An American tourist following the Mardi Gras round in Europe finally comes to Tel Aviv for its famed celebration of Purim, and gives us the gay and riotous details.
Each city in Israel has its own special holiday. Traditionally, Passover belongs to Jerusalem. Haifa has a great celebration at Shavuoth—the festival of the first fruits. Lag B’Omer is the day of the Cabbalists in the medieval town of Meron.
Tel Aviv is famous for its Purim Carnival. During the old, peaceful times, all the people from the town and from the country, from villages and from kibbutzim, used to converge on Tel Aviv for the Adloyada, the Palestinian equivalent for a grand and gay Mardi Gras. There were street parades, elaborate floats, dancing in the open, and a romantic carnival atmosphere. For many years, in the times of trouble, riots, and war, the public Adloyada had to be cancelled. But now that Israel has attained statehood, Purim is once again a time for jubilation and revelry.
One year, quite by chance, I followed the pre-Lenten carnival season in Europe eastward. In southern France, there was the famous carnival at Nice, from which our New Orleans Mardi Gras derives. Fasching was being celebrated in all the cities, towns, and hamlets in Germany for the first time since the war, with a great deal to eat and drink, masquerade balls every night, music and gaiety. The Swiss Mardi Gras was on the whole more sedate, except for the famous carnival in Basel which began at four o’clock in the morning with all the housewives throwing tubs of cold water out the windows. In Rome, where the children came dressed in beautiful masquerade costumes to an opera matinee at La Scala, the carnival spirit seemed to me the most spontaneous, fresh, and gentle, and I would have liked to linger on to see more of it. But all that month I had had a deep feeling that I must be off to Israel to celebrate the Purim Adloyada in Tel Aviv. I had reveled at the masques and dances and parties and enjoyed them. But as a spectator—down deep, it had meant little to me. Mardi Gras was theirs; Purim was ours. And I wanted to see it properly celebrated at least once in my life—in Israel.
Purim was part of my heritage, a special, warm part From my Sunday school days I remembered it as an ancient festival dating back to the days when Queen Esther interceded with her King Ahasuerus to save her people, the Jews, from death through the evil machinations of the royal vizier, Haman. As a child, I had been in the synagogue and listened to the reading of the Book of Esther accompanied by the traditional booing, shouting, and raucous noise-making at each mention of the name of Haman. I had heard the old religious injunction “Drink until you do not know your right hand from your left” (but that I had never seen, not in austere America). And I had read of the custom of Purim masques with children in costume going from door to door, as at Halloween, performing or pantomiming the story of Queen Esther and adding such other entertainment as struck their fancy, afterward demanding the customary “trick or treat” reward. I remembered how every virtuous Jewish housewife made special goodies for Purim called Hamantashen—fashioned in the presumed shape of Haman’s hat, consisting of “pockets” of baked dough filled with either poppy seeds or spiced purée of prunes—and exchanged them as token gifts with neighbors and acquaintances. I heard that latterly the custom of holding masquerade balls had spread among Jews throughout the world and that these balls were imitations of the great Adloyada in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv’s Adloyada (from the Hebrew words meaning “until he did not know”) had come to be, I had been told, a veritable Mardi Gras.
So I flew from Rome to Lydda to arrive in Tel Aviv the day before Purim. I had a sort of costume with me—a gold-trimmed red Chinese dress, promoted from cocktail dress to short evening gown. Now with a gold sequin half-mask, it was a Purim costume. Thus forearmed, I had visions of taking Tel Aviv by storm.
Since there were no hotel rooms to be had I settled myself in a room with a private family. My landlady, a bright-eyed, dark-haired little person with a lively manner, sought to put me at ease. When I told her that I had flown in from Rome especially for the Purim Adloyada she looked stricken.
“Haven’t you heard that it was cancelled?” she said, trying to break the news to me as gently as possible. “They advertised all over that it was going to be held this year for the first time in a decade and a half, and then suddenly the government cancelled it last week.”
