Purim in the Dutch Colonies

Purim was last week. (I’m not great at planning posts, obviously.) For my non-Jewish readers, it’s a holiday to celebrate the Jews surviving yet another genocidal attempt (this time, 5th century BCE Persia) by a right-wing, fascist sociopath (this time, Haman). No matter the country, we have a track record of being ‘othered’ for not fully fitting in, hated/killed for not fully fitting in, and surviving all that bullshit. We’re the adamantium of peoples. 

It’s why every holiday we bow our heads and say:

A rabbi holding a prayer book and a torah. The text says, "They tried to kill us. We served. Let's eat.

Modern American Purim

Chocolate and vanilla cheesecake hamantashen, triangular cookies
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021

I love Purim because of it is one day of dressing up in costume, the hamantashen (cookies), and getting drunk until you can’t tell the difference between Mordecai (good guy) and Haman (bad guy) — I’ve never actually done this one, but my childhood Orthodox rabbi would wear a Papa Smurf costume and drink slivovitz through the megillah reading (another mitzvah). Yeah, those were my formative years.

So, why is dressing up on Purim a big deal? Esther hid her true identity as a Jew and revealed this to her husband, the king who was completely in lust with her, in time to stop Haman’s genocide. (If you think Esther deliberately seduced her husband — who picked her out of a lineup of women [ugh, gross] — to save the Jews, and that all of this sets feminism back over 2400 years, and why would I celebrate it?

Bringing down the patriarchy with the tools available to the powerless.

18th Century Purim in the Dutch Atlantic

A group of people approaching the columns of a palace.
Queen Esther Approach­ing the Palace of Aha­suerus, 1658, Claude Lor­rain. Source: The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

Let’s move up 2000-ish years to the 18th century to how the colonized world celebrated Purim. A little background info first: The Spanish Inquisition (and subsequent Portuguese Inquisition) drove the Jews of Spain and Portugal to countries who embraced religious freedom. The Netherlands was one of these countries. When the Dutch began colonizing, they offered prominent positions in these lands to those who contributed positively to the empire. They sent many Jews to build up the merchant trade in the Atlantic World. In doing so, they became slave-owners like their Christian counterparts.

Dutch style building in yellow with white trim.
Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, Willemstad, Curaçao. Source: Wikimedia

This brings us to Suriname and Curacao in the late 18th and early 19th century. Remember when I said we celebrate Purim for one day? Suriname and Curacao had their own rules… or lack thereof. There, Jews, along with the Christian and Afro-Caribbean communities, both free and enslaved, celebrated Purim together for a week of debauchery, Carnival style.* Christian theologians of the time called it bacchanalia Judaeorum, or Jewish carnival. (Ben-Ur)

4 Rules to Celebrate Purim

How did Jews get away with what would seem like an un-Godly celebration? Well, the Book of Esther, or Megillah, never mentions God, which makes the holiday a little more secular than religious, from a Jewish perspective. Further, there are only four rules to celebrate, the rest is conjecture:

  1. Listen to the reading of the Megillah
  2. Sending treats to friends
  3. Have a feast
  4. Give to the poor
A portion of a Megillah with illustrations surrounding the text in the center.
Book of Esther (Megillah), 18th century. Source: Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam/Wikimedia

Regarding costumes, there are numerous arguments about why we do it. One theory looks to the Conversos — the Jews who hid their true identity by outwardly converting to Christianity under the Inquisition, but inwardly remained Jews. (Not all Dutch Jews falsely converted. They just left the Iberian peninsula.)

Blurred Lines

By wearing masks and costumes, the line between Jews and non-Jews, the enslaved and the slavers blurred. Not only were costumes worn, they were often inversions of the social structure. Men dressed like women, women dressed like men, slaves pretended to be free, and Christians who weren’t so thrilled about Jews**, joined in the fun.

Who wouldn’t want to celebrate a week of inebriation, inversion, and not working?

In Suriname and Curacao, African dance had been outlawed, but during Purim celebrations, their dancing was permissible. So was their drumming. Also added to the mix of celebration were Creole and Catholic elements.

As ear­ly as 1711, Suriname’s colo­nial leg­is­la­tors com­plained of the great num­bers of slaves in Joden­sa­vane [“Jews’ Savan­nah”] who gath­ered on Jew­ish hol­i­days to ​“drum, dance, and play,” activ­i­ties that caused ​“many dis­or­ders.”

Cel­e­brat­ing Purim in a Slave Society
Slaves dance and play instruments on Dutch colonized Suriname.
Benoit, Pierre Jacques. Voyage a Surinam. 1839. Source: historyarchive.org

In ear­ly mod­ern West Africa, mas­quer­ades and com­mu­nal dances con­sti­tut­ed cru­cial life-cycle rit­u­als, includ­ing ini­ti­a­tions. Tak­ing part in masked Purim cel­e­bra­tions may have been a means by which slaves could incul­cate ances­tral val­ues to their imme­di­ate com­mu­ni­ty and trans­mit those to their descen­dants.

Cel­e­brat­ing Purim in a Slave Society

Of course, we can’t know for certain why Africans and their descendents chose to participate in Purim. As there is no written record, the above quotation is speculation.

Unfortunately, after the holiday, all the laws and rules of “normal” society returned, and Africans were enslaved once again.

Notes:

* There is the theory that in order for Jews about this time to fit into their new-to-them countries — like Italy where they lived in ghettos, forcibly separated from Christians — they adapted the free-wheeling fun of Carnival (a Christian celebration before the asceticism of Lent) to fit the Purim narrative. That’s why some Purim customs seem like a stretch in connecting to Esther’s story… and why hamantashen are shaped like “Haman’s hat.” So far as I can find, tricorn hats were popular in 18th century Western culture and not a Persian accessory, like ever.

** Even though they had “legal privileges unparalleled among Jews elsewhere in the Atlantic world.” (Ben-Ur)

Sources:


Want to read a Purim romance set in Gilded Age New York?
"Queen Esther, Unmasked" by Hallie Alexander is in the LOVE ALL YEAR anthology celebrating diversity and romance throughout the year.
books2read.com/LoveAllYear
Love All Year: A Holidays Anthology

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