Happy Purim! Commonly oversimplified as the “Jewish Halloween,” this boisterous festival has in its roots a radically subversive agenda that most would be surprised to discover as the basis for a holidayGrowing up a cheeseburger- and-shrimp-loving Jew in Brooklyn with Orthodox grandparents who lived in Borough Park, I always accepted the holiday as the most uncomplicated of traditions. We’d go to a reform shul in Park Slope, where we’d join up with other liberal Brooklyn Jews attempting to reconnect with our heritage. Everyone went in some ridiculous homemade costume (I was a repeat Pirate), there’d be a lot of noise made from the graggers
upon each of the 54 mentioning of Haman’s name. This was also the holiday where we got to throw small bags of candy at the front of the shul, for what reason I couldn’t possibly elucidate. There was lots of dancing and general hoopla, and then we’d go back home to a Purim feast. Sounds like a simple holiday, huh? A fun one too, especially for the ultra-conservative Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who recognize the true significance of the day as one of the only days in the year where they get to break free of the strict dress and social codes they adhere to, and let their collective peyes
Leave it to the radical New York community to break the tradition of simple celebration and inject a hearty dose of politics into the fray. New York has always been a home for old left-wing politics, a safe haven for Communists, Socialists, Marxists, Anarchists, Wobblies and other assorted ilk that shouldn’t find themselves comfortable in Mayor Bloomberg’s capitalized city. But they’ve been here, and they’ve made inroads into social circles with their fiery grandstanding and political screeds. The north side of Union Square, site of the Greenmarket and Critical Mass meetings, was a historically significant meeting spot for left-wing rallies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. And established organizations, such as The Workmen’s Circle, at 45 East 33rd between Park and Madison, have always been proponents of the “better red than dead” political leanings. The Workmen’s Circle was started as a mutual aid society for Jewish laborers with socialist tendencies in 1892, then restructured as a national order in 1900. For a long time located in the Forward building on East Broadway in the formerly Jewish LES, The Workmen’s Circle utilized its skills in providing material assistance to new immigrants off the boat, as well as participating in the labor movement, cultural projects to define and defend Jewish heritage, and opening Jewish schools that taught Yiddish and socialist principles alongside math, geography and history.
Which brings us back to Purim. Specifically, the rockin’ Purim party we attended Saturday night, at the Workmen’s Circle in midtown. Sponsored by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
, and in collaboration with a coalition of left-leaning organizations, this particular Purim party was titled “Roti and Homentashn: The Palace Workers Revolt!: A Purim Carnival Spectacular” and, as one can imagine, was filled to the brim with not only Jews and Gentiles looking to boogie, but crazy costumes, enormous papier mache puppets courtesy of Great Small Works
, families and babies packed in with the specialized hipster crowd, the spectacularly loud and always lovely Rude Mechanical Orchestra
(a 20+ member political marching band), Romashka
(a five-member Gypsy Muzica band), a table loaded with West Indian food, a secret keg, a not-so-secret bar, and enough political rhetoric to make you moved to open up a printing press and mass-distribute red tracts to the unorganized workers of the world.
We had a blast. The two major problems with the evening, aside from our wholesale consumption of whiskey, were the size of the venue (WAY too small for the HUGE crowd that attended); and, as much as the stage-show was delightful and informative and funny and celebratory, it occupied far too long a slot in the evening’s line-up. After all that political juu-juu, most of the Purim partyheads just wanted to dance. Which was relegated mostly to the intermissions, where RMO and Romashka pounded out drinking and dancing songs. Which, when partying in a historical venue noted for its straight-laced political machinations, is a sort of radical subversion in and of itself.