff, 69, an American-Israeli Orthodox Jew visiting Boro Park for Purim, told the Forward. “And we as Orthodox Jews should be cognizant of that because of the persecution that we’ve felt, and the slurs made against us.”
Rogoff added that he had personally seen blackface at Purim celebrations, though not for many years.
Social media has also amplified the voices of Jews of color, and helped convince many Orthodox Jews that minstrelsy costumes are deeply offensive to people of color, according to Michal Schick, an entertainment writer and Orthodox Jew living in Queens. But, she says, the issue can spark fierce debates online, with some Orthodox Jews becoming defensive at having Purim costumes labeled racist.
“It’s hard to take something that people think of as a costume, something that they do one day out of the year, and explain how it’s hurtful and harmful,” Schick said. “But you want to say, davka [precisely] because we’re Jews we have to be sensitive to that.”
For Jews of color, the annual debate can be exhausting.
“Jewish voices of color rally wearily every time, two or three weeks before Purim saying, hey, before the day comes and those costumes come out, we’re saying it again, don’t dress like this,” MaNishtana said.
Barnes says that she has talked about the history of blackface with some of her Orthodox students. She believes that ultimately the persistence of blackface in the Orthodox world is not about racism, but ignorance.
“That’s part of why we need to have open conversations about this history,” she said. “So they understand.”