The Difference Between Good and Evil

Children probably shouldn’t smoke cigarettes. For the most part, we all agree on this point, and for the most part, we all feel the same way about binge drinking. But there is an exception to this rule. If you venture into the ultra-conservative, ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem, on the 15th of Adar (sometime around mid-March, for those who follow the Gregorian calendar), then you’ll be greeted by all the trappings of a raucous block party. There are slow-moving party vans with couches on the roof, blasting loud techno; crowds of smiling partygoers stumbling in and out of synagogues and yeshivas that have been cleared of prayer benches to make way for dance floors; and—of course—there are lots of little costumed drunk kids running around, smoking cigarettes.

 

It is an odd and unexpected sight, that’s frankly a little shocking. But there are a few good reasons for it. First off, it is Purim. It is a time to celebrate the liberation of the Jewish people from the threat of extinction. It is a time to celebrate the foiling of an evil plot to destroy them all. It is therefore an official rabbinical obligation for people to be joyful on on this day. I also suspect that people are taking advantage of a rare chance to let loose. These people are ultra-Orthodox. They practice Judaism hard, and I guess one day a year they deserve to party hard, too.

 

As the story goes, an evil vizier to the king concocted a plan to exterminate all of the Jews who were residing in diaspora in the Persian empire during the 4th century BCE. The vizier’s grudge against the Jewish people was due to one man’s unwillingness to bow to him. The king had recently honored the vizier by decreeing that everyone in the kingdom should bow to him, and afford him the same respect given to the king. The man’s name was Mordechai. The vizier’s name was Haman. As a Jew, Mordecai refused to bow to anyone or anything other than his god, and Haman took this to be a personal affront from all of the Jewish people. So he went to the king and got permission to destroy the Jewish people on the grounds that there was no hope that they would ever obey all of his laws. Fortunately, Mordechai’s adopted daughter, Esther, had recently won a beauty pageant and become a queen. As such, she had limited (but useful) access to the king, and used it to turn the tables on Haman and hang him on the very gallows he had built for Mordechai.

Purim is all about happiness. People are commanded to be happy on Purim, and the whole month is supposed to be more joyous than the rest. Some streams of thought within Judaism argue that drinking a lot of booze is a great way to accomplish this.

So Purim is all about celebrating this deliverance from destruction. It is a time for Jews to relish their freedom, and it is a time for them to revel in their common identity. As is often the case with these sorts of things, Rabbis throughout the ages have compiled a very specific list of actions they must perform throughout the day: first, the festivities kick off with a reminder of why they should be celebrating. They read through the whole story about the jealous vizier and how his evil plot was foiled by providence. They gather in synagogues for the reading, yelling and spinning little mechanical noise machines called groggers every time the vizier’s name is mentioned. There are also some special prayers they sing to mark the occasion, and they are instructed to do good deeds such as donate to charities and exchange gifts with family and friends as a way of celebrating and spreading the good vibes. They also encourage everyone to dress up. This particular tradition of wearing costumes and masks is probably a result of a cultural cross-pollination with Catholic Lent traditions in 14th-century Italy; but now that it has taken hold as a central element to the Jewish holiday, they’ve come up with a few retroactive explanations, usually having something to do with how Esther was able to hide her identity and become a queen. The last rule of Purim is that celebrants should be joyful and have a celebratory meal.

 

The celebratory meal is where all of the smoking and the drinking comes in. Many drink simply because they believe that the meal should be joyous merely because of the happy and liberating occasion. According to some interpretations, however, intoxication is permitted—even required—because alcohol played a big part in saving the Jewish people: Esther made strategic use of alcohol to get the king to grant her any request she desired. This tradition of boozy celebration grew throughout the years, and rabbinic opinions have ranged from simply suggesting that people should have a couple of glasses and be merry to promoting the slightly unconventional idea that everyone should drink so heavily that they can no longer tell the difference between good and evil. Some even go so far as to say that you can dabble in evil a little more than usual as proof of your inability to tell the difference—hence the minor smoking problem.

 

So Purim is a lot of fun, and it’s a big deal in Israel. It’s probably the only religious holiday that the secular side of the population is equally enthusiastic about, so it’s a nationwide party and a rare moment of unity. But for the last two years, instead of just dressing up myself and heading to a friend’s house party like a normal person, I’ve been running around the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, finding my way into odd situations, and photographing these curious shenanigans. I stick out like a sore thumb. It’s an interesting feeling—on a day when everyone is costumed, uncharacteristically uninhibited, and actually attempting to stand out—to know that the most ostentatious thing I can do is just be myself.

