a most unusual holiday

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Walking around town on Purim, my pleasure was looking at the faces of carefree people enjoying themselves in the streets. People talking to strangers and friends, amusing one another with costumes and jokes. All too often, in recent years, I’ve seen people sitting or standing together in groups, in the cafes of Ben Yehudah Street or in restaurants… and each individual occupied with some sort of business by way of his or her cell phone. But on this day, the streets were filled with unhurried people, moving along with grace and good cheer, and alert to the others around them. Entertainment wasn’t just passive. People were relating to one another.

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Last week’s post was in the spirit of Purim. But since then, I’ve received a number of questions about the holiday. And this year, my experience of this holiday was a bit different. Usually, I invite friends to feast with me in my home. But this time I chose to walk about in the city. We are counting down to an important national election, which will take place on this coming Tuesday. There is a certain tension in the air. And I was wondering if I’d sense that out in public. But I didn’t.

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I was thinking that the holiday provides us with a much needed mood break. Both personal problems and the issues of the day seemed forgotten as I watched the friendly crowds walking one way or the other. People were walking in the middle of Jaffa Street as well, with the streetcar politely ringing its bell to make its way through civilian groups that had taken to the streets.

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Kurt Vonnegut, a great 20th century American writer, tells us a wonderful adventure story in ‘Cat’s Cradle’, in which he invented a religion whose messages to mankind are revealed in songs. There you will find the following:
“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

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Humans are rational beings. We have the indefatigable desire to understand. And even when we don’t, we have the need to rationalize what happens around us. On Purim, we remind ourselves that there are things happening all around us, that we don’t understand. Traditionally, the masquerading and the costumes are meant to remind us that things aren’t always what they seem to be.

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a little angel

Most of us live a regular day to day regime. There is a time for a wide variety of choices. But we realize that we have to make those choices. We can’t have everything. There are obligations incumbent on all of us. Each of us has a role to play. And there are times when we’re barely in touch with our own emotions, or have time for free thoughts because of all the things that are obligatory or routine. And yet, we have our fantasies. Not just the forbidden fantasies… Sometimes, light hearted silly fantasies. Usually pushed aside as we go about our daily routine and work, this traditional holiday of masquerading encourages fantasy. There are those who don’t have the need. But to go along with the spirit of the holiday, they wear pom poms or silly animal ears. Not as a disguise. Just to signal that they are part of what’s happening.

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two blue people with dog

The holiday commemorates an event that happened some two and a half thousand years ago, in ancient Persia, which had a large Jewish population after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The most important minister in Persia, second only to the King, planned to wipe out all the Jews of that empire. And had it happened, it would have been something like the holocaust, which annihilated most of the Jewish communities in Europe a little over 70 years ago. As it turned out, the hand of fate intervened in this story, after the plan had already gotten the approval of the all powerful King. The evil minister fell from greatness to dishonor. Instead of watching the extermination of the Jewish people, he himself was executed, together with his closest associates.

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We fast the day before Purim, to remember our fear, as the catastrophe was approaching. And then we celebrate. Jews are actually encouraged to drink to drunkenness (an uncommon practice in our culture). A great banquet is held in many private homes. And most of the population take part, either in producing the banquet or being a guest at the banquet of a friend. People masquerade in costumes. Not just children; adults too. Joking, clowning, and juggling is the order of the day. It is common to watch humorous skits which have a farcical nature.

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A book telling the long story is read in the synagogue or in a public place, and every time the evil minister is mentioned, people make a great noise with noisemakers, in derision. Sweet cookies, representing the ear of the villain of the story are eaten. Charity is emphasized. People bring baked and cooked foods as presents to their neighbors. The pictures on this post were taken a week ago, on Friday. Here in Jerusalem, we celebrate one day later than in most of the world. The reason for that was mentioned last week.

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55 responses to “a most unusual holiday

  1. Nice to see that you have your own version of Carnival, just for fun after a long winter, when spirits need cheering up! I loved my little break in Spain last month and it was wonderful to see so many people taking part, big and small! Great costumes!

    • Yes, it does seem that many cultures have similar conventions and needs, even if they express them a little differently. It was good to be light hearted for a while, and play instead of taking things seriously. Thanks, Fatima

  2. Thank you for sharing these wonderful Purim photos. Here it snowed a mighty storm on Purim this year! We ended up not being able to attend the seuda with family as driving was out of the question, but instead spent it with friends within walking distance. I loved seeing the scenes around Jerusalem

    • I remember years when it snowed on Purim here too. But usually we enjoy good weather on this day. I hope you had a wonderful seudah with a few good laughs as well. Thank you very much for your comment.

  3. The celebrations of holidays bring wonderful spirit to the community. You describe the reality and silly fantasies so beautiful. You are right, we have desires, but not all the forbidden fantasies. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Mr. Shimon. Have an enjoyable weekend. 🙂

    • And thank you, Amy. It amazes me, how I manage to lose track of things… and end up discovering unanswered comments from months past. Here we are, already into the summer, and I have discovered some back pages. Thanks you so much for your good wishes.