I was stunned. My landlady sought to console me. “We’ve never had an official Adloyada in the fifteen years that I’ve been here,” she said. “But anyway there has always been plenty of gaiety and celebrating. You can still have a good time at Purim in Tel Aviv. Just pick a party and go there.”
The official reason given for the sudden cancellation was the economic crisis. But many privately thought that security was behind it—carnival time in Tel Aviv might provide the opportunity for countless hostile Arabs to enter Tel Aviv as masqueraders and perhaps take it over. My disappointment was great, but my landlady said that it had been the same every Purim for years, and the only thing actually missing from the carnival would be the public parade which she, herself, had never seen either. By now, the tradition had almost become not to have the mummers’ procession. She never expected to see it in her lifetime, she informed me gallantly.
When I went out on the street, I saw that what she had said was true. Every kiosk was plastered wtih boldly colored signs advertising a Purim ball, this one given by the Rumanians, another by the Yemenites, a third by the Moroccans; masquerades, concerts, and dances were being held by every sect, nationality, age, profession, and persuasion. One could choose with whom one wanted to celebrate Purim—the Sephardim, the artists, the war veterans, the tourists, the Hungarians, or Albanians.
The entire week was given over to Purim revelry and the entire country was celebrating it. When I returned to my lodging, there was a small and lively pirate prancing around in the hall. It was Yosef, the eleven-year-old son of the landlady, as bright-eyed and dark-haired as his mother.
“Aren’t you a day early for Purim?” I asked him.
“We have been doing this every day after school all week,” he answered with an air of superiority. “There are seven of us, and we are all dressed as pirates so we can be a gang. We rush home from school and get into our costumes and then we all go out around town until suppertime.”
“You came late for supper last night, Yosef,” his mother warned him.
Yosef chose to ignore her and turned his attention to me. “Of course, tomorrow night will be the best of all. Then everybody will be out. We are going to have some wine and we are going to get drunk—oh! so drunk.”
“Yosef! what are you talking about!” his mother said.
Yosef was down at the other end of the hall reeling and swaying in a graphic demonstration of himself as a drunkard, while his mother stood by horrified.
“I have a costume, too,” I cried out, as much to divert him as to purvey the information. “Come into my room and see it, Yosef.”
Yosef pronounced my costume “not good, not bad.” “You should have seen me last year,” he continued. “I was a Japanese girl with my mother’s kimono and sashes and flowers in my hair. I fooled everybody. Even the kids at school thought I was a new girl.”
Upon Yosef’s recommendation, I went for a walk the next day late in the afternoon along the sea wall to see the costumes. I strolled along the promenade to the north end and settled on a bench overlooking the Mediterranean. It was late afternoon but still broad daylight. The school children were out in full force. They had been masquerading all week long; the custom was for groups of friends to go out every day after school in their costumes to wander around. Seven pirates passed, cutting a swashbuckling figure as they swaggered by all abreast with their cutlasses drawn and their hats set at rakish angles, black patches over their eyes and red sashes tied about their waists. One of them, a dark-haired, fierce little boy of about eleven, brandished his sword dangerously at me, but did not deign to recognize me in front of his fellow buccaneers.
Two tiny tots dressed as Yemenites toddled by, shepherded by their doting mothers. Every other school girl was Queen Esther. The Queen Esthers were all sizes, colorings, and shapes—small girls, buxom girls, brunettes, blondes, and redheads, varying in age from four to fourteen. They all wore crowns of one sort or another, either of gilded cardboard or of sequins or gold brocade. Some wore their mothers’ cast-off evening gowns, others were resplendent in royal robes especially designed for the occasion—all were bedecked with as much jewelry as the family coffers afforded or as they could borrow. Their bracelets jangled as they walked and some wore ten or eleven strands of beads around their necks. Many little girls—and boys too—paraded by dressed as Japanese geisha girls in colorful brocade kimonos, peeping flirtatiously over and around their fans. One little boy with sparkling black eyes and coal black hair was dressed in flowing royal robes and crying lustily, with his mother comforting him in vain.
