Dressing up for Purim: The origins and modern custom

It appears that wherever Jews have settled over the centuries we have had to adapt ourselves in a chameleon-like way to survive discrimination and persecution.

Israeli kids in Purim costumes (photo credit: CHEN DVORA HAMAMI)
Israeli kids in Purim costumes
(photo credit: CHEN DVORA HAMAMI)
 The idea of dressing up for Purim, the Jewish holiday celebrated this year on February 26, was always an exciting prospect when I was a child. I have very early memories of doing this in the Hebrew kindergarten that I attended in Johannesburg.
I vividly remember the sense of excitement when we little folk were let loose on the boxes of clothing that were set up in one of the back rooms of the old house that served as a shul and nursery school. I can still see us kids traipsing around in oversized jackets, tunics, dresses, hats, high heel shoes, pantaloons and waistcoats. 
Some were encouraged to dress as clowns, others as pirates or magicians or firemen or princesses. The high point of all dressing up was on Purim. When I was about 7, our Cheder (Jewish school) put on a concert at one of the local primary schools. 
I was cast as King Ahasuerus and a little girl by the name of Valerie Freeman was Queen Esther. My mom was quite a seamstress. Mom sewed me a beautiful royal mauve (argaman) tunic trimmed with a gold-colored border. She made me a glitter strewn crown out of gold laminated cardboard. The cheder teachers made sure that we knew our lines and a fun time was had by all as we enacted a very rudimentary version of the Purim story. 
Years later when I joined the Bnei Akiva youth movement, dressing up for Purim became highly competitive. By then it was de riguer to be as zany and creative as possible. Kids would spend hours putting their costumes together. By the time I got to University, Purim fancy dress had taken on a new sophisticated dimension. I remember one geeky Bnei Akiva chaver, an electrical engineering student who turned up to our annual Purim party as some sort of electronic maypole. He was wired from head to foot with different colored fairy lights that kept flashing on and off. Everything was connected to a battery which he concealed in one of his pockets. 
But why is it that Jews around the world dress up on Purim? There are no Jewish sources in the Talmud, Mishnah or Gaonic writings that allude to this practice. It seems that the custom of dressing up started in the 14th century in Italy, when the pre-Lent carnival season began. Anyone who has visited Europe in late February or early March may well have encountered the large scale parades and celebrations that take place at that time of year in many cities. 
In Switzerland, the carnival is known as Fassnacht and the cities of Basel and Zurich are thronged with revelers who parade through the streets in the most magnificent costumes which cost thousands of Swiss Francs. Similar events take place in Nice and the ultimate carnival experiences are in Venice and Rio de Janeiro. Rio of course, is known for the Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday celebrations. All this is part of the ancient European Christian tradition and it is thought that the Jewish communities who lived alongside their Christian neighbors somehow decided to adopt their fancy dress custom for Purim as the festival takes place in late February or March at the same time as the Christian carnivals.
There is, however, another viewpoint that suggests that the taking on of a disguise is linked to the story of Queen Esther itself. There are a number of opinions about the origin of her name. According to the Jewish tradition, she was called Hadassah, meaning myrtle branch. Her name was changed to Esther, which some say means star and others suggest was akin to the name Ishtar, one of the Persian deities. The general consensus of opinion is that like so many generations of Diaspora Jews, 
Esther needed to disguise her Jewish identity and assume a Persian name. This fact is an essential part of the Purim story. Esther was chosen by King Ahasuerus for her beauty and grace. According to the Megillah, the senior members of the Persian Royal household were unaware that Esther was Jewish. From the time she was paraded in front of the king, they were oblivious of her Jewish identity and she had to keep up a pretense by masquerading as someone else. In Hebrew, the name Esther is rooted in the word “le’hastir” which means “to hide.” 
The phenomenon of hiding one’s identity and masquerading as someone else is well known to Jews throughout our history and even harks back to the Torah. In the book of Genesis, the story of Joseph is a fitting example. When Joseph becomes Viceroy of Egypt, Pharaoh changes his name to Zaphnath-Paaneah a more suitable Egyptian name. By the time his brothers arrive in Egypt, he is unrecognizable to them. He has donned the clothing and taken on the demeanour of an Egyptian overlord. This is not the only example of a biblical “dressing up” story. There is the episode of Jacob pretending to be Esau and Leah masquerading as Rachel and later on Tamar dressing up as a harlot in order to seduce her father-in-law, Yehuda, in order to perpetuate her dead husband’s family line. 
Apart from these biblical tales, it appears that wherever Jews have settled over the centuries we have had to adapt ourselves in a chameleon-like way to survive discrimination and persecution. Even in modern times, Jews have been resorting to this. 
