Jerusalem Unmasked

To what degree do people in Jerusalem take advantage of Purim as an opportunity to transcend social borders?

A Purim street party in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A Purim street party in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Gemara famously states in Tractate Megila that on Purim we should intoxicate ourselves until we can no longer tell the difference between the pious Mordecai and the malicious Haman. However, shortly after this instruction comes a lesser-known story.
The sage Raba, the Gemara tells us, invited Rabbi Zeira for a Purim feast. Overnight, Raba became so drunk that he slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. Come morning, Raba asked for mercy, and Rabbi Zeira was resurrected. The following year, Raba invited Rabbi Zeira again for the holiday’s festivities; this time, Rabbi Zeira refused, excusing himself by saying “One must not rely on miracles.”
This tale captures something about the essence of Purim: on the one hand, celebrating it by becoming intoxicated is a mitzva, on the other hand, as Rabbi Zeira attested, crossing lines and drowning oneself in drugs is dangerous. What does a city of walls and borders reveal on this cross-dressing, costume-wearing and alcohol- consuming day? Do people in Jerusalem truly break norms? If so, what are the dangers? Adi Savran, a 32-year-old Jerusalem-born artist who currently lives in Tel Aviv, is concerned with these questions all year long. Every Purim she prepares mind-boggling masks and horns, and this year she is offering a mask-making workshop in a small gallery in Jerusalem. However, her curiosity, even obsession, with the ways in which other people “transform” and connect with the “imaginative world” by wearing funky outfits extends to her daily life. Her apartment is distinctly decorated with masks, creepy puppets, paintings of faceless or disguised people and even her bookshelf of comic books, art book and photography displays this disturbing and intriguing inclination.
“In theory, Purim is supposed to be a carnival,” she says, “but in reality it is always disappointing. People are afraid of truly dressing up, of really transforming. It unnerves people… I yearn for a Purim that is truly a wild celebration of imagination.”
As a child, Savran used to dress up rather flamboyantly daily with “huge neon pink hair and vinyl clothes,” and didn’t care too much for Purim. However, as she grew older and gravitated toward conventional outfits, she explains, Purim turned into an opportunity to show “what kind of creature” she is.
“For me, Purim started to be interesting the moment I stopped dressing interestingly. It became an outlet for me and I really like the artful part of it, that people get their hands dirty and express themselves.” For this year’s celebration, she is crafting a bunny mask that is both charming and like a dark fairy tale.
Savran thinks that even though Purim should enable, even encourage, people to cross borders and express themselves wildly, in practice, “borders are crossed [on Purim] only by people who are willing to do so also in everyday life. Some people go crazy on Purim, but most boys dress up in stereotypes of soldiers, cops or cowboys, and the girls as Queen Esther or sexy nurses. I often put on a costume that is hard to pinpoint with labels, and I found that many people are unsettled when I don’t have a straight answer to the question, “Who are you dressed up as?” At the same time, Savran also asserts that “Jerusalem is a city of freaks, of weirdos. In Tel Aviv there is allegedly more diversity, a vibrant LGBTQ community, many artists and young people. Tel Aviv is all about being cool, but they are apathetic to each other. Jerusalem pushes your buttons. It is hostile and embracing in the same breath.”
INDEED, JERUSALEM is a criss-cross of borders.
Some of the borders are physical, like the separation barrier that cuts through the urban landscape, or the perimeters of the ultra-Orthodox areas some Jerusalemites could go through their entire lives without ever entering. Other borders, like language, gender, ethnicity, religion and social class, are less physical, yet even more concrete. Do people in Jerusalem take advantage of Purim as an opportunity to transcend these borders? Yonatan Strier is one of the architects behind Jerusalem’s cultural revival. For almost a decade he has been the art director and producer of the municipality’s cultural department. He is the man behind the popular summer street festivals Front Stage and Wintertime Monday Musical and performance activities called Shaon Horef.
Strier says, “There is a certain status quo Jerusalem maintains all year long. The city is religious, conservative and quite insistent on that. In Tel Aviv, everything is always permissible; in Jerusalem there are things you could only do on Purim.”
One of the main Purim institutions is the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s party, which has run annually for more than 50 years and is known for its appropriately creative and original decor. In recent years, Nahlaot neighborhood residents started to put together independent street celebrations throughout the day. Last year, the police almost shut the celebrations down, afraid they were about to get too wild. This year, Strier says, the municipality, police and residents are working jointly to make the largest Purim street party in the city.
The entire Nahlaot neighborhood and Mahaneh Yehuda market will be closed to traffic and regulated by the police. The municipality will provide sound equipment and the locals will mix the tapes.
However, about different types of people mixing – even on Purim – Strier hesitates.
“By and large, there is a natural division of sorts that sends people to celebrate with the same folks they do regularly. However, it’s hard to know when everyone is masked and disguised. Purim isn’t a day when the city is turned on its head, but within its limits it allows leeway for us to cross borders without breaking the everyday eyebrow-raising scrutiny so common here.”
For kids, Purim reveals something about the world of grownups. Growing up in Jerusalem, I remember noticing how some adults turn into child-like creatures over the holiday. It wasn’t only that they were wearing colorful costumes, but some grown men and women were openly fragile, drunk, crying, or dancing ecstatically.
For kids, this is a lesson in and of itself about how adults are also simply older kids, with similar weaknesses.