Before this year, I’d never heard of the Jewish holiday called Purim. Hanukkah and Passover, sure. But if you told me that Jews celebrate a holiday that mandates drinking heavily and encourages everyone – from small children to adults – to dress up in costume, I’m not sure I would have believed you.
I was invited by Abraham Hostels in Israel to get a first-hand look at this rambunctious holiday, and I was up for the challenge. I set to work on my costume, booked my flight into Tel Aviv, and began attempting to store up on sleep for what was sure to be many sleepless nights ahead.
What is Purim and why is it celebrated?
Before jumping head-first into the celebrations, it’s important to understand what we’re celebrating. Purim is a festival that commemorates the Jewish people being saved from being massacred by the evil Haman in his plot to “to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, in a single day,” as recorded in the book of Esther.
Esther is the only book of the Bible that doesn’t mention the name of G-d, leading to a miracle that’s different than others recorded in the Holy Book. Ester hid her true identity for much of the book and because this is a miracle where the role of G-d is ‘hidden,’ this holiday is celebrated by donning costumes.
For a more in-depth description of the holiday and its significance, I recommend this post by Chabad.
How Jews celebrate Purim around the world
I’m not Jewish and although I had an absolute blast celebrating Purim in Israel, I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on the topic. Thankfully, I have some amazing Jewish friends from around the world who have agreed to share their memories and traditions with us.
Siobhan from London, UK
We had a very British Purim in London. The theme was Beatle-mania! At my synagogue, my husband Gavin and I dressed as Sergeant Pepper and a flower power girl. We sang ‘Hey Jews’ instead of Hey Jude and for Yellow Submarine, we sang ‘We all live in a house in Golders Green!’
As the book of Esther was read out, there was lots of booing and hissing whenever the evil Haman’s name was mentioned. The story takes place in Persia. Haman hated the Jews because Esther’s uncle refused to bow down to him so he “cast lots” (Purim) to set a date to slaughter them. However, when the Queen reveals she is Jewish, the king has Haman killed instead. We dress up in order to disguise and then reveal our identities. Unfortunately in every generation there is a ‘Haman’, a powerful figure who wants to hurt the Jews. So the story of Purim continues to be relevant. It is also the only book in the whole bible where G-d is never mentioned.
In the synagogue, we watched a play of the Esther story known as a ‘Spiel’. Then we party. It is a commandment to get drunk on Purim. So get the shots out and throw some shapes on the dance floor!
Julie from Tennessee, USA
I don’t know that I have memories so much as observations of Purim. What I found comforting is that all the synagogues I have gone to have always had the same Purim carnival. There is a fishing game with candy as the prize, a bowling game, a face painting booth, a cake walk, etc… They were the games from my childhood and my kids have the same experience, with the addition of a bounce house.
And Hamantaschen are a special treat. (Hamantaschen are triangle-shaped cookies filled with apricot, raspberry or other jelly, chocolate, poppy seeds, or any filling you want.) Haman was the evil man who wanted to kill all the Jews and eating Hamantaschen is symbolic of eating the coins in his pockets. My mother and grandmother would make them occasionally because the dough is a little labor-intensive to make and work with. We always had them at synagogue. I have made them twice as an adult. My favorite memory of Hamantaschen is when I was in Philadelphia a few years ago in July and there was a cart that sold them, so I had one for breakfast every morning on vacation!
When I told Julie I couldn’t find any Hamantaschen in Israel, she sent the following: I have been reading up on Hamantaschen since you said you didn’t get any. 1) In Israel they are called ozni Haman which means Haman’s ears and 2) they are an Ashkenazi Jewish thing. Ashkenazi Jews are of European ancestry as opposed to Sephardic Jews who are from the Mediterranean region.
Also, I always liked dressing up as Queen Esther and pretending to be beautiful and powerful.
Reut from Jerusalem, Israel
What is Purim?
Purim, like most Jewish holidays is they tried to kill us, they couldn’t, so come on, let’s eat and celebrate. The holiday actually starts the day before with a fast that starts at sunrise and finishes the sunset. The fast commemorates the three days of fasting that Queen Esther fasted in the olden days. Like any other Jewish holiday, there is a main mitzvah to be joyous and happy. Other than that mitzvah, we have four specific mitzvahs for this specific holiday.
One is reading the Megillah, which is basically the story of Purim. You have the good Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew, her uncle. And we have Haman the evil, and we even have a drunk King Ahasuerus. We read the Megillah twice, once in the evening and once in the morning. And we have a tradition that during the reading anytime Haman is mentioned, we make a noise so as to physically show that we are against him.
The second mitzvah is called Matanot l’Evyonim which is basically charity. We give charity on this specific day because even though we are joyful, we remember the people who might not be able to be joyful and try to help them.
