This post comes a few days later than normal because I wanted to share with you my experiences celebrating my first big Jewish holiday in Israel. This past weekend was Purim, and let’s just say, it was shy of anything boring.
A little background: Purim is the celebration of the Jewish people being freed from the cruel governance of Haman. A right-hand man to the king of Persia, Haman had planned to execute all of the Jews living in the empire. When it’s revealed that the king’s wife (Esther) is in fact Jewish, the king instead executes Haman, saving the entire Jewish community.
Because the Jews were saved, Purim is considered to be a festive and joyous holiday celebrated in the springtime each year. There are four main mitzvot, or good deeds, that make up the holiday. The first is to listen to the Megillah reading, which is the scroll of Esther. It’s customary for people to use noisemakers called “groggers” whenever Haman’s name is said. The next item on the to-do list is giving charity to at least two people. The third mitzvah is to send mishloach manot (food baskets) to friends and family. Finally, it’s customary to eat a large festive meal, drink and celebrate.
The actual holiday took place on Saturday and Sunday, but people in Tel Aviv began celebrating on Thursday. Everywhere I went, people of all ages were dressed up in crazy costumes celebrating in the streets. (Purim is compared to Halloween in the U.S.) My friends and I spent the first half of the weekend venturing out to all the different parties and events that were being hosted across the city. The first night we all wore masquerade masks, and the second night I dressed up as Minnie Mouse. The streets were bustling, the nightclubs were packed and everywhere you looked people were celebrating this joyous holiday.
(Photos courtesy of Arielle Weingast)
On Sunday, the actual day of Purim, my friends and I participated in a school-organized trip to Bnei Brak. This is an ultra-Orthodox area of Israel where the most religious Jews live. Just 20 minutes from the Tel Aviv University campus, Bnei Brak immediately felt different as soon as we stepped off the bus. The streets were crowded with hoards of children and adults, some dressed in costumes while others remained in their traditional religious garb. People were singing, dancing and shouting songs and prayers throughout the community for hours on end. Because Purim is such a festive holiday, it is considered a mitzvah for even the most religious Jews to eat, drink and be merry for the entire day.
At the end of our tour, we got the opportunity to go into a well-known rabbi’s house in the community. Here, all of his closest friends and family were celebrating together. It was difficult to communicate with them because everyone spoke only Hebrew (a huge difference from the modern Tel Aviv I’ve been used to), but luckily our helpful counselors were able to translate. Below is a video of the men dancing and singing.
And of course, how could I forget the best part of Purim? Hamantaschen! These are the customary desserts made for the holiday. The triangular-shaped cookies represent Haman’s hat and are made all over Israel. The cookies are typically filled with chocolate, jelly, dried fruit or poppy seeds, and they are delicious! Although I’ve had my fair share of Hamantaschen (thanks to my mom being a great baker), Israeli-made ones definitely top anything I’ve had. Some places in the city even made decadent variations like sweet potato and PB & J!
Being able to spend Purim in Israel was so meaningful to me. It was very interesting celebrating the same holiday but with different groups of people all in the same country. In one sense I was celebrating in the modern world at popular nightclubs with tons of young people. In another sense, I was celebrating with some of most religious and traditional Jews in the world. It was such an eye-opening weekend, and I can’t wait to experience more holidays while I’m here.