Halloween Pales In Comparison To Purim In Israel

By Randi Gordner

I’m waiting for the bus in Ramat Aviv Gimmel or just ‘Gimmel’ to those in the know, Tel Aviv’s residential paradise. Gazing at the upscale plaza opposite the bus stop I see teenagers in Uggs and Gucci gabbing over mocha lattes frappes, diamond-studded women huddled over their healthy salads and men in suits enjoying an espresso before heading home for the night. It’s quiet and I notice the silence immediately. Day after day of incessant dog barking, screaming neighbours and blasts of TV wrestling matches in Kiriyat Shalom have left me with a constant ringing in my ears. I breathe in the silence, appreciative, and content.


“Mi she nichnas Adar…” Hebrew songs break my silence. They are distant at first, but growing increasingly loud with every passing second. After minutes of wondering just what has disturbed my peace, I see them. Bright, Strange Clothing with kippas and protruding strings dance around Uggs, Diamonds and Suits. As they dance they are carrying something. Then they stop. Take a few breaths. Put down their ‘Mashiach’ sign and begin reading, in a huddled group that welcomes everyone, Hebrew verse. It is mid-March in Israel. It doesn’t take me long to realize that even the tamest of Israeli neighbourhoods are afire with the spirit of Purim.


As a child attending Associated Hebrew Day School, we always received a letter at Halloween, asking our parents to refrain from encouraging Trick or Treating. We were told of Purim, the holiday where we, as Jewish kids, could dress up and celebrate our own holiday instead of some pagan ritual. I admit it; I never bought it. I went out on Halloween and so did my friends. My parents could never stop me from being the hippy, the witch or, most recently, Little Red Riding Hood. Halloween was cool! Everyone did it! But even as a child, I knew it wasn’t my holiday. No, Purim waited for us in March, but it was dull. We dressed up for one day at school, exchanged the customary Mishloac Manot and returned home to watch our television and do our homework. Purim in Canada could not compete with other, flashier holidays.


I never imagined I would spend Halloween in Israel. Is there such a thing? No, but when October rolled around, a few of us, still overwhelmed by the newness of Israel had to cling to something from home. So, we put on our baggiest pants, our cut-off tops and our sandals. For our first Halloween in Israel we were Kibbutzniks. But guess what? Halloween was boring. We were pagans in a Jewish world.


So what of these holidays in the Jewish world? Unlike in Canada, I think holidays in Israel are something special. Sure, a day off from school will make any kid happy, but here it is something more. Life is Israel is not calm. In fact, that might just be the understatement of the century. Israelis are vibrant people living in a turbulent world and this is reflected in their strong opinions, loud voices and outgoing personalities. Even the microcosm of the chaotic Israeli existence is conflicted. Tension between sects, immigrants and foreigners wreak havoc on an already troubled area of the world. And yet: Israelis are happy. And they will celebrate with every ounce of their beings.


Recently I was at Remez, the elementary school in Kiriyat Shalom, and before the class began, a boy in Grade 4 told the teacher there had been a bombing at the New Central Bus Station (a 25-minute walk away and the transportation hub of Tel Aviv). After watching the teacher make a frantic call to her father, the boy informed her that it was a joke. In a world where kids can joke about bombings so close to their home, how can society afford to treat a holiday as a mere day off? I don’t believe they can, and they don’t.


From what I have witnessed over my seven months in Israel, Purim may just be the most celebrated and important holiday for the Israeli people. No, it is not a High Holiday and does not hold the religious weight of Yom Kippur. However, this is a holiday that is so widely celebrated that it transcends cultural, political and even religious boundaries. Unlike my memories of elementary school, Purim in Israel is not dull and cannot be compressed into a fleeting day’s memory. Rather, Purim is an extended celebration of costume, food, and let us not forget, drink. And it seems like most people participate in some way or another. Walking down the streets of Tel Aviv days before, during and after Purim, I saw a myriad of people in coloured wigs, angel wings, animal costumes and the list could continue. I saw religious people and secular people eating Hamentashen (or ‘Oznei Haman’) in the street. At the after-school club where I work, non-Jewish children dressed up and participated in the rituals of Purim, just as the Israeli peers did. People in the poor Kiriyat Shalom celebrated just as heartily as those in rich Ramat Aviv Gimmel. Party after party after party, it seemed like the holiday would never end. In the span of a few days, I went to a Purim party, gave Mishloach Manot to Israelis in the army who couldn’t be partying at home with their friends and family, ate my fill of Hamentashen, experienced a megillah reading and play at a non-traditional conservative synagogue in Gimmel and witnessed many strange sights on the most upscale of streets in central Tel Aviv. But this was normal. This was Purim. True, I would have gladly done without the weeks of firecrackers going off outside my apartment. But I cannot help but smile at the experience. As I walked down the street, Purim songs that I was forced to sing, as a kid, were shaking the streets as they blared from car stereos. For a short time, the election was muted as the holiday took centre stage. For a while, Israel partied like their lives depended on it.

Purim is now over. I can take the bus to Ramat Aviv Gimmel confident that I will find quiet when I want to seek solace from my boisterous neighbourhood. But I don’t think I will ever forget the energy that I felt all over this city during a holiday that I once deemed dull. After witnessing Purim in Israel, I can say that it is Halloween that pales in comparison. And believe me, I didn’t think I would ever say that!

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto) on March 30, 2006.  It can be viewed in its original form here, and the Jewish Tribune's homepage can be found here.  The article is reprinted here with permission from the Jewish Tribune and its contents have not been altered.