Stamford Hill goes wild for Purim

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Every year the normally monochrome attire worn by Stamford Hill’s ultra-religious Hassidic Jews temporarily gives way to clown costumes and other bright garb.

Children and some adults can be seen running around dressed as characters from nursery rhymes and cartoons and dancing merrily to wild Klezmer being blasted out from places of worship. It must be an odd sight for non-Jewish residents of Stamford Hill, particularly those unaware that this jollity is part of celebrations to mark the festival of Purim.

The theme behind the festival is a reoccurring one in Jewish history and can be summarised by way of that wittily concise triptych ‘They tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat’.

According to the Book of Esther a dastardly man in ancient Persia called Haman – a Machiavellian figure who had the ear of King Ahasuerus – hatched a plan to murder all the Persian Empire’s Jews. The plot was foiled by Ahasuerus’ Jewish wife, Queen Esther, who is the story’s hero. Ironically, Haman was ultimately hanged using gallows he had prepared for the execution of a Jew, Esther’s uncle Mordechai.

Jewish festivals are often relatively sombre affairs, but not Purim. Unusually in the Jewish tradition, drinking lots of alcohol is encouraged. Triangular jam or sweet poppy seed-filled pastries called Hamantaschen (Yiddish for ‘Haman’s pockets’) are eaten. There is a pantomime aspect to the telling of the Purim story. When Haman’s name is mentioned congregants hiss and boo. It is also sometimes remarked upon that enemies of the Jewish people often have names beginning with ‘h’.

The Purim drinking can be too much for some. I once saw a van pull up in Stamford Hill for a payot-wearing, costume-clad Hassid to tumble out and throw up into the road. Purim provides rare insights into a community that, outwardly at least, seems straight-laced, pious and closed to outsiders.