I drank in the gay, colorful scene, and watched the young soldiers on leave in Tel Aviv for the week end do the same. Though many of them could not have been more than seventeen years old themselves and looked absurdly young and awkward in their ill-fitting khaki uniforms, they took a paternal interest in the children in the Purim parade. A dark and lovely Queen Esther of about fourteen with a full court of younger children made her queenly way past the sea wall. Her lacy train (concocted from a curtain, no doubt) trailed majestically behind her. She carried her crowned head proudly. Her bejeweled fingers were curled in a graceful, imperious gesture. Suddenly she began having trouble with her long dress and high-heeled pumps—obviously borrowed and several sizes too large. Swaying precariously, she just kept her balance as she bravely went forward. The young soldiers gallantly sprang to her side with cries of “Hi shotefet! Hi shotefet! She is stumbling. She is stumbling.” But Queen Esther miraculously righted herself and continued her uncertain, weaving way in the parade, and there was a collective sigh of relief as she wavered down the street.
Suppertime came and the crowds of both spectators and paraders thinned. I had acquired a ticket to the Purim party at the tourist center, but I really had my mind set on the Four Arts Masquerade Ball at a seaside hotel.
I dressed quickly. I had a shantung dress of Chinese red with metallic gold embroidery on the high mandarin neck and short winged sleeves. With it I wore a belt of gold, golden shoes, and a half-mask of gold sequins. By darkening my eyebrows and extending the corners of my eyes upward with black mascara, I was a reasonable facsimile of a Chinese girl of quality. It was seven o’clock and the ball began at nine. Reading through the newspaper to kill time, I came across a schedule of the public Purim celebrations being held all over the country. In Tel Aviv, the Megillah, the Book of Esther, was being read at seven o’clock in the Great Synagogue on Allenby Street. I couldn’t linger until nine—I had to get out on the streets to see and be seen.
“Where is the Great Synagogue? What bus do I take to get there?” I asked breathlessly of the handsome young Sephardi policeman on the corner, trim in his navy blue uniform and white-topped yachting cap.
Bus Number 9A, he told me, would carry me practically to the door of the synagogue, adding parenthetically as he waved me on, “When you get there, say a prayer for me, too, little one.”
I turned the corner and made for the bus stop. Shagging down the street followed by a laughing crowd was a young Hasid clad in an ankle-length sheepskin coat and a false red beard that reached to his knees, his fur-trimmed shallow round hat askew. He had obeyed the godly injunction and was drunk as a lord. He danced to the right, he danced to the left, clapping out the rhythm with his hands—his eyes brimming with ecstasy. He was having a wonderful time and so were all his raggle-taggle followers. I crossed the street to avoid colliding with the oncoming celebrants.
As my spike heels clicked briskly on the pavement—my shoes glittering in the half light—a little boy of about four came skipping down the street after me calling out in glee, “Naalei zahav! Naalei zahav! Golden shoes! Golden shoes!”
I swung onto an oncoming bus, asking the driver if he could take me to the Great Synagogue. “I wish I could, but I can’t,” he said. “I yield the honor to the bus behind me. But tell me, cutie, where did you get those zisse goldene shichelach, those sweet little golden shoes?”
“Darling little golden shoes,” echoed several young men on the bus in chorus. I thought the women cast sour looks in my direction.
