Read THE CELEBRATION OF PURIM of Pictures of Jewish Home-Life Fifty Years Ago, free online book, by Hannah Trager, on ReadCentral.com.

As had now become a custom, the young friends of the Jacobs had all collected on the next Friday evening in the bright and warm kitchen-sitting room. After a short friendly chat with them Mr Jacobs said:

“As Purim will begin in two days, perhaps you would like to hear how our cousins saw it celebrated when they went to Palestine, so I have chosen this letter to read to you this evening:

“In Jerusalem a week is none too long to prepare for Purim. As you know, when we lived in London we always were strict about keeping our holy days; but while there I never realized the pleasure and excitement during Purim that one sees in Jerusalem.

“Old and young are equally full of fun and joy, and there is plenty of rushing about with sleeves tucked up. At other times the women here gossip a great deal, and the girls naturally copy their elders and gossip too; but, when preparing for Purim, they are all too busy to talk or even to ask questions. The boys, too, up to the age of twelve, are allowed to help. Some break up the big pieces of loaf-sugar, and beat up the eggs, and take the cakes, when ready, to the public ovens, for here there are no proper ovens as there are in London houses, so a public oven is built not far from the Synagogue. It is very large, and each family sends its cakes in its own tins to be baked in it. Generally about half a dozen tins are carried by each boy. Nothing I have seen before can be compared with the many kinds of delicious cakes and stuffed monkeys that are seen here. My mouth waters even when I think of the delicious strudels filled with sésames and plenty of raisins and shiros! These things are very cheap here.

“As there are not many boys free to help, you see quite young children, as well as young women and even grandmothers, going to and from the public oven, carrying tins of all the Purim delicacies. As they wait while the cakes are being baked, or waiting their turn to have their cakes put in, oh! what a chatter there is, and I imagine nowhere else can there be anything like it. I called it the ‘Female Club’ instead of ‘An Old Maids Club,’ as Mr Zangwill did, for there were no old maids waiting near the oven.

“Most of them come as early as 5 a.m., and none care to leave till they have their cakes baked, for, if you do, your tins will be pushed aside as you are not there to scream at and scold the baker if someone slips a copper into his hand he, on the quiet, puts their tins in first, though they may have come later!

“Besides, if you are not there to watch carefully (for the tins are not named or numbered), someone might take your tins in exchange for his own, if the cakes, etc., look more tempting. During Purim this is not looked upon as stealing, but merely as a joke or a bit of fun. The youngsters will not move an inch unless they can trust someone to take their place. So I leave you to try to imagine the noise and the chatter. There is probably not a thing that has happened in Jerusalem during the last two months that is not discussed around the public oven while people are waiting for their cake-tins; and, as everyone wants to talk rather than to listen, the noise is like the buzz in a factory.

“After all the cooking and so forth was finished, of course we had to keep the Fast of Esther, and everyone, even babies went to Shule to hear the Megilla (the Book of Esther) read; and, when the Chazan came to Haman, the Gragers went off with just such a noise as they do in the London Shules in Old Montague Street or Booth Street. Then we went home; and after the evening meal the joyfulness began, for they did not wait till the next day, as we do in England.

“As only one room was lighted up by each family to economize light and for other reasons there are no curtains or blinds to draw down we were able to go through all Meah Sheorim and stop a minute or two at every lighted window and watch the goings on. We heard nothing but singing and clapping of hands, while the children danced. Sometimes one of the elders looking on could not resist joining in the fun, and tied his kaftan behind his back so as to leave his legs free, put one of the youngsters on his shoulders, and danced like a chassid or a jolly Irishman.

“As we went from house to house peeping in at the windows, sometimes some of the family would come out and drag us in by force, and make us drink wine and eat cakes. If we did not wish to join in the dancing, but wanted to leave, they would just say ’Shalom’ ’go in peace but come again.’ I can tell you it was jolly, and nowhere else in all the world could Yomtov be kept up as it is here.

