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

What Israel Can Achieve in Gaza, the Fate of the Hostages, and Planning for the Day After

In a comprehensive analysis, Azar Gat concludes that Israel’s prosecution of the war has so far been successful, and preferable to the alternatives proposed by some knowledgeable critics. (For a different view, see this article by Lazar Berman.) But even if the IDF is coming closer to destroying Hamas, is it any closer to freeing the remaining hostages? Gat writes:

Hamas’s basic demand in return for the release of all the hostages—made clear well before it was declared publicly—is an end to the war and not a ceasefire. This includes the withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip, restoration of Hamas’s control over it (including international guarantees), and a prisoner exchange on the basis of “all for all.”

Some will say that there must be a middle ground between Hamas’s demands and what Israel can accept. However, Hamas’s main interest is to ensure its survival and continued rule, and it will not let go of its key bargaining chip. Some say that without the return of the hostages—“at any price”—no victory is possible. While this sentiment is understandable, the alternative would be a resounding national defeat. The utmost efforts must be made to rescue as many hostages as possible, and Israel should be ready to pay a heavy price for this goal; but Israel’s capitulation is not an option.

Beyond the great cost in human life that Israel will pay over time for such a deal, Hamas will return to rule the Gaza Strip, repairing its infrastructure of tunnels and rockets, filling its ranks with new recruits, and restoring its defensive and offensive arrays. This poses a critical question for those suggesting that it will be possible to restart the war at a later stage: have they fully considered the human toll should the IDF attempt to reoccupy the areas it would have vacated in the Gaza Strip?

Although Gat is sanguine about the prospects of the current campaign, he throws some cold water on those who hope for an absolute victory:

Militarily, it is possible to destroy Hamas’s command, military units, and infrastructure as a semi-regular military organization. . . . After their destruction in high-intensity fighting, the IDF must prevent Hamas from reviving by continuous action on the ground. As in the West Bank, this project will take years. . . . What the IDF is unlikely to achieve is the elimination of Hamas as a guerrilla force.

Lastly, Gat has some wise words about what will happen to Gaza after the war ends, a subject that has been getting renewed attention since Benjamin Netanyahu presented an outline of a plan to the war cabinet on Thursday. Gat argues that, contrary to the view of the American and European foreign-policy elite, there is no political solution for Gaza. After all, Gaza is in the Middle East, where “there are no solutions, . . . only bad options and options that are much worse.”

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza Strip, Gaza War 2023, Israeli Security