I hopped down and skipped to the bus behind. Hanging on the leather strap I swayed to the motion of the bus lurching drunkenly through the thick traffic. Several passengers undertook to show me the stop, for the area surrounding the Great Synagogue had been roped off, and the buses had to detour for this one night. The roadways around the synagogue were milling with holiday crowds. The synagogue, a monumentally impressive white mosque, had its smooth dome brilliantly lighted and a powerful loud speaker blared the high-spirited services out of doors for those who could not wedge into the interior. I was late, and the observance had already begun, and I joined the crowds under the stars. Many of the people had provided themselves with groggers, wooden noisemakers that whirled around and around on a notched stick, tin horns, confetti, and multi-colored streamers. Whenever the name of Haman, the wicked vizier, was intoned from inside the synagogue, the “worshippers” lifted their groggers high above their heads and twirled vigorously to produce the most raucous of noises; they blew tin horns; they showered confetti into the air. When the formal services were concluded, the people who had been inside the synagogue emerged and joined the throng outside. The loud speakers now began broadcasting Hebrew folk songs and soon small groups spontaneously started dancing the hora in the roadway. Others ran to join them and enlarged the circle until there were dancers stamping and bobbing for blocks around the Great Synagogue, in its glowing beauty surveying the scene benignly from its setting of trees and hedges. Gradually the crowds thinned, the dancing stopped, and the confetti of many colors lay thick upon the pavements like a bizarre snowfall.
I followed the crowds out. A young man trailed me. Wherever I walked, wherever I rode, I could not elude him. He sidled up to me on the bus, a sandy-haired young man who looked harmless enough. “Hello,” he said ingratiatingly.
“Hello,” I answered a bit coolly.
“I saw you at the Great Synagogue,” he offered by way of introduction. “Would you like to have dinner with me?”
“I’m going to a masquerade ball,” I told him.
“Just have a bite with me,” he said. “I’ll deliver you safely at the door of the ball.”
On an impulse I consented, and we walked into a restaurant. It turned out not at all the romantic episode it should have been. The restaurant was a vegetarian restaurant, and the young man was really a very dull young man. And his enthusiasm for me seemed to be evaporating the further away we found ourselves from the convivial spirit around the Great Synagogue. It was with considerable relief that I bade him adieu at the gates of the hotel where the Four Arts Masquerade Ball was to be.
Of course, I had no invitation and no ticket, but I was determined to go. Though it was almost nine, the hotel was strangely quiet. Evidently I was early. I watched for my opportunity.
In a moment, two black limousines drew up and began disgorging young men in gleaming tuxedos carrying musical instruments. One of the young men of the band—very blond and very attractive in a bright-as-a-penny sort of way—was lifted bodily from the car by the two drivers, for his right leg was in a cast. I approached them and asked innocently in Hebrew if the masquerade ball was being held in this hotel. The blond young man observed instantly in excellent English, “You’re an American, aren’t you?” and proceeded to outline the delights promised by the ball when it commenced an hour hence. I showed him my invitation—the wrong one. He laughed and said, “You’ve come to the wrong place. This is the Four Arts Ball. The actors from Habima, opera stars, artists, writers, and dancers will be here. It’s going to be vastly more interesting than your tourist ball.”
As if I didn’t know. I opened my eyes wide and told the young man how I yearned to go. How would it be if I came in with the orchestra as their “singer”? All the well-known dance bands in America had at least one female vocalist, I said knowingly. He was agreeable, and I planted myself in the middle of the forest of black-tuxedoed young men carrying violins and saxophones, cornets and drums, while the blond young man hobbled in behind us on the driver’s supporting arm.
Inside, the caterers were putting the finishing touches to the long buffet tables heavy with fancy cakes and colorful hors d’oeuvres, punch bowls, wines, and liqueurs. The main ballroom itself had been decorated with violently fantastic murals depicting a throned king who reached twenty feet from the floor to the ceiling, an extravagantly conceived court scene in purple and crimson and yellow, and intimate glimpses of the ladies of the harem. Small tables had been placed on three sides of the dance floor and on the glassed-in terrace overlooking the sea, giving the atmosphere of a small night club. The dais for the band was near the door that opened into the bar. The musicians busied themselves with arranging their instruments, testing the chairs, and adjusting the music stands. My young blond friend was the pianist, and he called me over to listen as he ran his fingers over the keyboard and picked out a few experimental tunes.
