The Grand Purim Balls of the Late 1800s

The social calendar for many Jewish Americans in the late 19th century included a variety of significant communal events: Hanukkah pageants, gala dinners, charity fairs, and so forth. As Jenna Weissman Joselit notes, “the high point of the social season” was the “grand annual public soiree” held in honor of Purim. Versions of this lavish party took place in cities across the country; New York City’s Purim ball routinely drew as many as 2,500 celebrants and was covered by major papers including the New York Times. Joselit suggests that, among other things, these parties served to counter the notion that Jews were perpetually “melancholy, glum, and solemn.”

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.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish History, Purim


Hamas Has Its Own Day-After Plan

While Hamas’s leaders continue to reject the U.S.-backed ceasefire proposal, they have hardly been neglecting diplomacy. Ehud Yaari explains:

Over the past few weeks, Hamas leaders have been engaged in talks with other Palestinian factions and select Arab states to find a formula for postwar governance in the Gaza Strip. Held mainly in Qatar and Egypt, the negotiations have not matured into a clear plan so far, but some forms of cooperation are emerging on the ground in parts of the embattled enclave.

Hamas officials have informed their interlocutors that they are willing to support the formation of either a “technocratic government” or one composed of factions that agree to Palestinian “reconciliation.” They have also insisted that security issues not be part of this government’s authority. In other words, Hamas is happy to let others shoulder civil responsibilities while it focuses on rebuilding its armed networks behind the scenes.

Among the possibilities Hamas is investigating is integration into the Palestinian Authority (PA), the very body that many experts in Israel and in the U.S. believe should take over Gaza after the war ends. The PA president Mahmoud Abbas has so far resisted any such proposals, but some of his comrades in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are less certain:

On June 12, several ex-PLO and PA officials held an unprecedented meeting in Ramallah and signed an initiative calling for the inclusion of additional factions, meaning Hamas. The PA security services had blocked previous attempts to arrange such meetings in the West Bank. . . . Hamas has already convinced certain smaller PLO factions to get on board with its postwar model.

With generous help from Qatar, Hamas also started a campaign in March asking unaffiliated Palestinian activists from Arab countries and the diaspora to press for a collaborative Hamas role in postwar Gaza. Their main idea for promoting this plan is to convene a “Palestinian National Congress” with hundreds of delegates. Preparatory meetings have already been held in Britain, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Qatar, and more are planned for the United States, Spain, Belgium, Australia, and France.

If the U.S. and other Western countries are serious about wishing to see Hamas defeated, and all the more so if they have any hopes for peace, they will have to convey to all involved that any association with the terrorist group will trigger ostracization and sanctions. That Hamas doesn’t already appear toxic to these various interlocutors is itself a sign of a serious failure.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Palestinian Authority