When Unruliness Ruled

In the days when the kibbutz was an island of puritanism, sobriety and conformity, Purim was the one day of the year when people would let go - bigtime.

About four months after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel, in early 1978, a delegation of four visiting Egyptian government officials marched into the dining hall of a certain kibbutz. A festive atmosphere prevailed in the room. The coming of peace was felt in the air and the kibbutzniks welcomed the officials with dignity and grace. Speeches full of pathos were delivered, mutual compliments were exchanged and emotional handshakes were exchanged.

Following the reception, the hosts took the visitors for a stroll around the kibbutz and boasted about the harvests of the fields and the milk output in the dairy barn.

Purim at Kibbutz Kfar Blum
Moshe Erez. Courtesy Beit Yigal Allon preservation project

Imagine the consternation when it was found out, shortly after the honored guests had departed, that they were in reality none other than members of the same kibbutz, in disguise and makeup. The prank had been planned in advance of Purim, which fell that same month and had been forgotten in the excitement of the visit. The insult felt by the kibbutz administrators, at whose expense the prank was perpetrated, is said to reverberate to this day.

This practical joke will forever be remembered with a blush in the chronicles of that particular kibbutz. But it is not alone. In the kibbutzim, in the day, all restraints were cast off on Purim. At one, for example, overnight the poultry sector entirely took over the dining hall: Hay was scattered over the floor and hens clucked with all great enthusiasm, to the surprise of the members who came in to eat breakfast. Each kibbutz had its own practical jokes, which caused anxiety attacks for the kibbutz secretaries.

"Purim at the kibbutz was more than a holiday for children," says artist and historian of kibbutz art Yuval Danieli, archivist of the archive at the Yad Yaari Institute at Givat Haviva. "It was one huge satire. The kibbutz movement is very ascetic and strict. It had taken upon itself ideological collectivism and the word of the leadership. But one day each year, it was possible to take revenge.

"By the 1930s," continues Danieli, "there was already an emphasis on the visual side of Purim, and plays were mounted. Every kibbutz children's theater developed from those events, the scaffolding for which, at least in the beginning, was the tale of the Megillah [the Book of Esther]. One of the characteristics of the kibbutz holiday is that they grafted current events onto a Bible story or a Jewish tradition. At Purim they settled accounts with the whole world. The educators, the ideology, the local leaders - and the movement as a whole."

The tradition of license at Purim began after World War II, and took hold more firmly after the War of Independence, in 1948. "You have to understand that in everyday life we are terribly serious," says Danieli, a member of Kibbutz Hama'apil who was born in 1943. "Really enveloped in grief and bereavement. Some of the members of our kibbutz had survived the Holocaust. The grief and the memory of the fallen from Israel's wars never leaves you, and every holiday is in fact a memorial day. And here we have a holiday when unruliness rules, and you're allowed to forget the sadness and the seriousness for a bit. It's actually permitted to have fun."

A few days before the central event, the dining hall would change its appearance, to the children's delight. "They'd cover up the large windows that looked out over the green lawn, and the entire place would become a Persian-style harem, or Ali Baba's cave, in the wildest stretches of the imagination," recalls Danieli.

When he grew up, he became responsible for designing these events. Thus, for example, once, after the first moon landing, in 1969, the dining hall of his kibbutz was transformed into a cosmic site with spaceships. "The nights before the holiday were sacrosanct for the organization of the event," he relates. "We made everything by hand and recycled industrial waste. It was a work of environmental art."

The annual theme was kept secret, and led to a sense of great anticipation among adults and children alike. But children were not allowed to attend the actual event. "The assumption," explains Danieli, "was that the adults wouldn't feel comfortable acting silly in front of the children. So you had to be 17 or 18 or older to attend. The decorations and the costumes served as a suitable backdrop for breaking the routine and the rules. Danieli, whose kibbutz belongs to the Hashomer Hatzair movement, relates for example that Purim was that rare time when members would imbibe alcoholic beverages. "In the regular course of things the Shomer wasn't allowed to drink. Purim made it legitimate to do things that weren't acceptable in everyday life. For example, heavens forfend, ballroom dancing," which, in contrast to folk dancing, was deemed decadent, "and acting childish - dressing up for example as a baby with a pacifier."

From Fellini to Dayan

The legitimacy of costumes, jokes and silliness on Purim played an important role in the closed kibbutz society. In fact the holiday channeled the human need to let loose and deviate from routine, like carnivals and festivals of masks and costumes in other cultures.

In this context, Dr. Hava Aldouby, a lecturer in the department of history and theory at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, mentions Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, and the term "carnivalism" he coined.