A large, fat young man dressed in a bright blue and red Napoleonic uniform, who was serving as major domo, came over and jokingly demanded tickets from the band. It was no joke to me. I made myself as small as possible while they shooed him away. Then he took up his station by the door and began to take tickets in earnest from the masqueraders who were beginning to come in. The men were resplendent in the costumes of generals, Arab sheikhs in flowing gowns, courtiers in knee breeches of satin and powdered wigs, playing cock-of-the-walk to the feeble display of the drab wrens who wore makeshift costumes, awkwardly unbecoming evening gowns, or dull, unfashionable street dresses. (Possibly it is because there are so many more men than women in Israel that the men vie with one another to attract the girls—apparently all the girls have to do in Israel is just sit tight.) One man had a costume made entirely of newspapers; another was dressed as a baby, complete with diaper changes. A third was behung with paper-covered candy kisses from neck to ankle. A most arresting “girl” there was a berouged, bewigged young man with a lithe, graceful figure that put to shame many of the genuine females, who ran rather to fat and hippiness. The various groups chose tables as they entered. The band struck up some dance music, and a few couples ventured onto the floor.
Until the hall was filled, I was too absorbed in watching the costumes to feel self-conscious. But when everybody was seated in groups at the tables or dancing or drinking at the bar, I realized that I was escort-less and alone. I began to see myself sitting in a corner near the band all evening—a wallflower.
Sensing my plight, the blond piano player leaned toward me and whispered, “If I didn’t have this broken leg and this cast, I’d leave the band for a few numbers and dance with you.”
“If I saw an unattached man, I’d be dancing now,” I said. “Everybody seems to be with somebody.”
“There are a few unattached men.”
“I don’t see any.”
“Look more closely. I’ve noticed a few.”
“Well,” I sighed reluctantly, “if there are any anywhere, they are not in this room. Maybe there are some in the bar.”
I went into the bar and ordered a Scotch and soda which I gulped down in one swallow like medicine. I came out of the bar with a pilot of the Israeli Air Force. He was very handsome and muscular in his officers’ uniform, and his even, regular features were set off by a tiny military mustache.
I cast a triumphant look at the piano player as I swept by the band on my escort’s arm. He slapped his broken leg with one hand and covered his face with the other when he saw what I had caught.
My partner was a strong, vigorous, and not particularly graceful dancer. I wanted to beg off some of the more taxing Latin American dances but he insisted on dancing every dance. “You can rumba if you just let yourself go,” he assured me, “and you can samba and mambo, too.” He taught me how to samba forthwith and soon I was wiggling and dipping with the best of them to the tune of “Ay Yi Yi Maria, Maria me-Naharia.”
During a slow waltz, my partner’s energies were diverted somewhat from the vigor of the dancing and he noticed a friend on the dance floor, a fellow officer of the Israeli Air Force, extremely handsome and proper with the same clipped military mustache.
“Cheerio!” they greeted one another Britishly, though both were of Central European birth. My partner’s colleague was dancing with the most beautiful girl at the ball. She was a lovely redhead with dead white skin of magnolia texture and a lissome figure. But she seemed to be in much the same predicament as I. She looked exhausted and she hung somewhat limply about her vigorous escort’s neck. We exchanged looks of commiseration.
The band struck up a lively tune and once more we were off and away. I could scarcely drag one foot after another. Eight or ten dancers formed a circle and began kicking up their heels in time to the music. Needless to say, my partner was not going to miss this one. We were among the first to join the circle, or to be more accurate, he decided and dragged me in willy-nilly. Soon thirty or forty people were high-kicking rhythmically like slightly muscle-bound chorus girls. We kicked like the rest—around and around the circle. I began to feel light and gay and danced in sheer exuberance. Then the circle broke; we dropped out and dragged our way back to our small corner table, exhausted. The hovering waiter took our order for wine and cakes, and my partner began to regale me with the glories of the country. He described his beautiful apartment on Mt. Carmel in Haifa, and asked me to visit him when I got there. Then he had an inspiration.
“I’ll get two weeks’ leave,” he said, “and we can tour the country. We’ll go to the Emek and the Galil or to the Negev—anywhere you choose.”