The third Mitzvah, exchanging parcels is called Mishloach Manot, where you make or buy food and drink and give it to friends and family. In Israel, there’s a joke that people recycle their parcels and a joke going around about people getting something and giving it to the next person. But it’s also an opportunity for people to show their cooking and baking skills, which is nice.
The fourth mitzvah, Seudat Purim, is a feast where we eat and drink. The idea of drinking alcohol is to get a state of confusion where a person can’t tell the difference between the good people and the bad people in the Purim story. Like in other cultures when it comes to alcohol, the people overdo it.
Dressing up on Purim
We also have a longtime tradition of people dressing up. The source of this tradition is that in the story of Purim in the Megillah, we have a lot of characters that dress up. They pretend to be something they’re not. We have a young girl trying to be a queen. We have an evil man trying to play a loyal adviser and the main character that is discussed in the Megillah is G-d. He is not mentioned it all but we can see his maneuvering everything behind the scenes, pulling the strings. That’s the basics.
Purim is one of my favorite holidays. I remember as a child whenever I had an idea of something I wanted to be, my father would always make it for me from scratch. He would go along with whatever crazy idea I had. One year, I was a robot and one year, I was a Dalmatian dog. Once, I was even a bottle of ketchup. That’s what I wanted to be and my father just went with it.
Today a lot of people buy their costumes but it’s still a lot of fun to go around town and see people, especially adults, going around who are not afraid to be funny and a little bit silly. Especially in the city it is a very, very happy day. People are drunk and happy. And in small communities there’s a sense of community and people get together to eat and drink and kids play together which is very nice and fun.
Judith from Kibbutz Ramot Menashe, Israel
Purim in the kibbutz used to be a huge holiday. Everyone came and nearly everyone got dressed up. There were traditional aspects from year to year- like the crew that milked the cows always wore tutus & did a ballet. There was lots to drink and it was lots of fun. Back in those days, there were lots of foreign volunteers who were a bit in awe of this holiday, where the serious people they worked with every day let go and really had a good time. Alcohol of course was free!
Kids’ Purim was great too. Kids went to choose the costume they wanted… then there was a parade of costumes throughout the kibbutz and they ended up at the party, where there were games and prizes. There was usually a show of some kind and food…hot dogs, candy floss, etc. My youngest son was either a cowboy or a lion – his whole life! When he was 20, he chose a different costume – Tarzan. The photo below is my son’s kindergarten. These kids are all 22 years old now.
Rachel from New York, USA
When I was younger, Purim was my favorite holiday. I would dress up and it was really fun because you could dress up as whatever you want. A lot of the girls dress up as boys, and a lot of the boys dress up like girls. It’s a goofy holiday compared to Halloween, which is more scary. It’s kind of like the aim is to be goofy.
The story of Purim was inspiring as a young girl because it’s one of the Bible stories that shows a woman taking control and persuading her husband to do what she wants and having control in saving the Jewish people. It was one of my favorite stories growing up which made the holiday even more special.
You cook those triangle Hamantaschen cookies, and in school, we would learn how to make the cookies and have that as a treat. I remember making them all together as a group. It’s really cool growing up with that tradition and then seeing it here in Israel, where everyone participates in it. It’s a really unique experience and something I really enjoyed!
Purim celebrations in Israel with Abraham Hostels
If Purim sounds like your cup of tea (or your shot of Arak as the case may be), I recommend partying with Abraham Hostels so you don’t miss anything. You’ve missed the 2019 party, but the Abraham Hostels in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are already making plans for 2020’s biggest party of the year. Here’s what you can expect:
I hope you brought your costume, because the Israelis go all out when they dress up for this holiday. If you didn’t have room in your suitcase, party shops throughout Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have you covered with wigs, wands, glitter and costumes. In 2019, I spotted no less than 10 Freddie Mercury characters… so scope out pop culture for ideas on timely costumes. As for me? I stuck with my brand and went as a melting ice cream cone.
Purim parties at Abraham Hostel
Purim in Tel Aviv
Most of the world celebrates Purim on the 14th of Adar, but Jerusalem and a select few others celebrate on the 15th of Adar. In 2020, this correlates to March 10 and 11, so you’ve got plenty of time to clear your calendar.
Tel Aviv is the party capital of the Middle East and it’s the perfect place to get the Purim party started on March 10!
The Lounge of the hostel is transformed into Tel Aviv’s hottest club and a DJ spins highly-danceable hits. The theme of 2019’s party was 90’s music and the boy bands, Spice Girls and Britney had the crowd dancing until the early morning hours.
