Purim Is Ready for Its Hollywood Close-up

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In Old Hollywood of the studio system, moguls avoided anything explictly Jewish. Now Jewish holidays are getting their turn in the spotlight.Credit: AP

Purim, like film, celebrates mimicry, dressing up, hiding, deception, and revelation. Actors and actresses disappear into characters, impersonate real-life historical figures and dress up in often outrageous costumes.

Even Woody Allen, who seems to be just playing himself, is actually embodying a persona called “Woody Allen” (which isn’t even his real name). Allen makes his Jewishness a central characteristic of this character but that wasn't always a marketable trait in Hollywood. For decades, Jewish actors and actresses in Hollywood, like Esther, had to "pass" as gentile to make it in the industry.

Woody Allen.Credit: AP

Given this thematic relationship between Purim and film, we might expect the latter to deal a bit more with the former. Only recently, though, has Purim become a subject worthy of the Hollywood treatment.  

During the heyday of the studio system – the 1930s to the mid-1950s – Jewish movie moguls avoided any explicit trace of Jewishness for fear of alienating white, working-class audiences and stoking anti-Jewish prejudices, which ran high until after the Second World War. So even as the moguls were creating the ‘American Dream’ onscreen and selling it to mass American audiences, they resembled to some extent the fearful Jews of Shushan who were afraid to embrace their identity.

Even when American Jews began to come out more on film during the late 1960s and 1970s, Purim stayed in the background. Why reference an obscure holiday of one minority when Mardi Gras and Halloween are more widely recognized – and celebrated – versions of the same thing?

From the 1990s onwards, Purim has popped up in a few films, none very big or important though. Most of the time, it's used as a type of insider joke, rather than substantial plot device.

For the former, think of "The Hebrew Hammer" (2003), a "Jewsploitation" flick that winks at the Blaxploitation genre of the 1970s. The main characters are Mordechai and Esther, referencing the two key Jewish characters in the Purim story. Mordechai, in gold chains with the Hebrew word chai (meaning "life") and a tallit (prayer shawl) as a scarf, looks like he dressed up as Shaft for Purim.  Beyond the costume and names, the holiday doesn't really factor in the story.

Purim does play a more symbolic role in the Christopher Guest  mockumentary "For Your Consideration" (2006), a satire of Hollywood awards. A film-within-a-film plot features a movie originally called "Coming Home for Purim" that is changed to "Coming Home for Thanksgiving" because a studio exec (Ricky Gervais) thinks the first title is "too Jewish."

“All I’m saying is…don’t shove it down people’s throat. I don’t run around going, ‘I’m a Gentile, look at my foreskin!’ I don’t shove it down your throat, because I don’t care.”

While it may be too strong to call him a modern-day Haman, the character's fear of Jewishness satirizes the Jewish moguls of old Hollywood who stripped films such as "The Ten Commandments" of their ethnic origins, instead Americanizing them as a universal message.

Purim is weaved into a few other films as well, though still not very explicitly. David Mamet, a Jewish director well-known for slipping Jewish themes into his work, wrote and directed "Homicide"(1991) in which a Jewish homicide cop (played by non-Jew Joe Mantegna) tries to pass in the goyische world of the police. During his investigation into a possible anti-Semitic murder, Gold runs into a Jewish scholar who admonishes him for being unable to speak or read Hebrew. He then shows Gold a full photocopied page from the Book of Esther.

The Purim reference isn't accidental – Mamet uses it to draw a thematic parallel between the stories. A Jew in a Gentile culture and the themes of mimicry, hiding, deception and revelation are central in both Purim and the film (and possibly all of Mamet’s films for that matter).

A final example is found in "The Governess" (1998), that rare creature: a good British Jewish film. Set in Victorian Britain, Sephardic Jew Rosina da Silva (Minnie Driver) is forced to take a job as a governess on the Isle of Skye. Her real ethnicity is unknown to her non-Jewish employers and she adopts the name Mary Blackchurch to keep it a secret, a clever nod to Hadassah-cum-Esther.

Naturally, she falls in love with the head of the family and, in a subtle hint to her true identity, performs for him as Queen Esther. Without revealing too much, her deception works – but only to an extent.

Arguably, the ideas of Purim – temporarily disappearing into someone else, reinventing oneself through costume and behaviour – also lie at the heart of cinema.

Despite this, Purim itself rarely made a cameo until Hollywood became more comfortable in its Jewish skin.  It still hasn't been given the starring role that, say, Chanukah got in Adam Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights" or that little biopic about Passover called "The Ten Commandments." But perhaps now, after a string of supporting roles, Purim is ready for its close-up.  

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