  4. Great costumes. It would have been fun to be in Israel for purim.

  5. I enjoyed these photos and your explanations so much, Shimon, that I’ve read through the post three times and am forwarding it to friends, who I know will enjoy it, too. What a lovely, lovey spirit Purim has, so vital to who we are as humans. Thank you, and blessings.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Kitty. It is very good to have a light hearted celebration such as this. Some time has gone by since then, and finally I am trying to catch up, after multiple distractions… I do appreciate your message. Best wishes to you.

  6. Thanks for showing us Purim in action and for further information. 🙂

  7. I’ve grown up with the story of Esther, but I knew little about Purim. Thank you for sharing a bit of this interesting holiday. How fun.

    • There are so many levels to these traditional stories, that one can go back to them again and again and see something different each time. It’s an ancient story, but also seems timely. There’s a fast day before the celebrations… and then there is fun. And how good it is to enjoy the fun. Thanks Judy.

  8. I would love the holiday of Purin. I have always enjoyed costumes and entering the world of fantasy.. It seems to me that everyone was having a wonderful time….and perfect timing before all the drama and seriousness of the election.

    Have a lovely weekend. Janet:)xx

    • I know you would have a great time on purim, Janet. It’s fun both to watch and to participate, and it offers much, both to the senses and the emotions… with a good bit of laughter as well. I smile as I find your comment from winter and answer in summer… it’s all transcendent too. My very best wishes to you, my dear friend. xxx

  9. I love your pictures in the bright sunshine Shimon. Very nice to learn more about the Purim holiday and how it is celebrated.

    • I do love the bright sunshine, Chillbrook. When this post came out, it was a precious moment. Now it’s summer, and we get a lot of it. But I still love it. I find it inspiring. Thanks.

  10. The photos of your walkings and journeys Shimon transport me into a world I knew not …thank you , your light always shines so bright …

    • Thank you so much for your kind comment, Meg. Hope these days find you in good spirits and good health. How wonderful it is to finally enjoy the summer months, after the cold winter. Best wishes always.

  11. I hope you had many אוזן המן, and shared them (smile)

    • Yes, Lance. We had some fine treats for Purim, and light hearted play. I appreciate your familiarity with Hebrew.
      יהי רצון שנזכה לשלום ואושר ונשמע יחד בשורות טובות

  12. In some ways, it sounds as if some of the aspects of your Purim holiday could be loosely compared to the Catholic-based holiday known as Mardi Gras (aka Carnival) that is celebrated on the Tuesday before Lent, marking the beginning of the Easter season. This year, it was celebrated on February 17th. It changes from year to year, but always lands on the Tuesday before Lent begins.

    Mardi Gras celebrations are marked by elaborate and colorful costumes, raucous parades, much revelry and debauchery, and “drinking to the point of drunkenness”. Historically, it is supposed to provide a great celebration of silliness and drunkenness to mark the days just prior to the beginning of Lent; a sort of “last hurrah” before the Easter season begins.

    Mardi Gras celebrations, at least from what I’ve witnessed in the US, have become more about having a wild excuse to party and let loose and behave in ways you normally would not, and seem to have lost any connection at all to the original roots of the holiday, which were tied to Catholicism. If you were to try to explain how debauchery and drunkenness have anything at all to do with the reverence and the fasting of the season of Lent, and what the colorful costumes and parades have to do with the veneration and exaltation of the Easter season, you might find yourself struggling to explain how the celebration of Mardi Gras has evolved.

    It sounds as if the Purim holiday at least includes actual references to the history of the holiday, marked by the book readings. I believe those historical references have been lost in the Mardi Gras celebrations, at least from my perspective. I especially loved your thoughts on how the holiday is also a way to acknowledge that “things are often not as they seem” and that there will always be things in this world that are beyond our understanding. Accepting that premise and becoming comfortable with it would certainly seem to alleviate much of the ongoing search for discernment that so many of us are plagued by, as we continually attempt to make sense of things that are simply beyond our understanding.

    As always, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the holiday, and especially for sharing those wonderful photos that helped bring the holiday to life. I love how it is a blend of innocence and fun, despite that it falls just before such an important election, where serious matters are at hand. Life is exactly like that, isn’t it? Some of this, and some of that, and often, beyond our ability to comprehend. We take comfort in our celebrations and routines, and try to embrace the spirit of the holiday, no matter what else might be happening.

    It is always so good to hear from you, and to see your selection of photos. That last photo of the costumed ladies dancing on stilts was perfectly timed. Love the colors and movement. A perfect example of celebration, and that often, things are not what they might seem, and that some things are beyond our understanding. What an absolutely perfect photo.

    • Thanks very much, Nancy, for sharing aspects of the Catholic celebration that I was unfamiliar with. There is something touching and very human about the fact that very different cultures have similar ceremonies and traditions… and sometimes I wonder if we don’t try to rationalize too much, rather than go with the intuition and enjoy. But I suppose it is good to have both; the historical consciousness and the light hearted joy of a holiday. It was a pleasure reading your thoughts on the holiday.

  13. A holiday I have never heard of, and that is after 4 yrs of med school where half the class was Jewish. That last image…are they on stilts or on someone elses shoulders. I seems a lot of creativity is involved, which is wonderful. Civilations/Religions who encourage drunkedness are very unusual. I know they exist in South America…but never heard of it in Europe.