"Bakhtin talks about subverting hierarchies, reversing of hierarchies and social orders," explains Aldouby, who specializes in the films of Federico Fellini's, which, with their mix of clowns and mask festivals, have their own clear carnivalesque element. "Reaching the lowest places, descending to the margins, hitting below the belt, clowning, the circus - all these enable one to experience everything that is forbidden. Carnivals provide a realization of illusions."

Moshe Erez. Courtesy Beit Yigal Allon preservation project

The unrestrained atmosphere also seeped into the world of the children, who had events of their own. Even as a youngster, Danieli was enlisted for the work of decorating for Purim. He would skip school for the entire month before the holiday. "We would choose a certain theme - animals, fairy tales or some such - and the whole educational complex would be decorated in that spirit," he relates. "It made no difference what the theme was - it was a platform for mocking the teachers. They were totally miserable."

If the costumes seemed especially naughty, it was because at Purim the general atmosphere of puritanism was lifted for a day. The kibbutz uniformity was abandoned, and children and adults alike dared to dress and look however they wanted. "The little girls and the teens who couldn't use makeup in everyday life put on lipstick and high heels, and donned wedding dresses. The boys put on a tie and a suit and were rich men for a day," relates Danieli, who when he was 6 he dressed up as an Indian from India and the following year dressed up as a native American Indian. The children's costumes were no different from what they were in the cities at that time. As the saying went, "Children of the world unite," comments Danieli.

To a large extent, he says, the costumes represented the desire to be a part of the wider world. That was true, too, of the Charlie Chaplin costume he wore when he was 10. Children also dressed up as characters like Peter Pan, Cinderella, Snow White and as princes and princesses, witches, fairies and the like. However, in the days when the kibbutzim had leanings toward Communism, a few of the children and adults even had the temerity to dress up as Marx or Lenin. In Stalin's day, they boasted mustaches. "Ordinarily if you laughed at Stalin, you were risking your soul," says Danieli.

After the Six-Day War, the Israel Defense Forces came to the fore: "Moshe Dayan, army officers, paratroopers and the entire spectrum of the defense forces," as he says. At the same time, over all the years changing gender identity was not unusual, with, for example, "boys dressing up as big-bosomed girls."

Dressing up as the sea

To nourish the industry of images and fantasies at Purim, costume storerooms were established at kibbutzim that kept skilled seamstresses busy for several months before the holiday. Some of these storerooms still exist today.

"This is one of the most beautiful collective ventures at the kibbutzim," says Einat Amitai, a member of Kibbutz Gesher and a researcher of the culture of play and acting at the kibbutzim. She says that at Kibbutz Sha'ar Hagolan, for example, original costumes were created by a professional designer who had studied theatrical set design in New York. Amitai's children had a costume that entailed a person riding a horse, with the life-sized horse made of spongy material and the dressed-up child as the rider. There was also a stunning costume of no less than the sea.

"Hundreds and thousands of costumes, all of which had at one time or another been used by a child, were kept in the costume storehouse, all of them handmade," relates Amitai.

Individualism flourished for a single day. According to Amitai, "Every child would tell his mother or his kindergarten teacher what he wanted and they would make it work." In her own childhood she dressed up as girls from Japan, China and India, as well as Ella Kari the Girl from Lapland, the title character of a book by Astrid Lindgren. Yemenite costumes were also popular for both boys and girls. "That was considered exotic," she says. "We also got dressed up as characters from books. We tried to realize fantasies. To be someone else."

The element of disguise also reigned in food on Purim, to the children's delight. "You'd come to the table and there would be colored eggs - blue, red - which had been boiled with colored crepe paper," relates Amitai.

Anat Shavit's costume storeroom at Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud is a reincarnation of the original costume storeroom there, only all of its wares are available for rental. Shavit opened the storeroom after having worked as a makeup artist for years. Before that she had been a kindergarten teacher at the kibbutz. According to her, "Most of the children in my kindergarten would dress up as characters from the Megillah. And also here and there someone would be a cowboy and we'd find him a role as a bodyguard. There were fairly stereotyped costumes with respect to gender and everything was sewn on the kibbutz." Today, she adds, "I make some of the costumes myself but also get clothes from school productions and people bring me things from abroad. When someone is a nut about something, things come in."

It appears that Shavit does not harbor nostalgia for the past, neither for the large productions at Purim nor for the creative costumes of yesteryear. Neither does Danieli, who relates that nowadays his children are responsible for the events and usually they invite a deejay. His grandchildren dress up as superheroes he can't identify. "Every generation and its own costumes," he says acceptingly.

Shavit got her push from the privatization that has characterized kibbutz life over the past two decades: "I had to initiate something." And indeed, the business that she started on her own now employs some 20 people. She tries to maintain the kibbutz tradition but she also takes the customer's desires into account. "I go along with them. We invent on the spot. If someone wants to be a sexy policewoman or a Smurf girl, I'll make her a sexy policewoman or a Smurf girl, but it won't be like something storebought."