Purim has become a family celebration, often a children’s party, a fun time at temple with comical reading of the megillah, costume parade, and noisemaking. Purim has always been festive, but more than a century ago the observances grew so ostentatious that rabbis warned that Jews were desecrating the holiday.
It all began in New York City in 1862 when Meyer Isaacs, the 20-year-old son of a Jewish newspaper publisher, gathered aspiring, young American-born Jews like himself to plan a “Fancy Dress Ball” that would earn them a place in the society columns. They rented and decorated a hall for a charity ball, inviting Jew and non-Jew alike to a masquerade. Its success led to the organizing of the Purim Association of the City of New York. Purim balls spread across the country, and North Carolina Jewish communities, though small and distant, joined in the revery.
Charlotte’s Jews were dilatory in organizing a congregation, but in 1873 local Jews “turned out en masse” for a “grand masked ball at the Central Hotel.” Wilmington and Tarboro reported balls in 1877, followed by Durham in 1887, Goldsboro in 1888, Asheville in 1891, and Statesville in 1895. In Tarboro, according to a report in the Jewish South newspaper in 1878, the “annual masquerade ball” drew “quite a number of Yehudim from the neighboring towns” for the “the unbounded enjoyment the unique masks and their actions afforded.” The 1883 Charlotte ball was so popular that a second event was planned weeks later. In Goldsboro matinee Purim entertainments were held at the Bijou Hall or Opera House, where children performed a play or spiel while grown ups in the evening ate and danced at the Armory.
Rabbis expressed concern about the propriety of such extravagant displays. Wilmington’s Concordia Society Purim Ball in 1889 featured a decidedly unkosher “elegant supper” of mayonnaise lobsters, beef tongue, and Neapolitan ice cream. The rabbis’ concerns were justified as the Jewish character of the holiday took a distinctly social and secular cast. A 1885 revel in Goldsboro was held at the Opera House, and the public was invited. It featured children enacting the drama of Vashti and Ahasuerus, but three years later the entertainment was “A Kiss in the Dark” with Miss Lieberman as Betsy Pettibone and Harry Susser as Frank Fathom, hardly Esther and Mordecai. Among the costumes at Charlotte’s ball at the Pleasure Club in 1883 were the Mikado and Oscar Wilde. The “floor was thronged by gay dancers.” Jews were sufficiently sensitive to religious feelings that the balls were held not on the holy day itself but days before or after.
As charity balls these North Carolina galas, like those in New York, served a philanthropic purpose, performing the mitzvah of tzedakah. B’nai B’rith Lodges or Ladies Benevolence Societies were often sponsors. Goldsboro sent its profits to the Hebrew Orphan’s Home in Atlanta while Statesville collected money to build its synagogue.
The balls certainly gave Jews a good name in their communities. Christians often attended just as Jews conventionally went to church fairs and bazaars. Newspaper reports were glowing. In that spirit, even today we can take inspiration from our ancestors. As a newspaper described a Charlotte gathering in 1873, “Our Israelitish friends had a grand time at their Purim ball.”