I accidentally spilled some of the wine, which tended momentarily to divert his attention from this brilliant idea.
“You had better get some cold water to take the stain out of your pants,” I told him with concern. He left to do so.
Instantly, a tall curly-haired male in a business suit appeared at my table. “I like a clever woman,” he announced. “Would you care to dance with me?”
I rose to dance. Threading our way among the tables to the dance floor, we met a couple returning. The girl pounced on him. “Oh, there you are!” she exclaimed.
I hastened to relinquish him, but she insisted that we go on and finish the dance. “That’s the girl I came with,” he explained. “She had the tickets.” We exchanged names and nationalities. He was a sabra—native-born.
Toward the end of the dance he had an inspiration. “I have it!” he exclaimed with a snap of his fingers. “At about two o’clock I’ll take the other girl home and come back for you with my car. Then we can go some place.” I declined with thanks. He urged me to drive to Haifa with him on Saturday. I declined again.
I asked him to escort me to the vicinity of the dance band. From afar I saw my friend with the broken leg sitting alone and desolate. The band was having a short respite, and the other members were congregated in the bar. He could not move until somebody helped him. As I pushed my way through the crowd toward him, myriads of men appeared out of nowhere.
“At k’tana, you are small,” said one slim young man with arresting green eyes who was dressed in the long black tights and loose white shirt of a ballet dancer.
“It’s true I’m not very tall,” I replied.
He laughed contagiously. “K’tana means chic, too,” he explained in English.
“So are you katan,” I said admiring his splendid physique.
“Oh these,” he said deprecating his attire. “These are my working clothes. I’m a dancer,” he added parenthetically.
“I sing in the opera,” put in another man, a little man even smaller than I. “Come to hear me Tuesday night in Rigoletto.”
I fought my way through to the piano player on the now crowded dais. The rush was not wholly for me, I discovered. Everyone who could sing, everyone who could act, everyone who could dance, was dancing toward the microphone to perform if he could. I sought out the piano player, thanked him profusely, said good night, and went outside for a breath of fresh air.
The next night I went to another Purim ball—the social event of the season, both expensive and exclusive. The dance was preceded by a concert of the Israel Symphony Orchestra under the baton of a famous American conductor. I had heard him many times in Boston. It was not a costume ball, as I had thought, but my Chinese dress with the gold shoes was quickly converted to a short evening gown when I removed my mask. All the debutantes of Tel Aviv were there, many wearing bouffant evening gowns direct from Paris. Most of the men were older, either fathers or uncles, for few young men in Israel could afford the price of admission.
Though the space for dancing was small, the music was superb and some people were dancing on the stage. During the intermissions, the men in tuxedos and the women in elaborate evening gowns danced the hora—the exuberant, stomping national dance of Israel. My escort, the dancer who had been at the Four Arts Ball the night before in his working clothes, tonight was dressed soberly in his best party-going suit. He said he did not know how to dance the hora, and the younger girls, the debutantes, seemed to think the dance gauche. The older men danced the hora with gusto, recalling their younger days when they were poor pioneers, not rich businessmen. I danced the hora, too.
On Friday evening—the Sabbath Eve-no public celebrations were being held. But it was Shushan Purim, the “Persian” celebration, and there was an elaborate private garden party nearby. The garden was attached to a huge mansion in central Tel Aviv. It was lighted by Japanese lanterns and there was soft music wafting from behind the shrubbery where a string quartet was hidden. White-coated waiters had been hired for the evening and moved noiselessly and faultlessly, serving the guests at the many small tables that had been set out. It was a perfect setting for an enchanted evening.
No snob, I crashed the public Yemenite ball, too, on Saturday night. If it had been physically possible, I would have gone to every Purim ball in Tel Aviv. But there was only one of me.
After the long week end of Purim revelry, I tallied up the balance sheet: one non-serious proposal; seven earnest propositions; one pair of golden shoes worn paper thin. Ah, Purim in Tel Aviv. . . .