Perhaps no holiday is enjoyed as much as Purim with its revelries and irreverent humor. Tracing to ancient Persia, according to historian Hayyim Schauss, “Purim, from the beginning, had the characteristic of a spring masquerade, and was a festival of play and frolic, of merriment and mischief, of abandon and wine-drinking.” Jewish catastrophes were often followed by festivals of celebration, and Purim is perhaps most joyous of all.
At least since the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, Jews have celebrated the holiday with a spiel, a boisterous, satirical play that turns the world upside down. Jewish celebrations had grown so unfettered that by the middle of the nineteenth century Jews began holding decorous masquerade balls that impressed upon their Christian neighbors just how proper and respectable they could be. Such balls, led by Americanized Jews from German-speaking lands, were held in North Carolina as early as the 1870s (read more about this in this JHNC blog entry).
The custom of play acting had arisen in Eastern Europe with pious—at the time male—Jews dressed in costumes taking roles from the Book of Esther. Men, having partaken of more than one cup of wine, played Vashti or Esther, Haman or Mordecai. In America women have taken the lead in producing the spiels. Denied leadership in ritual and governance, the spiel was an opportunity for women, often consigned to synagogue balconies, to take center stage, turning synagogue rule topsy turvy. After all, a woman was the heroine of the Purim saga. In Durham in the 1930s the spiel was produced by the Ladies Aid Society. It packed the hall. The play was conducted in Yiddish, without a script, and was ad libbed, provoking raucous laughter. Women, reversing gender roles, wore patriarchal steel-wool beards and took their revenge on the men. One popular model was to parody Broadway musicals. In the 1940s Durham women at Beth El created their own Purim cantata which they produced in the synagogue’s basement vestry. In the 1950s in Weldon Temple ladies celebrated Purim by writing their own musical “The Great Robbery at Goldfarber’s Gulch.”
Today, as is true of many Purim holidays, Purim is celebrated as a family holiday with children at center stage.
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