I used to think of Purim mainly as a children’s holiday—but that was before I was exposed to Tel Aviv culture. Now that my two daughters live in Tel Aviv and I live in the neighboring city of Herzliya, I know that Purim is not just for kids: It is the Jewish holiday for adults in Tel Aviv, especially young ones.
The nights surrounding Purim are jam-packed with masquerade parties. These parties have a very different cast of characters than one sees at traditional Purim fairs or at Jewish days schools, where the Big Four (Mordecai, Esther, Haman, and Ahaseurus) loom large. The Purim story is far from the minds of Tel Aviv revelers, though this is not to say that Jewish culture does not make an appearance in a costume or two—last year, for example, one creative Tel Avivian got dressed up as a succah.
Purim has achieved something that no other Jewish holiday has achieved: It has galvanized secular Israelis into investing a lot of time and energy into something that is rooted in the spirit of the day. Secular Israelis celebrate most of the other Jewish holidays as recreation days, spent at the beach or in parks, with big family meals that feature a relevant holiday touch— whether apples dipped in honey, jelly donuts, matza, or cheesecake. With Purim, secular Israel has taken a key element of the holiday and run with it. In the Talmud (Tractate Megilah 7b), Rava says: “Everyone should reach a state where they cannot tell the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai.” All those wild Tel Aviv Purim parties may be thought of as being in the spirit of this Talmudic dictate.
The traditional Purim commandments (mitzvot) are typically not practiced by people who party the night away, and this is perhaps why, from my Orthodox perspective, I used to think of Purim just as a children’s holiday. While every Israeli child observes the holiday to the extent that they come to school in costume on the appointed day, the traditions of going to synagogue on the night and on the morning of Purim to hear the reading of the Book of Esther, of exchanging food baskets (shalach manos), of giving Purim charity, and of having a festive meal are almost exclusively the preserve of the religious. For example last year, our first year in Herzliya, I had thought that Purim might be an opportunity for the people in the six other apartments in our building to reciprocate for some of the challah that I routinely give them. They did not because, in general, secular people do not give shalach manos; this, even though you can buy ready-made Purim food baskets all over Israel in the weeks leading up to the holiday, and many Israeli work places have a day around Purim for exchanging such baskets. (Just for the record—not that my “spread the love through challah” project is dependent on it—reciprocation came in advance of this past Rosh Hashanah.)
Perhaps I am making too big a deal out of Purim as Israeli Jewish masquerade? After all, the cast of characters that one will see at a Tel Aviv Purim party will not be all that different from a big costume bash that might be given in your own neighborhood on Halloween. But there is a difference: Only in Israel, the one country in the world with a majority Jewish culture, is the country’s annual masquerade on Purim, and only in Israel do secular Jews as well as religious Jews celebrate on Purim. As someone who is committed to Jewish tradition, and as someone who has both religious and secular Israeli grandchildren, I’m very happy to be living in Israel. I only hope and pray that the coronavirus-coast is clear enough to celebrate this year. Happy Purim!
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, sarah jane ross, have five children.