    • I don’t know about South America, but I can tell you that drunkenness is very rare among our people compared with others. That could be one of the reasons that it is encouraged. Perhaps we have a tendency to take ourselves too seriously. As for the giants, I believe they were on stilts. Another little game to widen our sense of perspective. Thanks for the comment, Bob.

  14. Having so recently participated in the Courir de Mardi Gras — the rural Mardi Gras in Acadiana, the part of Louisiana where Cajun history and tradition also are honored — this struck me: “to go along with the spirit of the holiday, they wear pom poms or silly animal ears. Not as a disguise. Just to signal that they are part of what’s happening.”

    I brought home a great pile of beads from Mardi Gras. People throw them, catch them, wear them, all for the same purpose, to show that they are a part of the celebration, too.

    You’re so right that people need a time of release, too. The world is a difficult and dangerous place these days, and we all could worry ourselves to death. To take time to simply be wth others, to drink, to laugh — it is, I think, to reclaim our humanity. And we certainly need every ounce of humanity we can muster to deal with what surrounds us.

    I once read a personal essay about a Jewish convert who just had experienced sitting Shiva for the first time. I still remember his primary point: you don’t go because you knew the person, or admired the person. You go because you are part of the community, and to fulfill your obligations within community is a blessing. There was a word he used: “mitzvah”?

    In any event, Purim clearly is about community, history, and humanity. What’s not to like?

    • A mitzvah is a precept… like a commandment, it is a law one should follow. But since we are aware that we don’t always follow the rules, there is an added connotation to the word in Hebrew, which indicates that is an honor. There is a popular saying here, the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah; the punishment for a transgression is another transgression. Thanks for your comment, Linda. It is always a pleasure hearing from you… and after an overdose of distractions (living life), here I am, once again, looking through my back pages.

  15. Thank you for this wonderful post explaining the origin of Purim and how it is celebrated in Jerusalem today. I knew very little about Purim before reading this. Now I know enough to want to learn more!

    • Very glad you enjoyed the post, Corina. It is a pleasure sharing with my friends the life we live here in Jerusalem… I know there are many similarities too… and that just makes it easier to understand one another.

  16. I’m glad to have learned a bit more today from you, Shimon. And thanks for including some great street photos. Celebrations, happiness, and silliness are so needed in this world full of atrocities.

    • I am sure you would have had a wonderful time here, photographing, Angeline. Everywhere I turned, there was something else that captured my eyes, and got my thoughts going. Glad you liked the post.

  17. Some ‘Fantasmalicious’ pictures. A fairy tale angel in quite a complex dress. She is sweet. Do you have angels? The circus acts and comical people participations are palpable.

    • Oh yes, we have angels, menhir. But they are quite different from the angels of the western world. But at a celebration like this one, I think the west has the upper hand on our traditional view of the universe. But that’s okay too. People are glad to support the fantasies of their children.

  18. Thanks for the walk around town, Shimon. As always, you put together a great post.

  19. I found this fascinating! What an interesting holiday! I like the fact that on Purim you remind yourself that there is much around you that you don’t understand, I think we all need to reflect on that a little, as you say, we do try to rationalise everything. I would have enjoyed being there and seeing all those sights, I enjoyed them all, my favourite has to be the blue people with the husky!
    I find it shocking to think that yet again the Jews were targeted, thank God that heinous plot failed!
    I do enjoy finding out more and more about your history and culture.xxx

    • There is a Jewish joke that goes like this: What is a holiday? It’s when you sit down to a banquet and say, ‘and on this day, the evil ones tried to do us in, but luck/god was with us, and we survived once again. Okay everybody, let’s eat’. It seems to me that the best part of this holiday, is that we relate to it with humor and fun. Thanks so much for your comment, Dina. xxx

  20. Interesting to read about Purim. I had seen the name on calendars but did not know what it was. Thank you for letting us know.

  21. I enjoy the way your photos capture slices of life, just as it is, and we can see the patterns and contacts in them. Purim sounds a lot of fun! The book of Esther is an inspiration to us still…. maybe we are in the situations we find ourselves, ‘for such a time as this.’

    • Agree with you, Gill. Sometimes it’s hard to understand, but we certainly are in those situations ‘for such a time as this’. It looks like it’s all coincidence at times, but everything is tied together… and as we both believe… there is a point to it all.

  22. Delightful, carefree scenes all round Shimon. I hadn’t heard of Purim before. Thank you for the education. And belated Purim wishes to you and your loved ones.

    • Well Madhu… You see here just how belated one can get. But I thank you for your comment, and glad to know that I introduced you to this strange holiday here in Israel. I’m sure you have similar holidays in your part of the world.

  23. Wonderful photos, we feel we are there! Thank you 😉 Jean & Alex

  24. Lovely post Shimon and yes, very little is as it seems. Hugs x.

  25. This was a new celebration for me. Always enjoy learning the customs of other countries. It does remind me of our Mardi Gras.

  26. A fun and informative post, Shimon. I hope your Purim was a happy one!

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