Dressing the Part

Photos by David Stuck

Lions, tigers, ninjas, super heroes and crayons are just some of the characters that will be wandering the streets in celebration of Purim in a couple days.

“I’m very into themes,” said Rachel Lasson, who attended Ner Tamid’s Pre-Purim Carnival last weekend. She picks a theme each year for dressing up her family. Last year’s theme was “The Cat in the Hat.” This year’s theme is “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” and each of her children, Mali, Layla and Eitan, attended the carnival dressed as a different animal.

(Within the first hour of the party, the mane was off the lion, and the tiger had swapped her fur for leggings and a tunic.)

With activities such as bounce houses, potato sack races and obstacle courses set up all over the building on March 9, there was no shortage of fun for the young bears, kings and knights, who were escorted by their parents and grandparents. The same could be said for the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s Purim Palooza Carnival at Reservoir High School in Fulton, where hundreds of attendees — bedecked in fairy outfits, action hero get-ups and the ubiquitous animal costumes — made the event the federation’s largest of the year.

Community Purim events this coming weekend — the holiday, which commemorates the Jewish victory over a Persian decree thousands of years ago, begins Saturday night — will likewise feature costumed children of all ages, but Jewish tradition maintains that there’s actually a method to the madness. The fun and revelry, specifically of the costumed kind, emphasizes Purim’s key themes, even though you won’t find a commandment to wear costumes anywhere in the Scroll of Esther’s telling of the Purim story, explained Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon, director of Chabad of Park Heights.

“It’s consistent with the theme of the holiday,” said Lisbon, “which is the miraculous transformation of a day that could have meant utter tragedy and destruction to one of the most holy days on the Jewish calendar.”

Costumes allow people to present themselves as things they’re not in celebration of that transformation. In addition, said Lisbon, a major theme of the holiday is revealing that which had been earlier concealed: Mordechai, one of King Achashverosh’s advisers, told Queen Esther to hide her Jewish identity, but when the king offered Esther whatever she wanted, she revealed her identity to stop Haman’s plot to exterminate her people.

At the end of the story, Haman was hung from the very same gallows he built for Mordechai. So on Purim, every- thing is upside down or transformed, said Lisbon.

But the miracle of Purim is also celebrated by the specific mitzvahs outlined in the Scroll of Esther: giving gifts, known as shelach manot, to acquaintances, charity to the poor, publicly reading the scroll and enjoying a feast.

In the 16th century, the nature of the celebration began morphing into its modern costumed version, according to Rabbi Barry Freundel, a professor of Jewish studies at Towson University. Jews escaped German persecution by fleeing to Italy, namely the Padua region, where they were
introduced to Italian street fairs.

“Jews, for Purim, started doing their street festivals the same way as the Paduans did,” explained Freundel. “They dressed up in costumes.”

When one pious man asked his rabbi about whether or not their actions were violating Jewish law, the rabbi responded that Purim is a holy day and exceptions can be made, but the community could reassess the previous year’s festivities each year before Purim to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.

“Shortly thereafter there were all kinds of letters challenging this ruling, not having this ruling; it didn’t matter. It got into the culture, and forevermore the Paduan street festival makes its way into synagogues around Purim,” said Freundel.

The free choice of costumes, he said, is a direct effect of the street festivals and the sense of freedom to dress as you please.

Photos by Noam Lewis

Fallon Saposnik and her husband will be dressing up as characters from “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” for their first Purim as a married couple.

“Being festive and happy is such a big part of the holiday,” she said. “Not only should you bring joy to yourself, but you should bring joy to those around you.”

She expects friends to get a kick out of her husband dressed as an Oompa Loompa, and her costume of Violet Beauregarde — the girl who turns into a blueberry — as a blueberry.

Their shelach manot runs with the Wonka theme and features blueberry muffins that Saponsnik made, Wonka’s Laffy Taffy, golden eggs and labels that look like golden tickets.

She’ll be going around Pikesville with a friend delivering the shelach manot, and she and her husband will also send them to family out of state and to her brother in Israel.

For larger families, the costumes can become a central part of the Purim celebration in which families make their own costumes and cover a lot of characters from the theme of their choice.

At Ner Tamid last weekend, for instance, Gladys Ricklis, a preschool teacher who attended with her grandchildren, decided to join in the fun and make herself a spider-web costume out of black felt and yarn by using a glue gun. Granddaughter Addie Shar came as a dog, complete with a black nose and whiskers.

Getting Addie into a costume isn’t a problem, said Ricklis. “She likes to dress up at home too.”

Rachel Turniansky, her husband and their five children are dressing as “Toy Story” characters. She’ll be Little Bo Peep; her husband will be
Emperor Zurg; her four sons will be Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Hamm the piggy bank and Mr. Potato Head; and her daughter will be Jessie.

“It’s such a fun holiday, and we really like to get into the spirit of things,” said Turniansky. “I think they like being creative and being able to let loose in this manner.”

All of the family’s costumes are homemade or purchased at thrift stores. Turniansky does a lot of crafts at home, and using scraps and other materials, she sews the costumes together. She gets hats, dresses and other accessories at thrift stores. This year, she used duct tape in the Emperor Zurg costume and fake leather for Woody’s boots.

At least one area woman acquired so many different costumes over the years that she now operates her own Purim gemach, a costume rental service.

“The first year my husband and I were married, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘You’re not dressing up. We’re dressing up,’ ” said Tzilah Raczkowski. “I think he regrets it.”

For the second year, she’s running the Keren Reva Costume Gemach out of her house. She estimates that her collection has about 500 costumes, more than 300 of which have been rented for this year.

“I saw there was a need in the community,” she said. After about a decade of loaning costumes to friends and friends of friends, she started running the Purim gemach out of her house and established hours open to the public. She spread the word through email, social media, synagogue bulletins, Facebook and word-of-mouth, she said.

The collection first got started with her family’s own costumes. Since they always did themes and never repeated costumes, the collection began to build up over the years. Raczkowski, a bargain shopper, finds costumes on eBay, looks for sales and even buys costumes through wholesalers.

Costumes cost $3 to rent, and while other cause-specific gemachs typically give proceeds to charity, she uses the money to acquire more costumes for the organization.

The most popular costumes, said Raczkowski, are firemen and policemen for boys and princess costumes for the girls. “Sesame Street” costumes, as well as Thing 1 and Thing 2 shirts — from Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” — are popular this year, too.

While he’s not sure when costumes came into the picture, Lisbon welcomes the festivities.

“I think, for kids, it’s a fun thing. I think it’s a good way to get them to understand and appreciate the holiday,” he said. “As we adults get older, we internalize the message too.”


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