“Das Purim-Fest” by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1873
“Das Purim-Fest” by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1873

With pear salad and ‘La Bamba,’ it’s time for a Bay Area Purim

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Something was afoot at the San Francisco branch of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in early 1904.

“Unusual bustle is the order of the day at the Y.M.H.A. club house,” we wrote. “Preparing for the Purim masquerade ball next Tuesday evening, March 1st, is the cause of the great activity prevailing. The affair promises to be a very brilliant and unique one and its attractions will be manifold and out of the ordinary.”

Purim, that day of story and song, was a mainstay holiday in San Francisco and the Bay Area at the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century, with balls and lunches and masquerades organized every year, making the holiday festive but decorous.

Perhaps too much merrymaking seemed excessive to the secularized, Reform Jews that made up the bulk of the paper’s readership — as a whiff of disapproval comes through in an 1897 treatise on the festive holiday.

The author, R. Farber, chose to emphasize not the fun of Purim, but rather its moral lessons. “We do not mean to return to the farce and mockery with which the festival was marked in olden days, but to make it one of inspiration for all that is good, as it was intended by the author of the book of Esther.”

But wait! Maybe Purim is dying out anyway! Or at least we thought it might, back in 1924.

“The festival of Purim is dying out among the observances of our faith, and is losing its appeal to the modern Jew,” wrote a New York rabbi named Marius Ransom.

Purim was dying out, the writer posited, because the holiday lacked in ideals and was not religious enough. It was about the Jews winning, not through Jewish values but just through smarts. And it was undignified, too.

“Is there not, to say the least, something unseemly in the fact that this rejoicing expresses itself so predominantly in exultation over the destruction of Israel’s enemies?” It was very “un-Jewish,” he added, as “Forgiveness is the badge of the Jewish soul.”

Predictions aren’t always right, and Purim didn’t go anywhere. In 1931 we ran a guide on how to host a Purim party with this editor’s note: “We all know the Biblical story of Purim. It is read to us each year, and always we enjoy it. In this article, however, Miss Turnheim does not repeat the well-known tale, but instead, in her engaging, entertaining style, tells us how to make our Purim party a success. Read this — and then eat, drink and be merry! — The Editor.”

Doris Turnheim, the author, explained how the tradition was to go door to door in costume, but that could be adapted for the modern Jew.

“Since, however, this strolling about may prove to be more of a nuisance than anything else in this age and generation, it would probably be best if you arrange for entertaining your guests in the house.”

In 1933 we solicited Purim food ideas from our readers. (Photo/J. Archives)Purim,  archives,  food,  recipes
In 1933 we solicited Purim food ideas from our readers. (Photo/J. Archives)

Since card-playing is permitted on Purim (which this year falls on March 6-7), she recommended it as a diversion, and “when and if your guests tire of bridge or pinochle you may turn on the radio, and dance-music will take care of them for the rest of the evening.”

And a feast was de rigueur.

“Be sure you have plenty of grape juice or lemonade or fruit punch to substitute for the unlimited quantities of wine which the Rabbis permitted the Jews to drink on Purim but which modern custom frowns upon. As for solid food — how’s this for a menu? Toasted sandwiches, cut in triangular shapes; pear salad; lekach and Hamantaschen and candy.”

Lekach is a honey-sweetened cake, and if you don’t know what making a pear salad might entail, have no fear.

“The pear salad,” Turnheim writes, “is particularly appropriate because halved preserved pears are more or less triangular. Put half a preserved pear on a bed of lettuce leaves, and beside it lay a little mound of mayonnaise or whipped cream. Over the whole sprinkle a heaping teaspoonful of chopped walnuts, and on the mayonnaise, or whipped cream, lay half a strawberry — another triangle. This makes a very dainty salad.”

Seven decades later, in 2002, our readers were still looking for direction on how to celebrate Purim. At that time the internet was still new enough that we were in the habit of writing in our print newspaper about online opportunities.

“Where to begin with Purim sites on the World Wide Web? The problem is that there are so many,” syndicated journalist James Besser wrote in these pages.

“The Web is becoming more homogeneous; it’s getting harder to find genuinely creative, interesting sites,” he continued. “And the Jewish Web is no exception. Still, there are many excellent sites that can give your Purim a boost.”

He highlighted a few of them — albeit with a little criticism (“Good writing,” he wrote about one site, “but it would help if these guys did a better job of Web formatting”) — on topics from learning to recipes to Purim humor, or at least an attempt at such (“Peruse such offerings as the Purim song to the tune of ‘La Bamba.’”)

Pear salad and “La Bamba” aside, the carnival atmosphere of Purim is complemented by some serious moments, summed up by these words from 1897 that still ring true today.

“It is not so agreeable to be reminded that Jew baiting and hatred already existed in those remote days,” Farber wrote 126 years ago. “It reminds at least those who hear the story repeated that they are Jews, and that hatred against Israel has not ceased to our present day; that every age has its Hamans, but likewise its Mordecais and Esthers.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.