“Why isnt this better known? After all Chinese New Year is a big event and we are the only photographers here.”
So said a fellow photographer as we watched a man in tradition black and white Hasidic or Haredi dress (typified by long black coat and large fur hat) escort three bears on scooters, who were trying to dodge another dressed as a blue wolf! This was Purim, or rather its most public tradition associated with the Jewish festival.
Really considering there has been a Hebrew community possibly continually from the 1780s when Italian Jew Moses Vita Montefiore famously settled there. This notwithstanding the wholesale influx of the Hasidic community was not established until the 1940s. From then on the curious custom has become more and more evident and now over 30,000 Jews reside in around 19 streets which for 24 hours or so become a focus of so much attention.
I was first made aware of the custom in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1994 Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem and had always been keen to track it down. The authors state:
“Purim takes place mainly behind closed doors. But because part of the ritual involves dressing in outlandish attire, celebrants can be seen doing the shopping or nipping to the Post Office dressed as clowns, Godzilla or Bambi”
It has took me over 20 years to track it down, probably put off by the ‘behind closed doors’ ( the authors state attending could be tricky) making me think it would be unlikely to see the curious ritual…however I was wrong. Within arriving at Stamford Hill darting across the road in front of me were two clowns and panda!
It’s in the book…
Book of Esther that is. That tells us that a man called Haman in Persia can convinced the King Ahasuerus to murder the Empire’s Jewish community. Fortunately, the King who was married to a Jewish woman by the name of Esther foiled the plot and Haman was hung. The name itself being derived from the word for lots, relating to the lots drawn in preparation of the planned massacre.
There are a number of different customs and traditions associated the day, the exploration of which would warrant another blog post, after all I’ve never done one just on ‘Christmas’ or ‘Easter’ Purim is one of those multifaceted traditions. No it’s the fancy dress I am interested in here.
But why the fancy dress? Purim also falls in the Jewish month of Adar, usually March but sometimes February, who is traditionally it is said “when Adar begins, joy should be increased’. How this fits into fancy dress I still don’t understand unless the persecuted Jews hid from their oppressor by disguise.
One cannot help draw comparisons to other Christian and possibly pre-Christian traditions of disguising especially at the turning of the year. Did Purim originate as a spring festival, a recognised turning of the world when spirit were abroad and disguise helped prevent them dragging you back?
Even the weather could not discourage the attendees. As the rain beat down this Purim, umbrellas were out but colourful costumes were not. In the spate of an hour wandering around I saw
The costumes could be divided into a number of categories:
Traditional – there were girls dressed as Esther, boys as Arabs some on Camels, some even smoking fake Camel cigarettes.
Work related – a number of girls dressed as air hostesses, some with trolleys which helped in the delivery of manot xxx. Soldiers, Doctors.
Comical – Clowns were the most common, but bears and animals common, one was dressed as a drink carton (!) and one in a retro Tony Blair mask!
Parody – What was interesting is the way in which these younger members are allowed to mock their elders. Amongst the costumes were girls dressed a cliché Jewish grandmas, army members, miniature versions of their fathers in full Hasidic dress and rabbis. The latter were particularly common and they were proud to introduce themselves as such and encourage deference for them. Their costumes particularly looked well made and I would say professional. Cooper and Sullivan (1994) state that mock-Rabbis were elected over Purim in a move parallel to mock-mayors in secular culture.
Comparing to Hallowe’en is an easy comparison but this is something more artful and clearly more wholesome. There’s no blood and guts.
Purim it about
This is really a community letting its communal hair down. At one point a bombing and pulsing could be heard, a beat a sound of music. Then around the corner, came a large red open top bus. On top it was throng with young Hasidic Jews wearing fezs and looking very jolly. They stopped tumbled out of the bus, looking a little worse for wear, some streamed into houses, others decided to let loose to the music and started twirling around in the road. At one point one grabbed me and putting his hat upon me, we spent a surreal moment dancing around each other, arm in arm, a Purim dance off. Then they were off!
Turn the corner and there are two students dressed head to toe in a white traditional dress, smiling singing and shaking hands. Their infectious enthusiasm and addictive beat even reaches an elderly member of the community who mounting the steps of a nearby house, twists and turns, hands raised up singing along, perhaps remembering younger days.
The intoxicating joy and celebration is difficult to miss…but this is a busy day, cars rush by driven by super heroes who toss their charity contributions in awaiting collectors, one dressed as a golf course!
Purim and out
Indeed as an observer, the whole event appears to be a frenetic flash of colour, as parents escort their fancy dressed charges in and out of houses to deliver their Mishloach manot gifts. Many of these are an art form in themselves, luxury chocolates tiered into pyramids, other expensive bottles of alcohol – for this is the one time of the year the community can drink!
Doors are opened. Every door is open. Children stand and sit of steps in fancy dress! Children their faces full of anticipation sit there waiting…and waiting…sometimes with wistful places… is it me next. Closed doors have Mishloach manot awaiting – one had five bottles of wine awaiting for its owner!
After a while it all becomes a bit too dazzling and you are looking for the next more bizarre costume. At one point I was swamped by a large group of children dressed as soldiers, knights, rabbis, arabs and what in intents and purposes looked like a character off the side of Robinson’s marmalade smoking a cigarette – some costumes were perhaps a little over the right side of PC! They were keen to have their photos taken…all upon doing so they asked for a donation! Upon seeing a girl dressed as a giant fish I think I might have reached the apex!
Purim, its public face, is a crazy festival, but a great one of giving, charity itself is important on the day, but above all celebration. It is said when the Messiah does come all Jewish festivals will cease bar Purim…let the party continue