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Costume Ball

Aryeh Magram

Years ago, Purim costumes meant either Queen Esther or Mordechai — maybe Achashveirosh or Vashti for the more daring. Today, costume manufacturers will go as far as the Jewish imagination can stretch.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

 Underneath every costume, a Jew is still a Jew.


Rabbi Mordechai Becher of Gateways Seminars tells a story of a non-Jewish actor who was playing the part of a chassid in a New York play. On his break, while still in costume, he went over to the nearest Italian deli to pick up a sandwich.


“Gimme a ham on rye,” he said to the man behind the counter.

“Nope,” the man said.

Nope?!” the actor said. “Why on earth not?!”

“If you want to go to purgatory, you can get there yourself,” the man said. “I’m not helping you.”

“Oooh,” the actor said, remembering he was still wearing his chassidishe costume. “No. You don’t understand. I’m not even Jewish. I’m an actor. I’m acting in a play down the street. This is just my costume.”

“I’ve heard that one before,” the man said. “Now get out of here.”



Simpler Times

Masks reveal what’s really inside as much as they conceal. So, what does our choice of mask say about who we are as a people? What does it tell us about our secret, concealed motivations, and our inner longings? Is it possible to deduce, by looking at the changing patterns of costumes, if, and how, we ourselves have changed as a people? The themes of hiddenness, costume, and masquerade lace the Megillah, and these deep connections are discussed in the rabbinical sources.


So, based on our choices of Purim costumes, for ourselves and our children, are we making a deeper statement, or are we just trying to get through the holiday conveniently without too many tantrums?


Many years ago, a Purim costume was much like a loaf of gefilte fish in those days. You couldn’t buy one at the store. You had to make it at home. If you were a boy, you would dress up as Mordechai and your costume would be made from an old sheet. If you were a girl, you would dress up as Esther, and your costume would be made from an old tablecloth. If you were an adult, you would dress up as yourself, and your costume would be made from your clothes.


But at some point, dissatisfaction with the simple began to creep in. Why should we stick with just Mordechai when there are also Haman and Achashveirosh? Why just Esther when there’s Vashti and other non-green ladies in the story? Before you knew it, Jews had expanded past the relatively few pages of the Megillah, and found costume ideas on the many pages of the Torah, Neviim, and Kesuvim. The forefathers and the foremothers, Moses and the meraglim, Yehoshua and the shoftim. All were fair territory for the costume-searching Jewish mother.


By the 1960s and ’70s, even the pages of Tanach could no longer hold the imaginations of the Jews. Everything was fair game: Doctors with stethoscopes, nurses with little hats, policemen with sticks, soldiers with guns, ninjas with swords. And why be limited to actual people? If it had some association with Judaism, couldn’t it also be considered a valid Purim costume? Mount Sinai, peace signs, and flower children were welcomed to the list. The possibilities were limited only by your daring and your supply of cardboard and aluminum foil. The world was changing, and the Jews were changing with it.


Yossi and Chaim Itzkowitz — respectively the owner of the Toys4U chain and manager of the Monsey store — have been involved with costumes as long as they can remember, beginning with their father’s Williamsburg business more than forty years ago. The store had costumes and moving mannequins in the window.


“Kids would come in just to look at it, but not too many people bought costumes,” Chaim remembers. “My mother used to buy a roll of army fabric and sew costumes for the store. She’d make a bear costume at home and my father would sell it.”


Chaim told Mishpacha that the main changes to costumes over the years have come in selection, quality, and price.


“As little as six or seven years ago, there were ten or fifteen costumes to choose from. Now we carry 160 costumes. The quality is also better. It used to be a shmatteh, but now it’s pretty good quality. The price has gone way down also. You can get a full costume, like an army, UPS, or firefighter outfit, for $20 to $25. It used to be that when a kid wanted a full mascot costume, like a bear or a bunny rabbit, he would have to rent it out for $100 a week. Now you can buy that costume for the same price.”


Toys4U owner Yossi Itzkowitz added that these lower prices have enabled people to buy costumes, even during the recession. In fact, he expected the recession to hurt their business, but the opposite has actually been the case. Yossi says that as long as the outlay is small, people will buy. Since the recession, people won’t buy big-ticket items like a new car or a shtreimel. But they will put down the $20 to $25 to buy their kids a costume for Purim.


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