When a client, a Grandmother, complained that her daughter-in-law was too strict about costumes for Purim, the Anthropologist in me decided to pull the thread about this annual Jewish celebration.
This biblical story from the Book of Esther reads today like a classic fairy tale with a beautiful girl and her wise male cousin, an insipid king and an evil royal adviser. The shared learning or Culture from this tale, however, is about a common theme of Jewish celebrations, survival.
With exception, the megillah, or tale, goes something like this: Beautiful orphan Esther lives the simple life with her cousin Mordecai in “Susa”, now one of the oldest cities in the world and located near what is modern day Shūsh, Iran.
King Ahasuerus wants to trade in his old wife and chooses Esther from all the girls in the land to be his new bride. Esther’s cousin Mordecai advises her to keep hidden that she is Jewish, because there are evil people in the royal court that might wish to harm her.
While out and about in town, cousin Mordecai bumps into Haman, but refuses to bow to or acknowledge him as the Royal Adviser. The evil Haman, already plotting to take over the Kingdom by having the butler and cook poison the King’s soup, goes crazy and decrees that on 13th day of the twelfth month ~ Adar, in the Hebrew calender, all Jews from India to Ethiopia will be put to death.
To prevent the death decree, cousin Mordecai now begs Queen Esther to reveal herself as a Jewess to the King. It works, the King cannot refuse his beautiful Queen. Instead he makes the cook and the butler drink the poisoned soup and hangs the evil Royal Adviser, Haman.
Purim is a great excuse to boo-hiss the bad guys, whirl noisemakers, produce skits, drink, dance, eat pastries called hamantaschen [Haman’s Hats] and to get into costume.
Almost all costume play has a structure to maintain its original intent, even if time, place or circumstance try to confiscate it. For example, WWII. In Binocular Vision, short stories by Edith Pearlman,’Purim Night’ recounts a fictitious group of people [Jewish and not] partying in a camp after the war as they wait to go to America, England and Israel. The point is they all try to dress and party in spite of the lack of dress and food to celebrate their survival.
Cosplay costumes are about “fandom”. Originating in Japan and now popular in North America, at events like FanExpo Canada people dress and act the part of their favourite character from film, anime, gaming, television, manga or comic books. It’s a kind of creative homage.
Samhain or Halloween is about “disguise”. People dress to avoid being recognized, and thus harassed, by evil spirits that cross over to make mischief on the one night between harvest and winter.
So if Purim is about “survival”, how do we account for the presence of Superheroes, Space Aliens, Cowboys and a Rock Star in the Synagogue, instead of the characters Esther, The King, Mordecai and Haman.
My friend Josh is a parent, Jewish and makes a living for the world largest costume company, Rubies Costumes. I asked him if there was a connection between the level of orthodoxy and the strictness of costume choices. I was surprised to learn that record rentals of mascot characters like Elmo at Purim go to the strictest Jewish community in the GTA.
He further explained, no one wants to dress as Haman or the King anyway. Giving the child the choice of what to wear keeps them engaged and gets them into the Synagogue.
Good point for all parents. Once there, what they are wearing is irrelevant to the fact that they are in their community, disengaged from media, slowing down to connect emotionally [by booing the bad guys] and linking memory through smell, taste and touch [Haman’s Hat pastries].
I tried to tease out Cultural differences for Purim between Jewish communities in Canada, the USA and in Israel, but could not find anything meaningful. You can find traditional witch and contemporary zombie along with strawberries, clowns, swat officers and princesses in parades in Israel around Purim.
The conclusion is that costume play at Purim is like costume play any where, any time. It is a function of access to consumer goods, time, money, what is socially accepted by the community and general appropriateness dictated by parents [lol not the grandparent].