Purim in the Holy Land
I saw a shift in the day as Shabbat ended in Tzfat: The Hasidic men abandoned their black in favor of colorful décor, huge sunglasses and beanies brightening their traditionally somber appearances. The women all began putting on bright lipsticks and funny hats, and the mood immediately went from sleepy Shabbat to mischievous Purim, the happiest of all Jewish holidays.
According to Eli at the hostel, Purim is the only holiday that will be celebrated after the coming of the messiah, and it is with great reason: It’s probably the happiest Jewish holiday I can think of, with no taint of want or desire for something more. It’s all laughter and color, festive with dancing and food, not to mention the drinking. Oh, the drinking.
When I was hanging out with Lauren and Avi, I bought myself a fez and a bowtie I saw in a mall shop, wanting desperately to be Doctor Who, the famous traveling BBC Timelord. Of course, since I was in a different country, no one knew who the hell I was supposed to be. It didn’t seem to matter though: This wasn’t like Halloween in Los Angeles where you needed to dress to impress. Everyone was in such an assortment of costume gear that just as long as you were wearing something weird you fit right in.
As Shabbat ended, the people crowded into the synagogue up above to hear the reading of the story of Esther. I slipped my Wonder Woman t-shirt over my long-sleeved back shirt and paired it with my long black skirt. I walked up to the room with Julianna, who was wary of the holiday as this was her very first Purim. I tried to explain to her how to boo when the villain was mentioned, and what the story was about, and trying to instill in her how much fun this was.
I watched as the women sat there reading studiously as the rabbi said every word. Yet when Haman the villain was mentioned, it was like a burst of noise. The pastel pink and shocking purple wigs on the women seemed to shake. The noisemakers were out in full force and the curtain between the men and the women seemed to shake. The Orthodox girls’ skirts seemed to sway in the quiet, and then jolt awake as the melodrama played out.
As the portion ended, the room seemed to burst with song. The girls around me seemed to envelop me and we danced in a way that I never dreamed imaginable, our voices loud and strong. The fervor of joy was unexpected; in most Orthodox circles, the women become quiet and reserved, thinking the silence somehow shows strength and joy is the ultimate in weakness. As I filmed the joyous dancing, we were instructed to head to the nearby hotel for more celebrations: Liquor-laced drinks in thin plastic cups, bottles of wine carried around like we were in New Orleans as opposed to Israel, and costumes upon costumes.
Eli wore a Rastafarian wig and had stripped out of his black coat, his beard still prominent as ever. He mixed the drinks between the barrier of dancing between the men and the women, although he wasn’t supposed to look at the women dancing. We swayed in circles as the girls greeted me with hugs and asking me why I had to leave the next morning to Tel Aviv. My body sweat through the trappings of the long sleeves under my Wonder Woman shirt.
I paused in my dancing to ask Eli for one of his mixed drinks.
“Will I live after this?” I asked of the drink that was being poured for me.
“You will live, and your mother will live!” he said to me emphatically. I wondered how much of him had already been lost to alcohol and was slightly concerned. I wandered through the town, the people laughing and linking arms with song on their lips. Eventually, I found my way back to the hotel where Eli was standing with a group. He came up to me.
“Reina, you must meet my Rabbi,” he said. “He can help with your mother. He can help you.”
He called over a portly older man. Unlike the other Hasidic men, he wore no costume, his seriousness seeming to bring a dour to the rest of the lobby’s true expression of joy, masks and brightly-colored pieces. I felt slightly awkward that Eli was so insistent on introducing me to his rabbi. I may be secular, but I know in religious communities it’s the equivalent of being introduced to a guy’s parents.
The rabbi asked me what was going on with my mother, and I told him that I needed to bless her, find a way to help her in that town. He seemed strangely concerned for a girl who had wandered out of nowhere.
“Is there anything else you want?” he asked. I told him honestly that I wanted so many things, including a match. When he asked me how religious, I admitted the truth about my coverings: I wasn’t religious. He urged me to go back to my community and find a husband there. There are certain things that even Purim costumes can’t shield you from.
The next morning, I seemed to strip away the things that made me hide in this community: My longer sleeves, my ankle-skimming skirts and even my nice shoes. I switched to my black converse and jeans and slipped on my black leather jacket. As beautiful as my time was Tzfat, I realized the truth as I slipped on the Egged bus to the train with very few goodbyes: My place was not in religion. I could be Jewish without it, and I had a place in the secular world that was more important to occupy. I took my fez and bowtie and settled into the wifi and traveling life.
And yet, somehow I was heartened as I traveled down the country, playing music in my ears and seeing little girls with bright butterfly wings, women wearing halos and different colored wigs and the men even donning jester hats. The soldiers carrying their guns along the trains seemed to even smile along with the mayhem.
Just because I wasn’t religious and never would be again didn’t mean I couldn’t lose myself to the whimsy. After all, wasn’t it my vision of the rebbe that sent me away to be a part of this world, to go be myself? In the meantime, just drink it all in and savor this beautiful new view of the world. I was going to enjoy all of this now. Particularly when I exited the train station in Tel Aviv and there was a guy who stood outside, pointed at me and said the famous Doctor Who phrase with a giant smile: “Fezes are cool!”
I never felt more like myself when I returned the sentiment with, “Why yes, they are!”