Purim, Liminality, and Communitas

Purim, Liminality, and Communitas

By Jeffrey Rubenstein

AJS Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, (1992)

Introduction:  “Fever is no sickness and Purim is no holiday.”‘ So runs a surprisingly self-reflective proverb concerning the festival of Purim, the strangest Jewish holiday. Ostensibly the celebration of the triumph of the Jews over the wicked Haman described in the Book of Esther, at a popular level something much larger and far more complex is going on. Folk customs through- out history have always transcended the celebration of the triumph of Mordecai and Esther. Elaborate pageants, grotesque masks, drunken revelry, noisemaking, buffoonery, burning of effigies, costume parades, feasts with special delicacies, and every manner of carousing and merrymaking have characterized Purim since rabbinic times. A diverse body of Purim literature has accumulated, including drinking songs, short stories, parodies, and intricate plays. The nature of these celebrations has varied, of course, depending on the particular time period and ambient culture. But whether we speak of dancing around a fire in tenth-century Babylonia, sophisticated dramas in Renaissance Italy, or carnival festivals in contemporary Tel-Aviv, the overall tenor of the holiday remains constant: “On Purim,” asserts an oft-quoted phrase, “all things are permissible.”

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