I remember my paternal grandfather regaling me with stories about Jews who were trying to escape the pogroms in Russia. He told me how, when he was traveling on the train from Lithuania to the German port of Hamburg en route to South Africa via London, there was a Jewish man in his compartment who had smuggled himself onto the train dressed as a woman. He had false papers. Once they had crossed the border from Lithuania into Germany, the man began to disrobe and revealed his true identity to his somewhat startled fellow travelers who were simultaneously shocked and amused.
Any kind of cross-dressing has always been frowned upon by Halacha. Indeed, when Jews first began to celebrate Purim in the 14th century, it was this issue that bothered the rabbis. They could not countenance the idea of men dressing up as women or vice versa. With time, this prohibition seems to have been relaxed and today many Purim parties include a few cross-dressers complete with fake wigs, make-up or faux beards and mustaches.
Perhaps my fondest memories of celebrating Purim were in London. When I was a young single fellow, I remember being invited to a fancy dress Purim party in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Edgware. I put on a black and gold brocade dressing gown, donned a pair of Moroccan yellow babouche slippers and shoved a keffiyeh and ikall (black ring thing) on my head. I added a pair of dark sunglasses to the get-up and went as an Arab sheikh. 
The writer and his wife, Annie, in Purim costume. (Photo credit: Courtesy)The writer and his wife, Annie, in Purim costume. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
My date for the evening, Anna (a buxom Italian Jewish girl from Rome), dressed herself up as a Fellini tart. The two of us looked suitably outrageous and bizarre. We were not bothered by being out in public as long as we were safely ensconced in my vehicle. In fact we quite enjoyed the attention we were getting when we stopped at a few traffic lights. 
It was only when I noticed that I’d forgotten to fill the car with petrol that I was forced to get out of the car at a gas station in the middle of Golders Green. I felt a little less conspicuous when I noticed Henry VIII (another Jewish reveler) filling up his car just two pumps away from mine.
The Purim Seuda (feast) was always great fun in Golders Green and Hendon, two of the most Jewish neighborhoods in Northwest London. My wife and I were often invited to attend the festive meal by our friends. In those earlier days of our marriage, all our friends made an effort to dress up. This helped to permeate the gloom and wet miserable weather that is characteristic of the month of March in England. 
During the sumptuous meal, as the wine and whiskey flowed, the hosts’ doorbell would constantly be ringing as groups of disguised Purim shpielers paraded into the living room to perform a ditty or recite a cheeky poem in exchange for some cash that was destined for a local Jewish charity.
After making aliyah almost seven years ago, it became apparent that the best place to be for the holiday was here in Israel, where it really feels like Purim. In Jerusalem, we celebrate Shushan Purim in accordance with halachic teachings pertaining to ancient walled cities. Purim is thus celebrated on the 15th of the month of Adar as opposed to the 14th.
A few days before the festivities, there is a carnival atmosphere in most neighborhoods as children prepare for the occasion. It is quite common to run into lines of schoolchildren in full fancy dress being led by their teachers through the suburban streets accompanied by traditional Purim songs that blare out across the sidewalks. Elsewhere, youngsters of all ages dress up in delightful costumes that their mothers have painstakingly prepared. 
Twenty-first century fashions have changed and kids today are asking each other, “What are you going as?” as opposed to “Who are you going as?” Costumes have become incredibly sophisticated and quite ingenious with Israeli teens and university students competing with each other to see who can come up with the most innovative or outrageous disguise. Even the television stations together with their announcers and news anchors dress up or wear funny hats for the occasion.
The writer's great nephews dressed up for the Purim holiday. (Photo credit: Robert Hershowitz)The writer's great nephews dressed up for the Purim holiday. (Photo credit: Robert Hershowitz)
Sadly, last Purim marked the tragic beginning of the pandemic all over the world. In Israel, Britain, France and the US unsuspecting revelers went to shul to hear the reading of the Megillah (Book of Esther), attended parties and partook of the traditional Seuda only to become infected. “Superspreaders” of the virus unwittingly transmitted the disease to hundreds of people in New York, London, Paris and Marseilles. All of this happened before the authorities were really aware of how the lethal COVID-19 virus could spread and manifest itself. 
This year Purim will be celebrated in a much more muted way, with many Jewish communities still in lockdown. Nevertheless, with the new mass vaccinations underway there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. 
Depressingly, this year there will be a lot of masked people out on the streets. Sadly, the masks will not be worn as a disguise but as an essential part of self-protection. Let us hope and pray that next year scary white Hazmat PPE outfits, three dimensional images of the red coronavirus and protective face coverings will become fancy dress gear for kids and adults to dress up in as the awful memories of 2020 and 2021 are consigned to “bad dream” history. ■