Observers of Purim are instructed to drink until the line between the villain and the protagonist of the story are blurred

And having blurred the lines between good and evil, certain vices such as smoking are tolerated — even young children are allowed to to participate

The experience is droll, and it is indeed ironic to see people known for their restrictive lifestyle binge drinking, but the whole thing is still not exactly what you would expect it to be. Mea She’arim is a neighborhood that is famous for its monolithic, aggressive conservatism. The secular part of the country views it as an unwelcoming, foreign land. The residents of the neighborhood put up roadblocks every Saturday to keep cars out. The whole place is covered in austere warnings begging visitors to match their standards of modesty. They don’t even speak the same language as everyone else—they are one of the few communities still speaking Yiddish in daily life. But a closer look reveals it to be a more diverse place than one might expect.

 

This becomes just a little more obvious on a day like Purim, when everyone actually strives to weaken inhibitions, let loose, and maybe hint at their true colors. For a brief moment, the ubiquitous shroud of black clothes and uniform expectations disappears, and a brief glimpse of freedom and an unbridled joy emerges.

 

This isn’t to say that there is no joy in the place the rest of the year. It might not be the kind of daily joy that you prefer, but there is something powerful about existing within such a tight knit community and living a life of intense ritual. The difference on a day like Purim is that different kinds of joy are tolerated for a change. People aren’t limited to the narrow profile of religious practice sanctioned by tradition. Not everyone takes advantage of the opportunity—not by a long shot. Most of the costumes are relatively unimaginative, and most people stick to some variation of their traditional dress—maybe mixing things up with a disco ball hat or a really colorful sombrero. But you can tell that some of them really relish the opportunity to push the limits.

Mea She’arim is actually a pretty diverse neighborhood and is home to interpretations of Judaism that range from those that essentially require women to wear Jewish versions of burqas…

…to your typical frat house types, studying abroad for a year.

I visited three places. One was a small yeshiva with a bunch of 19ish-year-old college boys who hailed from some variation of New Jersey or New York. Another was the main synagogue of the Breslov movement, which is an offshoot of Hasidic Judaism that emphasizes forming a joyous relationship with God and living an intensely emotional life of religious practice. The last place was the Toldos Aharon synagogue, which is home to a particularly stringent ultra-Orthodox sect that has made a name for itself due to its strict requirements for cohesive behavior in a neighborhood that is famous for its strict requirements for cohesive behavior.

 

They have specifications for married people’s sock length and color on Saturdays. There is a ban on all shoelaces, so that people don’t have to touch their feet any more than they have to. The entire community signs a document each year stating their intention not only to abide by all of the laws in the Torah, but also to abide by Takanot, which are additional rules specified by the chief rabbi of the sect. They have also made a name for themselves as anti-Zionists who vehemently oppose the state of Israel. They don’t believe that the state of Israel, with all of its secular ideals and human leadership, is part of God’s plan for Judaism. It’s a pretty hardcore bunch that really do not compromise on anything, demanding nothing short of excellence in all tenants of religious life and community.

 

And they were definitely among the hardest partying individuals I have ever seen. The Breslov people seemed to be well practice at having a good party. After all, their sect emphasizes rapturous joy in religious practice. For the most part, they just made me feel inadequate about my dancing skills. The 19-year-old yeshiva boys were, well, 19-year-old American kids who were studying abroad in a country where they could legally drink. They partied respectably, but there is a certain familiarity in the sight of Americans taking competitive shots and wrestling on the hoods of random cars, and it just didn’t quite scratch my itch for exoticism.

 

The Toldos Aharon people, on the other hand, were a sight to behold. Despite being among the most stringent teetotalers on the planet for 364 days of the year, they were drinking party-punch like sorority girls during rush week. And they couldn’t really handle it. The main hall in the synagogue was strewn with the pious, passed out against shelves of prayer books, stumbling arm in arm with half-empty bottles of cherry vodka, or just sitting quietly—clearly overwhelmed—staring into the distance. I saw at least two people walking around with bandaged heads. There was a thin film of vomit and sweet cherry booze spread evenly across the floor. Some people were keeping it together enough to make halfhearted attempts at mopping things up, but they just spread it around. The stench was unbearable. I got some decent pictures. I posted a few on Instagram. I felt cool.

The Breslov folks threw a pretty good party and mostly just made me feel inadequate about my dancing skills.

Nothing particularly exotic about 19-year-old American kids acting like 19-year-old American kids

The Toldos Aharon sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism does not compromise in their religious practice. This approach extends to their drinking habits on Purim

And then I returned the following year. I wanted to fill in some gaps between the shots I had taken the last time. I was a year better at street photography, and a part of me was out hunting for even more impressive pictures of ironic alcohol abuse. But a bigger part of me wanted to approach the whole thing from a slightly different perspective.

 

I’m hardly the first person to photograph this phenomenon. I wasn’t even the only person running around with a camera either of the times I went. There are a handful of blogs and slideshows floating around the internet that do a decent job pointing out how interesting it is that ultra-Orthodox Jews get really drunk on Purim, and Vice News did a piece a while back, so it’s not exactly a secret. It’s an easy thing to cover, and the story practically writes itself. The contrast between austere religious practice and the seemingly belligerent immorality is a match made in clickbait heaven.

