Purim is now most memorable as a family celebration, a raucous children’s party with creative costumes, home-baked hamantaschen, and a noisy service during which the megillah, the Scroll of Esther, is read. The name of Haman is cursed with groggers even as that of Mordecai is cheered.
A century ago the memorable Purim event would have been a formal masquerade in which adults ate and danced the evening away in elegant surroundings. The first such ball was celebrated in New York City in 1860, and the custom spread like wildfire. In 1873 Charlotte did not yet have a congregation, but local Jews “turned out en masse” for a “grand masked ball at the Central Hotel.” Wilmington hosted a ball in 1877, followed by Tarboro in 1878, Durham in 1887, Goldsboro in 1889, and Statesville in 1895. Christians were also invited. Purim balls grew so extravagant that rabbis expressed concern about their propriety. Wilmington’s Concordia Society Purim Ball in 1889 featured an “elegant supper” of mayonnaise lobsters, beef tongue, and Neapolitan ice cream. The intentions were charitable. Goldsboro sent its profits to the Hebrew Orphan’s Home in Atlanta while Statesville collected money to build its synagogue.