American Jews of the late 19th century were highly sociable, filling their calendars with charity fairs, strawberry festivals, gala dinners, card games, ladies’ nights and pool tournaments at the club, Hanukkah and, as the holiday of Purim approaches. , house-to-house masquerades and a big annual public party. “Oh, the Purim ball,” recalled one of her customers. “Life, animation, sociability and fun ruled the hour.”
The highlight of the social season for Jews in New York and other cities nationwide such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, Charleston and San Francisco, the “cheeriest, happiest and most happiest” of the year regularly drew throngs of celebrants — in the Big Apple, up to 2,500 of them — eager to strut their stuff while raising money for the needy. An opportunity to don a mask and elaborate costume, flirt, mingle, and dance the night away, the Purim ball was considered great fun, a word that appeared with surprising frequency in contemporary accounts of the events.
The spectacular setting in which the annual Purim ball was held – a “blaze of light and color” – contributed to the cheerfulness. In the 1860s, the Arrangements Committee transformed the New York Academy of Music into a “Palace of Persepolis”, filled with “Oriental blooms” of carpets, “rainbow” draperies, tassels, cords and crimson banners, vermilion in color. palm leaves and golden columns. Although it dates back to ancient times, the staging was also not without the latest bells and whistles. “Glowing” jets of gas framed the words “Happy Purim”, which, illuminated, hung in the air, suspended from the ceiling.
Equally extravagant and whimsical costumes upped the ante. While some of the guests came dressed as Queen Esther, many more followed and channeled Madame Pompadour. Harlequins, dominoes in all sorts of color combinations, clowns and Columbines were a sight to behold, as was the “democratic” mix of lords and ladies, Irishmen and “darkies”, men dressed as women and women dressed in “extravagant men’s clothes”. – a symbol, said a journalist named Damocles, of the “‘woman to come’, whose advent will one day astonish humanity”.
A fiery sense of occasion also reigned in the solemn procession that opened the ceremony at 10 p.m. In 1865, for example, a cavalcade of cooks was led by the caterer who, wearing an apron bearing the words “kosher” in Hebrew letters on its front, and brandishing a huge fork, kicked things off. The following year, the Goddess of Liberty did the honors, marking the “victory of the Progressive Spirit over Prejudice”. Queen Esther was also present. Resplendent in a chariot and looking “extremely well for her age,” she joined her hands and hearts to her husband, Prince Purim, under the approving gaze of the crowd, more than a thousand people.
Each year’s holiday has outdone its predecessor, raising the stakes and attracting considerable interest from revelers outside of the Jewish community. The growing number of non-Jews seeking to attend an overtly Jewish event has prompted Littell Life Age in 1868 to observe with barely concealed astonishment that even the “descendants of the Puritans are anxiously seeking tickets for the Purim masked ball”. the American Hebrew, in turn, found the presence of non-Jews encouraging. That the “doors are open enough for the good Christian society to enter” would put an end to all this “stupid chatter” about the “exclusivity” of the Jews, predicts the weekly.
A coveted social occasion, the Purim ball garnered considerable attention in the press, which lavished page after page with descriptions of who attended, sat where, danced with whom and wore what. Coverage, carried by points of sale as diverse as The New York Times and the New York Evangelistwas positive, a tribute to the imagination, energy and speed of the Jews of America, who, it seemed, were just as agile as they danced a quadrille or a waltz.
Even their much-maligned “Oriental flourishes” have been re-evaluated. What had once been despised was now esteemed. Reimagined as scenery rather than essence, the seeming strangeness of the Jews had evolved into an inviting form of exoticism instead of a menacing departure from the norm.
Yet, reading these accounts more than a century and a half later, I have the feeling that the non-Jewish press could not help but regard the Purim ball as a curiosity – a welcome curiosity, yes, but a curiosity all the same. . Accustomed to characterizing Jews as melancholy, brooding and solemn, the non-Jewish world struggled with how the sight of light-hearted, playboy-like Jewish persuasion put an end to once ironclad notions. Reconciling conventional wisdom with the presence of so many “fiery terpsichorians” on the dance floor, some journalists have suggested that America has spawned a new type of Jew, a promoter of “sociality.”
American Jewish newspapers are in full agreement. Just as lavish in their coverage as their non-Jewish counterparts, they too made a big deal out of the Purim ball, applauding the large sums of money it raised for the Hebrew Orphan Asylum or the United Hebrew Charities as well as the face attractive that he presented to the outside world. “There was something particularly warm and great, something decidedly characteristic about the carnival of fun,” observed the Jewish messenger in 1866, alluding to the emergence of a new type of Jewish affiliation, a new mode of belonging: “social Judaism”.
However, not everyone was thrilled with this prospect, especially when it came to centuries-old traditions and religious rituals. Some feared that too much fun and games would overshadow the true meaning of Purim. “It is feared that too many participants in the joy of Purim have no adequate understanding or appreciation of the historical significance of the occasion,” a traditional-minded New York Jewish newspaper chided in 1891, quickly adding “This is not in any sense a plea for the suppression of the party. Indeed, no. It is, however, a reasonable appeal to the patriotic sense of our people to be more familiar with the details of the great events which they so delight in celebrating.
Others within the American Jewish community have gone even further. Going beyond the issue of cultural illiteracy, that customary rap about common joints, they feared that adherents of “social Judaism” were emphasizing the “social” at the expense of “Judaism”, generating a occasional rather than constant display of loyalty, or, more alarmingly, abandoning the usual pieties of responsibility and duty on which the community had traditionally relied in favor of a much more watered down and toned down form of allegiance. American Jews, especially young men, are having too much fun, the Jewish messenger. Whatever they do is not Judaism. Instead of spending time studying Torah, or at the very least reading a good book, their evenings had turned into a “series of dissipations.” Need we remind our readers, he goes on to remind them, that the “term ‘Hebrew’ means Hebrew, not athletic, terpsichorean, dramatic, etc.”
Fighting words, indeed, though I doubt they did little to dampen the community’s enthusiasm for the Purim ball, a phenomenon that persisted intermittently throughout the last years of the 19th century until until he is finally no more. Several external factors counted his days. On the one hand, when economic hardship hit the country in the 1870s, the spending of extravagant sums of money on decoration and delicacies seemed unseemly and misguided. On the other hand, the all-male Purim Association, which had successfully orchestrated one Purim ball after another since its inception in the early 1860s, was finding it increasingly difficult to recruit new members and replenish his list of supporters, weakening his reach, let alone his cachet.
And for a third, following the New York City Police Department’s decision in 1876 to put some teeth into a much earlier ordinance that had banned and criminalized the presence of three or more people in drinking establishments whose faces were “disguised in a calculated way to prevent them from being identified,” lively masquerades like the Purim ball became increasingly difficult to pull off once a police presence on the premises became de rigueur. As The New York Times said in January of that year, “‘Masks or no masks’ is a question that is currently agitating the minds of a very significant part of the ball population of the Metropolis.”
While good society “gets agitated”, the Purim ball gradually loses its luster. Once a highly anticipated event, this bit of plushness and frivolity, like all social fads, eventually became old hat, a relic of the 19th century that gave way to the 20th. A few years ago, the Jewish Museum in New York revived the practice; the elaborate masks worn by his who’s who from a guest list, as well as a Purim spiel written by one or another of the city’s leading cultural figures, were the subject of local gossip columns. Even so, it had nothing on the Purim ball of yesteryear, which once upon a time was as legendary as the story of Queen Esther.