Unmasking the Origins of Purim Costumes

In the sanctuary of a synagogue, dozens of children and adults dressed up pose sloppily for a group picture.
Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel’s 2020 Purim celebration | Courtesy of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel

A hot dog, an emoji and Superman walk into a synagogue — and there’s no punchline. It’s the reality for Allan Rosenblatt, owner of Purim Mega Store in Brooklyn.

Every year, Rosenblatt sells hundreds of costumes, which he sees donned by the children at his synagogue, riding their Hamantaschen sugar highs and giving grown-ups headaches with their graggers.

Purim Mega Store is only open for a couple months every year — much like the secular Spirit Halloween stores that crop up all over the country come Oct. 1 — and the two Sundays leading up to the 14th of Adar (this year, March 16-17) are his busiest.

“I can’t even begin to tell you — there’s hundreds of costumes,” Rosenblatt said.

But Purim has not always had themes of costumes and merriment interwoven in its traditions, and the introduction of costumes to the holiday was not without controversy.

The first mention of the use of costumes to celebrate Purim was by Rabbi Yehuda Minz, a 15th century Italian rabbi who made the argument that costume-wearing, even crossdressing, is permissible because it serves the purpose of creating joy, according to Ori Z. Soltes, professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization.

Others speculate that the wearing of costumes on Purim coincided with and was inspired by the medieval Catholic tradition of dressing up on Mardi Gras, said Rabbi Shlomo Brody, author of  “Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates” and founding director of the Tikvah Overseas Student Institute.

“Sometimes you adapt religious meaning to broader customs that fit the holiday as well,” Brody said of the costume-wearing. “I don’t think it would have been if it didn’t fit with the holiday, but it could have just been a coincidence.”

Scholars agree that the story and themes of Purim lend themselves to costuming. In addition to general revelry felt during the holiday, examples of being hidden or disguised are replete in the Purim megillah: For much of the Purim story, Esther does not disclose her Jewish identity to King Ahasuerus or Haman; Haman conceals his plot to kill Mordechai. Purim is also one of the few Jewish stories where God does not make an explicit appearance.

Dressing up for Purim also aided in fulfilling the Purim mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim, giving directly to the poor. With everyone masking their faces or dressing in disguise, those in need could maintain their dignity and not disclose their identity, but still receive direct aid from others. 

A black-and-white photo shows a handful of adults wearing various costumes posing in two rows.
The Philadelphia-based Solis-Cohen family at their Purim party, circa 1890 | Courtesy of the Anne and John P. McNulty Foundation in honor of Lyn M. and George M. Ross via the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History

Today, mishloach manot, Purim baskets, are given to everyone as a way to prevent those in need from disclosing their socioeconomic position.

In the 17th century, Purim spiels developed, and the use of not only costumes, but allegory, served to create a sense of “comedic catharsis,” Soltes explained.

While the Purim spiel traditionally tells the story of Purim, it also draws heavily on the political topics of the day and popular culture. When Jews in Europe were not able to overtly criticize Christian hegemony, spiels allowed them to express their grievances publically, without drawing the attention of their oppressors.

“We’re making fun of these bastards who are treating us so poorly, but we’re doing it in a disguised manner, so they don’t even realize this,” Soltes said.

Though costumes have been baked into Purim traditions for over 600 years, some Jewish thinkers are reluctant to fully embrace the role of disguises in the holiday. Dissenting from Rabbi Minz’s opinion, 20th century Rabbi Ovadya Yosef urged Jews to avoid crossdressing and other costumes that could be seen as debaucherous. Shmuel Abuhab, a 17th century Italian scholar, believed costumes detracted from the joy of the holiday. 

Brody said that ultimately, the argument against costumes on Purim came from the fear that Purim was becoming more associated with frivolity than Jewish resistance and the lessons made available from the Purim story.

“People love the costumes, as far as what people associate [Purim] with,” Brody said. “The wisdom of the people won out.”

The commercialization of the holiday — and holidays in general — particularly in the United States, adds weight to this argument.

Similar to Purim costumes coinciding with early Mardi Gras celebrations, in 19th and 20th century America, holidays such as Purim and Hanukkah — which were in close calendar proximity to Easter and Christmas, respectively — began to mirror commercial traditions of their Christian counterparts. It was “in part, a function of all the developments in the 19th century, in which Judaism tries to adapt itself to the reality and the illusion of being abused, being accepted into the mainstream,” Soltes said.

Purim really began becoming commercialized in America during World War II; the rise of Halloween-esque costumes in Israel took place in the following decades, after the founding of the state and in the 1960s and ‘70s, when it was gaining its economic sea legs. 

Brody, who lives in Israel, is experiencing the Purim-craze firsthand: “Every children’s store, they’re selling costumes; they’ve been selling hamantashen for a few weeks. Israeli schools, they’re not learning too much this month. There’s a lot of costume wearing, for better or for worse.”

But area synagogues rehearsing their spiels for the upcoming holiday are confident in their ability to balance frivolity and the meaning of the holiday.

Philadelphia-based Congregation Rodeph Shalom will have a spiel this year based on the 2022 Disney film “Encanto,” which Rabbi Eli Freedman said is a popular spiel theme this year both because of the ease with which one can adapt Disney songs and because of its popularity among young people. (The movie’s original song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is only the second song from a Disney film to reach the top of the Billboard Top 100 chart.)

Drawing heavily from popular culture can help Jewish children connect with an otherwise-distant story, the rabbi said.

“It’s sometimes hard for especially students, younger folks to be able to relate to a story which took place thousands of years ago in Persia,” he said. “The same is true for the stories from the Torah. Ultimately, as a rabbi, when I give a sermon on Shabbat, the main purpose of my sermon is the same thing…taking this text from thousands of years ago and making it relevant to today.”

Rodeph Shalom’s spiels have also worked to build community. In 2015, the congregation merged with an LGBT congregation Beth Ahavah. Since the merge, one of Beth Ahavah’s founders, Jerry Silverman, dresses up in drag as Queen Esther, an effort that Freedman described as “a gift to the rest of our congregation.”

Jerry Silverman is a white man with glasses and grey scruff. He is wearing a blond wig and crown, a leopard-print bra, smiley-face boxers and pink fishnet stockings.
Beth Ahavah cofounder Jerry Silverman as Queen Esther at a past Purim spiel | Courtesy of Jerry Silverman

For Rabbi Abe Friedman of Temple Beth-Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, the mixing of joy and the seriousness of the holiday was felt first hand in 2020. BZBI hosted their Purim celebration just days before the first wave of pandemic restrictions.

“Emotionally, it’s really associated with the move to the pandemic,” Friedman said.

After putting out an open call to congregants to send in pre-recorded videos to compile for a 2021 Zoom Purim spiel, Friedman was blown away by what his congregants came up with. One spieler chanted the contents of his CVS receipt using the megillah-reading tropes.

“The frivolity is, I think, actually very serious because it asks us to see the absurd in life,” Friedman said. “It asks us not to take ourselves too seriously. It asks us not to take our institutions too seriously, not to take our leaders too seriously.”

Particularly during the pandemic restrictions last year, Purim allowed the congregation to not lose perspective of life, Friedman said. The laughter and joy is a vital piece of Jewish life.

As Purim approaches this year, Friedman is drawn to the images in the news of Ukrainian grandmothers lecturing Russian soldiers, invoking similarities between Esther standing up for the Jewish people, an image that can only be understood by fully immersing oneself in Purim’s traditions.

“Purim is about more than just a party,” Friedman said. “The party is a means to actually understanding the power that we have in the world….and I don’t know that there’s a more important message for us to be dealing with right now.

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