Israel during a Jewish holiday wouldn’t normally be my idea of a good time. I haven’t set foot in a synagogue since I moved out of my childhood home nearly
a decade ago, and many religious holidays – at least in my experience – tend to
put too much emphasis on repenting, and not enough on drinking, dancing and
setting off fireworks deep into the night.
But Purim – a holiday
commemorating a time when the Jewish people living in Persia (modern day Iran) were
saved from extermination in the fourth century BCE – is different. The
booze-fuelled celebration, which takes place on the 14th day of Adar
on the Jewish calendar (sunset of 23 to 24 February this year), is like
Halloween, St Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one.
So in attempt to be a good Jewish boy for the first time in a long time, I
found myself wearing a sombrero and pink light-up glasses on a rooftop in
Jerusalem’s ritziest neighbourhood, overlooking the lights of the stacked
houses below, taking yet another shot of arak to shouts of “L’Chaim” (cheers, literally “to life”).
pronunciation (but not in flavour) to Southeast Asian arrack or central Asian aragh (the name for various regional
liquors and moonshines), aniseed-flavoured Middle Eastern arak tastes similar
to Greek ouzo and Colombian aguardiente, especially when you’re only taking
shots of it. The clear, grape-based liquor also happens to be the national
drink of Israel – or at least it’s the cheapest and most readily available. And
on Purim, Israelis drink a lot of it. Because God told them to.
arak-drenched boozefest commenced, an Israeli friend explained that there are
three things you are supposed to do on Purim: read the Megillah (the relevant
section of the Talmud, the central
religious Jewish text), give tzedakah
(charity), and throw on a disguise and proceed to do as the Talmud states:
"drink until you can’t tell the difference between Blessed is Mordechai
and Cursed is Haman”. Mordechai is the hero of the Purim story, and Haman, the
As a child,
Haman had always been portrayed as a mean man who wore a three-cornered hat,
which – to me – always meant the Jews narrowly escaped getting kidnapped by a
man who had questionable fashion sense. Growing up in the Detroit suburbs, I
had never associated Purim with drinking. It had always been a time for playful
laughter and bobbing for apples, and the celebration was always reserved for
synagogue. But in Israel, all these years later, Purim was all around me. It
flowed out of temples and into the bars, in the streets, on balconies and
rooftops. I learned that Haman was basically a biblical-age Hitler, and in
celebration of being saved from extermination at his hands, people set off firecrackers,
dance in costumes and drink quantities of booze that would have made Hemingway
was it the exemplification of joyful innocence; now Purim embodied a new kind
of spirit – one that had killer cleavage, a short skirt and cat ears. And it
was way too inebriated to be walking in those heels.
If this is
what religious holidays are like, I decided, sign me up.
speaking, Israelis don’t drink much. According to a 2011 study by the World
Health Organization, they’re among the most modest drinkers in the world,
especially if you exclude Arab countries. But Purim is one of the few
exceptions, when rivers of booze seem to gush through the Land of Milk and
weeks of Purim parties, I was asked countless times whether I’ve tried arak and
how I liked it (officially the holiday is only one day, but bars and clubs
across the country seem happy to extend it as long as possible. Comparatively,
the party that opens the Megillah was apparently a bender to end all benders,
lasting 180 days.) Regardless of my response, I was handed chasers (half shots)
and cups of arak and grapefruit juice, one of the most popular arak cocktails.
I wanted to know why it’s a mitzvah
(good deed or religious duty) to drink so much on Purim, but each of the
roughly two-dozen people I asked had a different explanation. “On Purim,
everything is upside down,” one said. “You can’t understand the level of joy of
being saved if you are sober,” added another. “The alcohol and costumes help
show you the truth of the spiritual world that lies underneath the physical
favourite, though, was the idea that “Israelis can’t handle their alcohol, so
when we wake up with a hangover, we think about how we don’t want to drink
again until next Purim.” Judging by the 6ft man dressed as a panda lying on the
ground at my first Purim party; Mario hugging a tree for balance; and a
half-dozen other familiar characters seeking similar fates, this theory seemed
to have legs.
But I was
enjoying the company of a couple hundred others on that Jerusalem rooftop,
singing, dancing and rejoicing. I belted a medley from the musical Grease
alongside Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsen, and took a shot of arak. I danced
with Mrs Claus, Amelia Earhart and a sexily dressed nerd, and took another.
If it was
what God wanted me to do, who was I to argue?
on the streets below, tens of thousands of people in costume ate, drank and
made mitzvahs. Fireworks went off throughout the night. People chanted and
waved noisemakers. A giant pink bunny jumped onto the hood of a taxi shouting
of “Purim Sameach” (Happy Purim!).
morning, after the debauchery of last year's Purim died down, I also got to see the family-oriented
side of the holiday. People were grooving on balconies, enjoying live music on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall and slipping prayer notes into the Western
Wall. Spider-Man and traditionally dressed Hasidic men prayed side by side. And then
the sun went down and the Sabbath began.