 

But I didn’t want to play that game. Or, at least, I didn’t want it to dominate my understanding of the phenomenon. So I came back hoping to better understand them. How did these raucous partygoers think of themselves, and how did they feel about what they were doing? Could they see the irony? Was it about freedom? Was it a fleeting opportunity to transgress the harsh rules and regulations they were born into? Or was it something else? Orthodox Judaism is a religious practice that is compulsively obsessed with the meaning and purpose of each tiny action. I’m pretty sure that they have given this some thought.

It’s not that everyone was binge drinking, or even just drinking at all. It’s just that a lot of the people who were drinking definitely pushed themselves to the limits.

I saw a couple of people who sustained minor injuries

People were passed out all over the place

So I went back, and this time I showed up early—well before the drinking started, and well before the spectacle began. And this time, I didn’t take very many pictures. It’s not that there wasn’t anything interesting to photograph just because they weren’t drinking, it’s just that I somehow ended up standing in the corner of the main room at the Toldos Aharon synagogue while they spent two hours reading through the entire story of Esther. The doors were shut, it was packed to the brim, and there wasn’t really any way to get out without interrupting and making a huge scene. I couldn’t really move around to get any decent pictures, and after a little while I finally realized that it wasn’t appropriate to try. So for most of the time it took to read the scroll from beginning to end, I just watched.

 

The rabbi was ancient. They helped his frail body onto the elevated platform that was situated in the middle of the room. He clutched the railing as he ascended, supported himself heavily on the lectern when he arrived. The entire congregation kept quiet enough to hear his trembling voice. They had what looked to be an impressive sound system, but he didn’t use it. My guess is that there were at least 600 congregants, all crammed into an area about the size of a tennis court, each following along with their own copy of the story. The Rabbi’s reading voice seemed strained. There were times when I thought about the cruelty of forcing such an fragile, elderly man to stand and shake and read for two hours nonstop. It was a physical thing, his reading. He didn’t just shake; he rocked his whole body back and forth in long, rhythmic motions that didn’t quite match the cadence of his chanting. I couldn’t discern any emotion in his delivery; it seemed like enough of a struggle for him to get the words out at all. This was nothing like the fire-and-brimstone preacher who whips the crowd into a frenzy. He wasn’t really making any effort to influence the emotion in the room. There was no charisma, barely even a melody—only the weight of a long tradition and a community’s obsessive sense of duty. People were here to be a part of something. The overall vibe in the room was of joy.

 

Each time Haman’s name came up in the story, the entire congregation started yelling and spinning their noisemakers. They all shouted some variation of “boooooo,” and the noisemakers sounded like a hundred roulette machines spinning off at once. Together they blotted out any mention of the story’s villain with a unified ruckus that might have had a whiff of competition to it. Most people had little plastic noisemakers that were probably made in China. A few had big ones that were made of wood. One guy’s wooden noisemaker required two hands to hold and looked like it was passed down generations.

 

For me, two hours was more than enough. By the time they finally opened the doors, I was among the first to leave. I didn’t stick around much longer, and I certainly didn’t stay long enough to see or document the drunken shenanigans that I knew were to follow. The kids smoking, the irony of their drunkenness, the thin layer of cherry vodka vomit everywhere, it all lost its luster. It wasn’t all that exciting anymore. I’m not saying that it isn’t an interesting thing to see, or that you shouldn’t be interested, or even that you shouldn’t be rubbernecking at it—people are weird, societies are weird, and cultures are even weirder. They all do weird things, and weird things they do are interesting. You should probably take the time to learn about them.

 

I left because I felt like an intruder. I already had some pictures, and I had hung around enough to get a sense of what the holiday was all about. I just didn’t have much of a reason to stick around anymore.

 

More pictures of drunk people stumbling around wasn’t going to add much to the story. These were people engaged in something that was meaningful to them. It doesn’t matter that some of them were just excited at the opportunity to transgress a little and let loose, and it doesn’t matter that some of them may have taken things too far. In most of their minds, getting drunk on Purim is no different than any other religious practice. For them, binge drinking scratches the same itch as does keeping kosher, or having exactly four glasses of wine during the Passover meal. They are simply rituals. They find meaning in them, and they are the foundation of their community. I don’t think it should be ridiculed, and I don’t think that there is much point in criticizing it—even something as shocking to us as parents encouraging small children to smoke. These chaotic, drunken festivities are a part of something that matters to these people for reasons that are ultimately good, and that has a way of blurring the lines—of making it just a little harder to tell the difference between good and evil.

The vibe of the room made it pretty clear what the holiday is all about.

Some context

 

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