The Grand Purim Balls of the Late 1800s

March 17 2022

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.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish History, Purim

Why Is Iran Acquiring Property in Venezuela?

In June Tehran and Caracas concluded a major twenty-year cooperation treaty. One of its many provisions—kept secret until recently—was the transfer of 4,000 square miles of Venezuelan land to Iranian control. Although the territory is ostensibly for agricultural use, Lawrence Franklin suspects the Islamic Republic might have other plans:

Hizballah already runs paramilitary training centers in restricted sections of Venezuela’s Margarita Island, a tourist area northeast of the country’s mainland. The terrorist group has considerable support from some of Venezuela’s prominent Lebanese clans such as the Nasr al-Din family, who reportedly facilitated Iran’s penetration of Margarita Island. . . . The Maduro regime has apparently been so welcoming to Iranian intelligence agents that some of Hizballah’s long-established Latin American network at the tri-border nexus of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay has been overtaken by Hizballah activities on Venezuela’s Margarita Island.

Iran’s alliance with Venezuela most importantly provides Tehran with opportunities to target U.S. interests in Latin America and potentially the southern United States. Iran, along with the Chinese Communist Party, is in the process of strengthening Venezuela’s military against the U.S., for instance by deliveries of military drones, which are also considered a threat by Colombia.

While air and seaborne arms deliveries are high-profile evidence of Iran’s ties with Venezuela, Tehran’s cooperation with Venezuelan intelligence agencies, although less visible, is also intense. The Islamic Republic’s support for Hizballah terrorist operations is pervasive throughout Latin America. Hizballah recruits from Venezuela’s ten-million-strong Lebanese diaspora. Iran and Hizballah cooperate in training of intelligence agents and in developing sources who reside in Venezuela and Colombia, as well as in the tri-border region of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.

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Read more at Gatestone

More about: Iran, Latin America, Venezuela