The story of Purim opens with a 180-day party capped off by a seven-day mega-party. It ends with the instruction that the holiday should be celebrated by Jews “as days of feasting and merrymaking,” which should be taken as “an obligation.”
And so, on Wednesday night I set off into the night with the goal of attending three purim parties in a row. One with the nondenominational experimental Jewish community Lab/Shul at an arts space in Bushwick, one at Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights, and one at a lounge on the Lower East Side with Belev Echad, an organization that supports soldiers in the Israeli army. Cast your lots and wish me luck.
6:40PM I arrive at The House Of Yes, the forlorn-looking event space where Lab/Shul is hosting its “Prophetic, Post-Patriarchy Purim Performance Party.” It’s a mostly late 20’s/early 30’s crowd with a lot of painted faces, gender ambiguity, and a few bared breasts. Lab/Schul employees and random attendees are friendly to the point of seeming Midwestern.
6:50PM I attend the party with my sister and someone she used to date who is now out as a gay man and is dressed like The Sabbath Bride. He is soon joined by his friend, whom I once went on a date with, who has since also begun identifying as gay. My sister claims to be dressed as a chicken but from what I can see she is wearing a red tutu and a crop top.
7:00PM The show begins with the singing of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” which you might know better as “that nazi song from ‘Cabaret.’” “Is there anything more Purim than singing a fake nazi song written by two gay Jews for a Broadway musical that now real nazis are coopting because they think it’s a German folk song?” asks host Ezra Bookman, the charismatic artistic director of Lab/Shul. Dressed entirely in pink spangles, he announces that if he had a drag name it would be “Shabbottom.”
Lab/Shul is an “artist-driven, everybody-friendly, god-optional, pop-up, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings” led by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, and every time I think about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing I have to lie down on the floor and breath deeply into a synagogue bulletin that has “capital campaign” printed on it, but I am trying to move past this. Shabbottom announces that the prompt that was given to the artists who will be performing was, “imagine a world post-patriarchy.”
7:20PM An uncanny Melania Trump (“the woman who inspires immigrant children around the world”) impersonator (Lab/Shul’s executive director Sarah Sokolic) reads an illustrated Purim story to the audience, beginning with a bracha: “Blessed is the supreme white king of the universe.”
7:25PM An unrecognizable Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie takes the stage in an Ivana Trump outfit so jaw-dropping he could star in her biopic.
8:00PM I have not had so much as one drink and I think director and performer Ben Rimalower’s funny, brutalizing monologue just changed my life maybe? “I hate Purim!” he screams at one point. “I hate the fake feminism it espouses that seduces little girls! I can’t objectify women, I’m not attracted to them! When I think about Vashti I don’t get hard! But I don’t imagine her in flats.” He pauses. “Why am I so afraid of a woman in flats?”
8:05PM The women-identifying Jewish artist group Women of Wills does a performance piece that plays on Esther’s selection in a quasi-beauty pageant. “If I were Vashti I would have danced,” one performer admits into the microphone. “I am Vashti,” another says. “I’m Jewish and I’m gay and I’ve been exiled over and over. The Rabbi’s wife told me I’d never be happy.” The piece ends with a musical number that I am surprised to find exhilarating.
8:55PM A woman (Sari Caine) in a bird cage floating above the crowd is Esther, telling the transfixed audience, “I can pass. I always could.” Reminiscing about her time in the “beauty pageant” in a monologue written by Brooke Berman she tells us, “it’s a slave auction — you do what you’re told.” Then she says, speaking about her relationship with Mordechai, “The very person who told you to shut up and do as you’re told is now telling you to stand up and save our people and tell him who you are. But who am I?” Damn. Is birdcage woman the great Torah scholar of our times? I am confused but excited by this idea. This event has raised my standards for Reasons I Will Travel To Bushwick.
9:15PM I leave The House of Yes just before the final act so I can stay on schedule to rage Jewishly, but friends report that the post-schpiel party was pleasantly out-of-control. I take a cab to 456 Parkway, the headquarters of Chabad in Crown Heights. As we head deeper into Brooklyn I begin to see tiny children padding down the streets in onesies and princess costumes. Lights are on in lots of businesses and and there is a line at a bakery advertising mishloach manot baskets.
9:45PM I step out of the cab in front of Chabad Headquarters. Now is a good time to mention that my costume is “Mrs. Maisel doing her first night of standup,” so I am wearing a tiny satin romper and a bathrobe. And a parka.
