American Jews of the late 19th century were a sociable lot, filling their calendars with charity fairs, strawberry festivals, gala dinners, card games, ladies’ nights and billiards tournaments at the club, Hanukkah pageants, and, as the holiday of Purim drew closer, house-to-house masquerades as well as a grand annual public soiree. “Oh, the Purim ball,” recalled one of its patrons. “Life, animation, sociability and enjoyment ruled the hour.”
The high point of the social season for the Jews of New York and other cities throughout the country such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, Charleston, and San Francisco, the “gayest, happiest and jolliest” event of the year routinely drew crowds of celebrants—in the Big Apple, as many as 2,500 of them—eager to strut their stuff while also raising funds for the needy. An opportunity to don a mask and an elaborate costume, to flirt, mingle, and dance the night away, the Purim ball was said to be great fun, a word that popped up with surprising frequency in contemporaneous accounts of the goings-on.
The spectacular setting in which the annual Purim ball was held—a “blaze of light and color”—contributed to the merriment. In the 1860s, the committee on arrangements transformed New York’s staid Academy of Music into a “Palace of Persepolis,” replete with “Oriental flourishes” of carpets, “rainbow-colored” drapery, tassels, cords, and crimson banners, vermillion-colored palm leaves, and gilded columns. Though it harked back to antiquity, the mise-en-scène wasn’t without the latest bells and whistles, either. “Brilliant” jets of gaslight framed the words “Merry Purim,” which, illuminated, hung in midair, suspended from the ceiling.
Equally extravagant, fanciful costumes upped the ante. While some of the female guests came dressed as Queen Esther, far more took their cue from, and channeled, Madame Pompadour. Harlequins, dominoes in all sorts of color combinations, clowns and Columbines were a sight to behold, as was the “democratic” mix of lords and ladies, Irishmen and “darkies,” men dressed as women and women garbed in “outré men’s attire”—a symbol, related a reporter named Damocles, of the “‘coming woman,’ whose advent will one day astonish mankind.”
A spirited sense of occasion also prevailed in the formal procession that inaugurated the proceedings come 10 p.m. In 1865, for instance, a cavalcade of cooks was led by the caterer who, dressed in an apron bearing the words “kosher” in Hebrew letters on its front, and wielding a huge fork, kicked things off. The following year, the Goddess of Liberty did the honors, marking the “victory of the Progressive Spirit over Prejudice.” Queen Esther was also on hand. Resplendent in a chariot and looking “extremely well for her age,” she joined hands and hearts with her consort, Prince Purim, as the crowd, over a thousand strong, looked on approvingly.
Each year’s fete outdid its predecessor, raising the stakes and generating considerable interest on the part of party-goers outside of the Jewish community. That growing numbers of non-Jews sought to attend an unmistakably Jewish event prompted Littell’s Living Age in 1868 to observe with barely concealed astonishment that even the “descendants of the Puritans seek with anxiety tickets to the masked ball of Purim.” The American Hebrew, in turn, found the presence of non-Jews heartening. That the “doors were open wide enough for good Christian society to enter” was sure to put an end to all that “silly talk” about the “exclusiveness” of the Jews, the weekly predicted.
A coveted social occasion, the Purim ball generated considerable attention in the press, which lavished page after page of description on who attended, sat where, danced with whom, and wore what. The coverage, carried by outlets as diverse as The New York Times and the New York Evangelist, was positive, a salute to the imagination, energy, and fleet-footedness of America’s Jews, who, it seemed, were equally agile whether dancing a quadrille or a waltz.
Even their much-derided “Oriental flourishes” came in for reappraisal. What had once been scorned was now esteemed. Reimagined as décor rather than essence, the seeming foreignness of the Jews had evolved into an inviting form of exoticism instead of a threatening departure from the norm.