“We were given wine in so many houses that from the eldest to the youngest we were beginning to feel rather funny. Next morning, after being well shaken up by Father, and after we had had a wash with cold water in the open air, we made up our minds to be firmer at the next Purim.

“After going in the morning to hear the Chazan again, and coming home and enjoying the Hamantaschen and other good things, then begins the pleasure and excitement of sending Shalach-manoth to friends, acquaintances, and chiefly to the poor, and even to enemies if you have any. As you are supposed, if possible, to send back to the sender something similar to what is sent to you, things cannot be made ready beforehand. To the poor you always send useful presents as well as delicacies which are likely to last them for months or longer.

“As to the beggars, I never imagined there could be so many in one country. We generally get enough beggars coming to us on Fridays and before holy days, but at Yom Kippur and Purim they come in crowds. Most of them are Sephardim and Yeminites. It is true you give each of them only a para, which is about a quarter of a farthing, and they give you a blessing for it; but, if they come to a rich class of home and are not given there according to the style of the house, they upbraid the people, and even curse them, so the children are told to stand at the doors with paras and cakes, etc. At some houses they are invited in. Each carries a sack on his shoulder, expecting, I suppose, that it will be filled with good things by the time Purim is over; and, as they never pass a door without begging, they are not likely to be disappointed.

“The fun I enjoyed best was the uncovering of our plates and seeing what Shalach-monus had been sent to us. A cap had been sent to Father, made of velvet, with tails of sable and other skins round it. Father felt very downcast, for he did not at all like the idea of giving up wearing the high hat that he always wore in London on Sabbaths and holidays. Whether he will wear the velvet schtramel or not I cannot tell, but I will wait and see who wins Father or the community for we have some idea who sent it.

“Mother received a beautiful, soft silk kerchief to wear on her head, and it seemed a sign that the community wanted her to put her wig aside and wear a kerchief instead. I was most thankful they did not send me a pair of scissors. If they had, I should have thought they wanted me to cut my plaits off. Well, I should have fought for my hair as I would for life!

“In the afternoon I went to visit some friends, and I found a house full of men, young and old, with their schtramel on their heads, and their kaftans tied back, singing at the very top of their voices (and some have very fine voices); others were clapping their hands, while eight men, four on each side, were dancing what looked like a pantomime ballet that I once went to. It was simply grand to watch them, for some were old men with long, white beards, while others were serious-looking young men who are to be seen daily in the street walking to and from their homes and Shules, always deep in thought and so very serious-looking that you would imagine that they did not know how to smile. Here they were, on this Purim afternoon, dancing with all their might, and with bright, smiling eyes! You could see it was not wine that had made them bright and cheery: it was the spirit, or fire, of their religious zeal commemorating with thankfulness the anniversary of the day when their nation was saved from destruction. Of course I was too fascinated watching them at the time to think this was the reason for this unusual sight.

“After a while, they went to pay visits to the Rav and to others who were scholars or pious men in the community. Often when walking to the various houses they would catch hold of others and dance with them in the open streets as you see children doing when an organ-grinder plays.

“I was so attracted by them, and so was everyone who saw them, that we followed them at a respectful distance. Sometimes someone had had a little too much wine when visiting and it had gone to his head. Then some of the party would say: ‘Ah well, it is Purim there is no shame.’

“I told Father this when I returned home, and he explained to me that their rejoicing during Purim did not mean simply a material satisfaction it was a spiritual rejoicing, as on Simhath Torah, when the Reading of the Law was started again, so that during Purim and Simhath Torah allowance is made if a little more wine is taken than is usually the case.

“Then we had Purim Schpielers, who visited every house, dressed up very funnily and full of jokes; some acted, and some were disguised. In fact, it was the happiest Purim I have ever spent, and I doubt if there is any other place where it could be spent so happily. For here in Jerusalem we are all like one large family: respect is paid to the righteous and to worthy scholars, whether they are poor or rich. Money has not the same power here. There is a good deal of quarrelling and mischief going on among our female neighbours, but the quarrels are not very serious but more like quarrels in a large family. In another letter I will write about our ‘Female Club.’”