Face-painters transform party-goers into jungle animals, superheroes and fairies and the bartenders ensure that the drinks flow all night long. If you haven’t been to Israel before, be sure to try local favorites, Arak (licorice-flavored) and Tubi (ginger-flavored) shots. But be careful! They’ll get you to the point where you can’t tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai” quickly!
Purim in Jerusalem
Rest up and take the Abraham Hostel shuttle into Jerusalem, where you have a few hours to prepare for a second night of Purim partying.
At Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, the Purim party is also held in the lounge. The lower ceilings makes this party feel more intimate and the party seemed to ramp up more quickly on the second night. Perhaps everyone had warmed up the night before to prep for this party!
Grab a cup of punch, a pint of beer and make sure your costume has a great pair of dancing shoes!
Street parties in Jerusalem
The parties aren’t over yet! The next day, Jerusalemites take to the streets. Arguably the wildest party happens in the Nachlaot neighborhood, and we joined the throngs of costumed revelers on Nissim Bachar Street.
My experiences with Israelis have always been incredible, but I got a true taste of Israeli hospitality on Purim. While the streets offered a great atmosphere and fun people, I wondered what the scene looked like from above. Thanks to the mimosas at breakfast, that thought came out of my mouth instead of staying inside my head. Moments after the question left my lips, I was being led up the stairs of a stranger’s house. Next thing I knew, we were through the front door of their flat and on their balcony.
From above, the streets were packed with people and awash with color. We took photos and drank wine smuggled in water bottles and selfied to our hearts’ content. Our unwitting hosts pulled out hummus and opened their restrooms to desperate partygoers.
When we made it back to street level, the party continued all day long, getting quiet only as the sun began to set. The 2019 party fell on a Friday, and even Purim partying was no competition for Shabbat dinner.
The full package
Want to experience Israel’s greatest party for yourself? For just 855 ILS ($239 USD), you’ll get five days and four nights of dorm-style accommodation in two of Israel’s top-rated hostels plus parties and tours with this package.
Accommodation at two of Israel’s best hostels
Begin your stay at the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv. It’s the newest of the three Abraham Hostel locations and has over 350 beds. Be sure to check out their amazing rooftop hangout area and funky murals covering the walls and stairwell.
Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem was named the #5 hostel in the world by HostelWorld and consistently gets great reviews on TripAdvisor. The staff are friendly, the rooms are clean and the location is steps away from the Mahane Yehuda Market where you can eat some of the best food in Israel.
Included in this awesome Purim package are two tours and a pub crawl. Experience the history, culture and nightlife of Israel with Abraham Tours.
Consider this your warm up. Before Purim begins, get acquainted with Arak and Tubi on the Tel Aviv Pub Crawl with Abraham Tours. Meet travelers from around the world as you enjoy a free shot at three of Tel Aviv’s hottest clubs. Perfect your “l’chaim,” because you’ll be using this Yiddish expression meaning “to life” every time you toast over the coming days.
In addition to being the party capital of Israel, Tel Aviv has a street art scene that’s every Instagrammer’s dream. This tour will give you a glimpse into Israeli culture, as told by the art of some of Israel’s top graffiti artists.
Masada, Ein Gedi and Dead Sea Tour
After four night of parties, you deserve a little rest and relaxation. And while rest is something you can get at home (the call time for this tour is 7AM), the Masada, Ein Gedi and Dead Sea Tour is among the most relaxing tours offered.
Begin your day at Masada, the ancient fortress overlooking the Dead Sea. Choose to hike up the winding Snake Path or take the cable car to the top, where you can explore the ruins of King Herod’s palace, a Roman-style bathhouse and giant cisterns.
From Masada, travel to Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, where you can take a short hike to view stunning waterfalls. Keep your eyes open for wildlife, life rock hyrax and ibex. Personally, I think the rock hyrax looks like the quokka’s angry cousin. No selfies with this grumpy guy!
Next, it’s time to get muddy at the Dead Sea! Slather yourself with Dead Sea mud, rich in minerals and salts said to have healing properties. (No word on their power to heal hangovers, though.)
Experience it for yourself
לשנה הבאה בירושלים
One of the first phrases I learned in Hebrew is the one above. It’s pronounced L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim and it means “Next year in Jerusalem.” It’s typically used on Jewish holidays to express the deep spiritual significance this city holds for Jews. As for me, I’m hoping it will see me back in Jerusalem to celebrate another Purim next year.
If you want to book a trip to Israel for Purim, book your tour here.
If you’d like to visit Israel with me on a more faith + adventure + food-based tour, sign up for updates here.
Note: I was hosted by Abraham Hostels and Abraham Tours for this trip. As always, all opinions are my own and I’d never recommend anything to you that’s not awesome!