9:50PM I wander down Eastern Parkway, wrapped in my bathrobe. Now is also a good time to mention I didn’t research any Chabad Purim parties — I whimsically thought that I would stroll in off the street and start making canny observations, like Margaret Mead in a romper. The streets are fairly quiet, and there is a huge sign advising Chabadniks to “Bring Purim To The Rest Of New York!” which does not feel promising. Peering into the headquarters building I see a smattering of men who indicate with their body language that I should not come in, though at this point I am beginning to reflect that maybe I actually represent the walls separating Jewish communities! Did I so traffic in stereotypes that I believed the heart of Chabad’s Purim celebrations could be easily located without even a cursory Google? Did I so disrespect a major force in Jewish life that I didn’t even afford it a second of research? Disconsolate, I wandered further into Crown Heights, googling “Chabad Purim Party” as a lone toddler dressed as a bee overtakes me.
10:05PM A kind man in a sparkly Venetian mask tells me that I just missed the laining at his congregation and points me across the street to a house converted into a synagogue, where the hourly Megillah reading has just begun. There are separate entrances for men and women, like fun, free time travel! (This is me trying to atone for not doing thorough research.)
10:10PM I’m not sure how the nightie/bathrobe/parka combo will go over but, as I usually find when I enter Orthodox spaces, no one is really looking at me so it doesn’t matter. The woman next to me passes me a printout of the Megillah and then turns away. It’s subdued and the chanting, through the mechitzah, is nice. It takes me a while to realize that the stomping during Haman’s name only happens the first time it is said in each chapter. The women aren’t dressed up but they are wearing some great wigs.
10:40PM I walk home, past a gang of adolescent boys who ask me if I want to help “start a fire.” I watch as they build a pyramid of cardboard scraps and light it on fire. They also throw several of those tiny fire crackers that look like wads of toilet paper next to my feet and watch my reaction. I truly can’t tell if we’re having a fun cultural exchange or if I’m a bullying victim.
11:15PM I am absurdly late to the Belev Echad party on Delancey, but my trusty companion, whom I shall call Henrietta Szold, arrives on time and texts me updates. In response to the question, “are people dressed up,” she says, “there are cheerleaders and zombies and bears,” and adds:
11:25PM I race up the stairs at DL, the lounge, toss my coat and bathrobe to the ground, and grab a drink at the open bar before it closes. Static and Ben El Tavori pop songs are blasting and a mass of partially-costumed Jews are shifting back and forth on their feet, which I think is an impression of dancing. We join them, looking through big picture windows out at the skyline.
11:50PM Despite being a big fan of the Zionist project at large, I admittedly picked Belev Echad over other glitzy Purim events targeted at young professionals because of this amusing event description: “Join Belev Echad for the Most Elite Purim Masquerade at The DL! Bringing 12 IDF heroes together with the best young Jewish professionals in NYC for an incredible night.” I had so many questions about this: who are these 12 heroes? Why 12? Do you get a prize if you locate all 12? I believe it is possible to be deeply respectful and thankful of the service and sacrifice of Israeli soldiers while acknowledging that I have watched almost every male Israeli I have met within a year of their service treating American women poorly. I am wary of these 12 mystery heroes.
12:00AM Stereotype challenged! Two Israeli men, identifying themselves as soldiers, approach me and Henrietta. One with red hair greets us and says earnestly, “my friend is a really great guy, you should talk to him.” The friend throws his arm around him and says, “my friend is amazing! Get to know this guy.” They are respectful and their shared interest in helping each other is only matched by each of their interests in not actually interacting with us. It is sweet but it is not flattering.
12:15AM We spot a Gal Gadot-esque Israeli woman who has clearly been cornered by an American man who is demanding that she show him some krav maga moves. We interrupt, grab her hands, and urge her to come dance with us.
12:20AM In thanks for saving her, our new friend, the sole woman in the group of 12 “IDF heroes,” offers to set us up with any of the men in her group. She marches up to a man in a blue blazer, indicates me, and begins what appears to be a long, passionate debate. Yet another humbling moment at the Belev Echad Masquerade Ball! After an excruciating, frankly shocking, amount of time, the man acquiesces and stumbles over to me. Good news: he really is very nice looking. Bad news: he appears to be on cocaine. Ah! Just as the Talmud requires.
12:25AM I walk past a couple leaning against the bar, flirting. “I’ve never had acne,” he says. “Just good genes, I guess.” She looks impressed.
12:30AM One of the IDF heroes serenades the room with a pop song and the night is over. We stumble out on the street, bathrobes akimbo, and go off in search of french fries. Purim sameach.
Jenny Singer is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny
This story "I went to Purim at Lab Shul, Chabad, and with the IDF." was written by Jenny Singer.