Secular Jerusalemites revel in raucous Purim celebrations

‘Even if you compare our celebration to the haredim, there’s not much of a difference – we all drink, dress up, dance and give gifts to the poor,’ says one costumed participant.

Purim in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Purim in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Purim, the ultimate juxtaposition of tradition and self-expression, transformed Jerusalem’s normally staid urban landscape into a Fellini-like street party Monday – replete with a psychedelic mosaic that Timothy Leary would undoubtedly have considered inspired.
Indeed, as a young woman dressed as Satan danced with Pippi Longstocking, a scarecrow and Charlie Brown on a balcony two stories above, hundreds of young and old revelers converged on Nissim Bahar Street in Nahlaot to dance, drink and act without inhibition.
“You can be whatever you want today and celebrate,” said Amit, dressed as a honeybee.
“I’m secular, but to me this is a very holy day.”
“You become yourself today by expressing yourself,” added his girlfriend Naama, also dressed as a honeybee. “That’s the beauty of Purim: the opportunity to be whoever you want.”
Liran, a bearded man dressed as Cleopatra – including fireengine- red lipstick and aqua eye shadow – nursed a bottle of Goldstar beer and smoked a cigarette while leaning on a parked car, as a baby with blue hair in a chicken costume was pushed in a stroller by his parents.
Asked what makes Jerusalem’s Purim celebration unique, Liran noted the city’s “special spirit,” and temporary blurring of lines between the generally divided secular and ultra-Orthodox communities.
“If you compare Jerusalem to other cities today, there is a special spirit and mood here today,” he said. “Even if you compare our celebration to the haredim’s, there’s not much of a difference. We all drink, dress up, dance to music and give gifts to the poor.”
Liran continued, “The only difference is that they all read the megila.”
Meanwhile, a middle-aged Parisian couple visiting the country for the week took in the spectacle with a video camera and a clear sense of awe.
“It’s a very, very interesting party because of the costumes,” said the woman, who requested anonymity. “It’s similar to Carnival in Paris, but they don’t really celebrate that as much in France anymore.”
She added that the communal and ubiquitous revelry made Jerusalem’s celebration special.
“I think it’s full of hope because they know how to preserve their traditions,” she said.
“That’s the most important thing any group of people can do.”
Betty, who dressed as Superman, said the holiday’s sense of escapism was liberating, as she danced in the middle of the closed-off street with her friend Hadar, adorned in a Batman costume.
“The idea of Purim is to be something in your life that you can’t be in the real world,” said Betty. “It’s very freeing.”
Sharon, a mother of two young children, wore a bright blue wig as her five-year-old, Alon, sat on the roof of a car casually eating a chocolate bar while dressed in a mouse costume.
“It’s just so nice to see other people having fun, smiling and feeling the holiday,” she said.
“Everybody’s happy. That’s why it’s so nice to go out – to feel the good vibrations.”
Shira, a secular Jew dressed as a Power Ranger, said she connected with the holiday because it enables her to observe tradition and have fun at the same time.
“It makes it easier for nonreligious people to connect to their past,” she said.
Her friend Rona, a law student who said she just came from “a very important” job interview at one of the city’s top firms, finished adjusting her fairy costume.
“I wanted to rush here because this is the funnest holiday in Jerusalem,” she said.
“This is the one day that makes it better than Tel Aviv!” A few blocks away, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who – with his wife and a friend – joined the celebration (albeit in a track suit), said he enjoyed watching secular and Orthodox residents celebrate in an indistinguishable manner.
“Everyone’s enjoying Purim in the same way – you see ultra-Orthodox and secular people all dressed up,” he said with a smile, before noting the historical import of the holiday to all Jews.
“And don’t forget that when we read the megila, there have not been that many changes in the world. People are still out to get us,” he continued. “So it’s important to be together and celebrate as one.”