All the same, reading these accounts more than a century and a half later, I have the sense that the non-Jewish press couldn’t help viewing the Purim ball as a curiosity—a welcome curiosity, to be sure, but a curiosity nonetheless. Accustomed to characterizing Jews as melancholy, glum, and solemn, the non-Jewish world struggled with the ways in which the sight of lighthearted, cavorting people of the Jewish persuasion put paid to once iron-clad notions. Reconciling the received wisdom with the presence of so many “ardent Terpsichoreans” on the dance floor, some reporters suggested that America had brought forth a new kind of Jew, a promoter of “sociality.”
American Jewish newspapers couldn’t agree more. Equally lavish in their coverage as their non-Jewish counterparts, they, too, made much of the Purim ball, applauding the significant sums of money it raised for the Hebrew Orphan Asylum or the United Hebrew Charities as well as the appealing face it presented to the outside world. “There has been something peculiarly hearty and genial, something decidedly characteristic in the carnival of fun,” observed the Jewish Messenger in 1866, hinting at the emergence of a new kind of Jewish affiliation, a novel way of belonging: “social Judaism.”
Not everyone, though, thrilled to that prospect, especially when it came to age-old traditions and religious rituals. Some worried that too much fun and games might eclipse Purim’s true meaning. “It is to be feared that too many participants in the joyousness of Purim are without any comprehension or adequate appreciation of the historical significance of the occasion,” chided a traditionally minded New York Jewish newspaper in 1891, quickly adding, “This is not in any sense a plea for the repression of festivity. Indeed, not. It is, however, a reasonable appeal to the patriotic sense of our people that they should be more familiar with the details of the great events which they so much delight in celebrating.”
Others within the American Jewish community went further still. Going beyond the matter of cultural illiteracy, that customary rap on the communal knuckles, they worried lest the devotees of “social Judaism” might emphasize the “social” at the expense of the “Judaism,” generating an occasional rather than a constant show of fidelity, or, more alarming still, abandon the usual pieties of responsibility and duty on which the community had traditionally relied in favor of a much more watered down and attenuated form of allegiance. American Jews, the young men especially, are having too good a time, commented the Jewish Messenger. Whatever they are up to, it is not Judaism. Instead of spending time in Torah study, or, at the very least, reading a good book, their evenings had turned into a “succession of dissipations.” Need we remind our readers, it went on to remind them, that the “term ‘Hebrew’ means Hebrew, not athletic, terpsichorean, dramatic, etc.”
Fighting words, indeed, although I doubt they did little to dampen the community’s enthusiasm for the Purim ball, a phenomenon that persisted on and off throughout the closing years of the 19th century until, eventually, it was no more. Several external factors numbered its days. For one thing, when economic hard times hit the country in the 1870s, the expenditure of extravagant sums of money on décor and delectables seemed unseemly and ill-advised. For another, the all-male Purim Association, which had successfully orchestrated one after another Purim ball since its inception early in the 1860s, found it harder and harder to recruit new members and replenish its roster of supporters, weakening its reach, much less its cachet.
And for a third, as a result of the decision of New York City’s Police Department in 1876 to put teeth into a much earlier ordinance that had outlawed, and criminalized, the presence of three or more persons in public houses whose faces were “disguised in a manner calculated to prevent them from being identified,” high spirited masquerades like the Purim ball became increasingly hard to pull off once a police presence on the premises became de rigueur. As The New York Times put it in January of that year, “‘Masks or no masks’ is a question which is just now agitating the minds of a very considerable portion of the ball-going population of the Metropolis.”
While polite society “agitated,” the Purim ball, little by little, lost its luster. Once a much-anticipated event, this bit of fluff and frivolity, like all social fads, eventually became old hat, a relic of the 19th century as it gave way to the 20th. A number of years ago, New York’s Jewish Museum revived the practice; the elaborate masks worn by its who’s who of a guest list, along with a Purim spiel authored by one or another of the town’s leading cultural personalities, were the stuff of local gossip columns. Even so, it had nothing on the Purim ball of yesteryear, which, once upon a time, was as fabled as the story of Queen Esther.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.