Purim is the Jewish Mardi Gras. Traditionally, on Purim, Jews dress in masks and costumes, get drunk (it’s ritually required) and dance to celebrate the biblical story of how Queen Esther of Persia intervened to prevent a massacre of the Jews. In the story, Haman, the king’s advisor, convinced the king that Jews of the kingdom were traitors and that they should all be killed. Queen Esther, had not been known to be a Jew, intervened and saved the community from death.
Like the Passover celebrations, which have been adapted as a ritual of liberation for all peoples, the celebration held at the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring on Feb. 23, drew upon this traditional ritual celebration to call for the end of the death penalty for all. The “Giant Puppet Purim Ball Against the Death Penalty” was sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring (founded as a Jewish socialist fraternal organization at the beginning of the 20th century), Amnesty International USA and Great Small Works.
The centerpiece of the Purim celebration is a reading of the Purim story (the Purim spiel), read in English and Yiddish. Giant puppets, made by Great Small Works, representing characters of the Purim story were paraded through the hall. The Purim spiel was adapted so that all the Hamans who support the death penalty were booed, and all the Esthers who were fighting against it were cheered.
In between the reading, music was provided by folk singer Juan Avila, King Django Roots and Culture, who played reggae with Yiddish lyrics, and the Klezmatics, a klezmer band.
The hall at the Workmen’s Circle was jammed with hundreds of revelers, young and old, who danced, weaving the traditional Jewish line and circle dances around the hall. At one point, Adreinne Cooper, head of the Workmens Circle Social Justice Committee, joined King Django and sang, in English and in Yiddish translation, Holly Near’s song, which has the lyrics:
“I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh,
I ain’t afraid of your Allah,
I ain’t afraid of your Jesus,
I’m just afraid of what you do in the name of your god.”
Celebrations of traditional ethnic culture can often be narrow and emphasize the separateness of peoples from different backgrounds. This Purim celebration showed how cultural practices grounded in a particular community can be expanded to express solidarity.
The traditions represented by this Purim carnival called on the traditional religious culture of the Jewish people, but, perhaps more importantly, the more recent past when the Jewish community in New York City was the bedrock of progressive politics. By using Yiddish and focusing on the politics of opposing the death penalty, this event was truly faithful to those traditions.