Clowning around

Before store-bought costumes were widely available, Purim preparations had a different look.

kids 88 purim (photo credit: )
kids 88 purim
(photo credit: )
Every holiday brings its pressures. Especially for me, a career-oriented mother committed to raising a large family in Israel and maintaining the high professional standards required of an orchestral musician. No concessions were made for me in this demanding profession (my hectic schedule was shared by my musician/spouse). On the contrary, holidays meant extra concerts, extra rehearsals, special tours. I invite you to peep into such a life, in which it was hard enough - on top of that schedule - seeing to meals for nine people three times a day, coping with the inevitable childhood illnesses or agonizing over how best to handle the crises that cropped up. The time before Purim entailed worrying, beyond the normal pressures, about costumes for all (and in those days, bought costumes were neither "in" nor available), finding time to bake oznei haman (hamentaschen), which also, by my codes, could not be bought, as they had to be made with whole wheat flour, brown sugar or honey, and dried fruit). Many a midnight vigil was spent on such activities, and on Purim morn the finishing touches began even before the crack of dawn. Yet I wouldn't have had it otherwise! Shortly after making aliya, already employed by the Jerusalem Symphony, and even before the children came, an AP reporter did a piece on American immigrants to Israel, which was given coast-to-coast press syndicate exposure in the US. What was the headline? My quote: "We don't want our kids to grow up with Christmas trees or Santa Claus!" Likely as not, readers were given the impression that here were a pair of cruel fanatics indeed, bent on depriving our young of Yuletide cheer. And though that article didn't mention Hallowe'en dress-ups, they, too, were definitely on our list of what we - committed secular Jews - wanted to run away from by making aliya. "So don't complain, lady, when the going gets tough," I would tell myself while racking my brain for Purim costume ideas, in between the tuttis and the solos during the morning rehearsals. One of my earliest Israeli memories was the first prize my spouse and I won more than 50 years ago at our initial kibbutz Purim party. We had borrowed a violin and a contrabass, no less, from orchestra colleagues and brought them to the kibbutz by bus after a Friday rehearsal. We arrived at the Saturday night party with sidelocks and kippot as Idl with the Fiddle and Beryl with the Bass. ("Ein, zvei, drei, SHPIEL!" my husband shouted, as we pretended to play to the music of the well-known Yiddish tune.) And the next year, we won it again, this time organizing a few others to join us as the Malovsky family of cantors. This set a precedent and tradition of striving for "hit" ideas and first prizes. No traditional Queen Esthers or cowboys in our family dress-ups! As our seven children arrived and grew up, the challenges and the efforts mounted. Not a particularly gifted seamstress, I had to seek help from newspaper clippings, neighbors and colleagues to create ladybugs, birds, flowers ("Rakefet" and "Kalanit" had to sing these two flower songs simultaneously and in two-part harmony!). One costume, bordering on the gruesome, was a convict in striped pajamas, complete with ball (a black balloon) and chain around the ankle, his head framed behind bars, while under his arm the victim's severed head grinned at the onlookers. Not all went well. I still carry pangs of guilt over one of my sons, then five, who had no use for the whole business, finally very reluctantly consented to dress up as a clown for his kindergarten celebration. I actually spoiled the holiday for him by insisting on putting a dab of red lipstick on his nose. "That's the way clowns look," I justified my action, though later I agonized over such a senseless battle of wills and over my insensitivity to his embarrassment. When the kids got older, they began exercising their own ingenuity. One son posed as a very pregnant bride, and another celebrated Purim as an orange tree, replete with branches and balloon oranges. No longer needing her mom's input, one teenage daughter crossed the generation gap, passing the bounds of ordinary decency and good taste when she and a boyfriend dressed as a pair of tampons... My God, what is this world coming to? Wasn't Purim supposed to be a wholesome holiday? The tradition continues. A Galilean grandchild, a high school senior, wanted to make a political statement as a wounded civilian, drafting his mom - my eldest daughter - to many hours of experiments with plaster casts for body and limbs, only to change his mind and decide on being half-angel, half-devil. She invested many hours (she's a far more indulgent mother than I was), sewing one wing on lacy fabric and half a halo for the angelic side, and one horn and pointed ear, tail and pitchfork for the hand of the devil's side. Then he vetoed the whole idea, though he hadn't yet come up with an alternative. Finally losing her patience, my daughter rather uncouthly yelled out, "Son, you are a kotz batahat!" (a pain in the butt). My heart thumped, anticipating what sass he'd respond with! But no - his face broke into a wide grin, "Ima, great! That's what I'll be!" And so it was: no preparation necessary. On the day of his Purim party, he put his grandpa's wide pants upside down on his head, the seat stuffed with pillows, and a long thorn stuck upright through the center of the crotch seam. Simplicity itself. His friends couldn't figure out what his costume was all about at first; he kept them guessing and finally had to spell it out for them: "Kotz batahat!" Seeing the light, the unanimous verdict was reached: My grandson walked off, of course, with first prize. Maintaining a family tradition? Or possibly a genetic aberration? I do blush at the mere thought of claiming any credit whatsoever for today's Purim spin-offs!