Two worlds of Purim

March 9, 2012

By Nir Elias

As an Israeli and a resident of “ultra” secular Tel Aviv for most of my adult life, Purim — the celebration of the Jews’ salvation from genocide in ancient Persia, as recounted in the Book of Esther — has always been a time of partying and dressing up, for me.

Images of Orthodox Jews celebrating Purim were always very familiar. But being present at one of these celebrations was a different experience altogether.

This year I went to photograph the Vizhnitz Hasidic community in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox city some 7 km (4 miles) from Tel Aviv. The Vizhnitz community members tend to emphasize the joyous gatherings and celebrations commemorated in the Jewish tradition.

When I arrived at their huge hall, it was mostly empty, but within less than an hour it was packed. The atmosphere was welcoming and warm. Thousands stood on grand-stands surrounding the hall and waited for their Rabbi to arrive. When he entered, there was a burst of singing and clapping and one could clearly feel the excitement. They sang songs praising God and emphasizing the importance of being happy during the festival with enthusiasm even though they had fasted the whole day, as is customary on Purim. They also read in unison from The Book of Esther. The atmosphere was electrifying. Looking around, many of them seemed entranced as they joined in to the loud singing and dancing.

Photos and video by Nir Elias, Ronen Zvulun and Baz Ratner.

At some point the place emptied and I figured that many had left to go home and break their fast, only to return some time later for more dancing and singing, but also drinking alcohol. This part of the evening is all about dancing and drinking and singing and continues until the early hours of the morning. The practice of gender separation was also clear throughout the evening. I didn’t see one woman all evening and I was there until around 1am. As I drove back to Tel Aviv I saw people dressed up and probably on their way to a Purim party. I passed by a man dressed in his underwear and soon afterwards spotted a couple wearing black leather costumes as the woman held onto her male partner with a heavy metal chain attached to his collar.

I thought to myself: Here were two Israeli communities living literally next to each other but celebrating the same holiday in such different ways — an embodiment of the contrasts and contradictions that make up this country.

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