Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Thank goodness that after my last posting, Purim was not far off. Fieldwork is challenging and I clearly was in need of cheering up - Purim did the trick. Purim dates back to the 4th century BCE,  during the Jewish exile to Babylon. Its generally seen as another "they tried to kill us, they didn't succeed, let's eat" party. There are some other interesting nuances to the story of Esther, Mordechai and Haman, such as killing off the adversary's family and stealing their things- just for good measure - but upon mentioning this part of the story, I have been surprised that some were unfamiliar with it.

The holiday promotes boisterousness, sillyness and drunkenness  - its actually commanded - and people enjoy turning conventions on their head. Costumes are a must and it offers people an opportunity to cross borders and be who they wouldn't dare be otherwise. As a result, we saw quite a few cross-dressers and "ultra-orthodox." This little fellow is not in costume (I found the photo on the net), I'm afraid, but the cigarette hopefully marks a clear divergence from his otherwise successful career as a first grader.

My celebration was wonderful. First I went to Tel Aviv with friends, to a party that had been announced via facebook (I feel so hip). The evening afterwards, we went to another party in Jerusalem. The holiday is celebrated on different days depending on whether you live in a walled city or not - the original event happened in Persia, within a, hence the difference. Not that this really explains anything, but still... So Tel Aviv is not a walled city - so off we went on Saturday evening for celebrations in the unwalled, untethered and unorthodox city of sin. A friend commented that he thought we broadcasted our Jerusalemness - I guess he thought that we stuck out as particularly frum thumbs. Speak for yourself, but I was tickled to be included in the description. Next day, safe within the morally superior walls of Al-Quds, I heard the Meggilah reading at kol haneshama (more about that soon) and later we took off for Boogie, a place that had been mentioned to me by several sources as The Place to go dancing on Purim.

I had actually planned to go as a mad scientist - I thought that this would be particularly appropriate - a way to poke a little fun at myself, while having a good excuse to write field notes during festivities. But getting a lab coat proved to be difficult and so with no time to spare on saturday evening, I shoved some plastic flowers in my hair, jumped into the backseat of a friend's car and we sped off down Road 443 for Tel Aviv. The driver had never been that way before, but she was advised to take this route by another friend in the car, so off we sped, unknowingly thumbing out Purim noses at those who are prohibited from using the road. Another friend commented that she was not very adventurous when it came to the territories. Indeed driving on 443 wasn't very exciting: there wasn't even any traffic except for when we got to the checkpoint, where we had to slow down briefly to send out our "we're the good guys" vibes to the gum- chewing, machine-gun toting kid at the border, bringing us back into Israel proper.

I wonder if those kids at the border post would have stopped us if any of us had been dressed as a Dubai assassin? This story has been all the rage in the newspapers in Israel over the past many weeks and has inspired many a creative Purim Costume this year.

The story goes like this: On January 20th, a head Hamas man, Mahmoud al-Mabhouth, was murdered in his hotel room in Dubai. As the story began to unfold, more and more suspects emerged in the investigation. They were men and women who had entered the United Arab Emirates on false passports. The passports were supposed to be German, English, Irish and several others. The pictures in them were of the people carrying the passports, but the names were "stolen" from existing Israeli civilians who share a resemblance with the supposed assassins. They had all entered the country on pretexts, of course, some of them for vacation, others for business conferences, etc., but the main reason for visiting Mr. al-Mabhouth, was apparently to "liquidate" him - that's spy talk for "kill him". Nobody, at least in the media, seems to know who dun it and apart from some cute comments about the pictures published in the local newspapers, many of those whose identity has been stolen are quite nervous about the repercussions of this mix up on their family lives. But all this didn't stop many a young Israeli from dressing up as a "Mossad agent" for Purim. This was achieved by donning vacation clothes, such as tennis shorts and a t-shirt, accessorizing with a tennis racket and then adding the obligatory secret agent sunglasses, plus a gun = bingo. Some added the fake passport photo to their t-shirt. Brilliant.

I run into this kind of humor all the time and it is wonderful. You can buy a t-shirt in the Arab suq that reads: Mossad: My job is so secret that even I don't know what I'm doing. Very apropos. But the background for such jokes are quite chilling - but then again, you've got to laugh about something. Humor seems to be a major coping mechanism here, among other things. Just to see how far such humor could be stretched, I asked a friend if anyone ever dressed up as a suicide bomber for Purim, but we agreed that this wouldn't be so funny.

At both of the parties, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, security was top notch. The kid at the border barely scowled her purim salutations at us. She was probably mad that she was on duty. Besides, her soldier outfit was soooo 1967. But the security guys at the party in Tel Aviv made an effort to peek in every woman's bag and to feel up every guy. The place was packed and we wiggled as best we could to the inane beat, like sardines, post- canning.

The next night was more fun. Firstly, I went to kol haneshama, a reform synagogue in Jerusalem to hear the Megillah reading. I think I went as Queen Esther or Vashti, but truly, I designed my costume based on what I could find in a friend's Purim box, and this was the result:

Some of the best costumes at the synagogue were the guy dressed up as a haredi man holding a sign that read: "Haredim for diversity and tolerance". That's a really good joke in Israel among the more progressive and secular Jews... Then there was an "ultra-orthodox" woman who looked like she was pregnant with at least sextuplets, who behaved garishly during the reading. There were of course, the above described "Mossad agents" and the Rabbi was dressed as Captain Kirk - complete with kippah. The reading was punctuated by calls of "Go Vashti!" and the ever eager kracher, boo-calling and ululations when evil Haman's name was mentioned. Well, I admit, the ululations were mostly me - but that's because I didn't have a kracher and it makes me feel cool to ululate (I love saying that - it sounds so....). People really get into this stuff. It's delicious to be allowed to be rude and vulgar in a religious setting.

My last bit of Purim fun was the next day, when I was invited to sudat Purim - the Purim meal. I was given several mishloach manot and was really touched that people went out of their way to give me these traditional gifts - they are usually baskets with sweets - in order to mark my first Purim in Israel. I met lots of lovely people, the food was delicious, and the conversation lively - oh, and yes, we drank.

And here, a final Purim picture - also found on the net. A friend has suggested that it is iconic and I must agree. The combination of goofiness, sweetness and a deadly weapon is actually pretty standard fare.

1 comment:

johs said...

I wanna go, and - Oh,Oh - if you're Esther I wanna be Khashayar. The dress-up included, purim sounds nothing like dansk Fastelavn. One kid came by the house, mumbling: "Fastelavn er mit navn" into his scarf, dressed up as a soccer player, without the spiked shoes and the ball. (Yawn!) Gave him stern look and a carrot and send him off.