Once a year, for one day, the Hasidic Jewish community of Stamford Hill, North-East London (which is the largest Hasidic community in Europe), undergoes a drastic change; the monochrome traditional garb gives way to a sudden burst of colour. Little boys and girls dress up and become anything from cowboys to princesses, bears, firefighters, grapes…
Yeshiva students, dressed in matching kaleidoscopic frock coats, host impromptu dance parties in the streets from trucks which emanate Yiddish rave music that shakes the earth; gone is the quiet of this seemingly ordinary Tuesday afternoon.
This day is, of course, Purim, the holiday on which the community known as one of Britain’s most secluded and insular breaks loose, providing rare insights to its neighbours.
Purim commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from the wicked Haman, the minister who aimed to achieve the annihilation of all Jews in the Achaemenid Empire, 2500 years ago. There are four main mitzvot (commandments) of Purim: the reading of the Megillah, the Festive Purim Meal, sending gifts known as Mishloach Manot, and giving gifts to the poor. All of these are celebrated joyfully in Stamford Hill.
It almost seemed as if all of the tens of thousands of Hasidim of Stamford Hill were all outside that day; groups of families and students with their teachers filled this rarely crowded neighbourhood.
Almost as soon as I began wandering the streets of Stamford Hill, hearing the music booming out from distant and nearby houses, noticing the balloons tied to the cars and the families in coordinated costumes inside, I passed a large elderly man in a shtreimel and bekishe, who with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye shook my hand firmly. “L’chaim! A freilichen Purim!” I thanked him, returned his well wishes and continued on my way.
Though the sky was overcast, and the threat of rain was imminent, a party of epic proportions ran along one residential street; doors which were normally shut now were wide open, with sweets and Mishloach Manot being carried across thresholds, and with music streaming outside, through doors and windows.
In the wine section of a kosher supermarket stood two Hasidic boys, thirteen or fourteen maybe, one dressed in a Yerushalmi kaftan with a tall white mock fur hat, and the other in colourful glasses and a cap. They were deliberating which bottles of wine to bring to the party – after all, it is written in the Talmud (Megillah 7b) that “A person is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until he is so intoxicated that he does not know how to distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’.” Eventually, the Yiddish cry of “Come to the mashgiach (supervisor/yeshiva counsellor)” came, and the boys ran out without completing their purchase.
The mashgiach in question was running a surprisingly coordinated operation of sending students from his yeshiva in cars, minibuses and vans around the neighbourhood, where they would sing, dance and make merry, before finally raising money for tzedakah (charity). The mashgiach would allocate and distribute children into these vehicles, which were driven by non-Hasidic (and therefore definitely sober) drivers, and would give addresses which the students would visit.
Standing near a group of teenagers my age, I heard that the Purim rebbe of their yeshiva was on his way – the Purim rebbe is a student chosen to dress up and act as a Rebbe for the duration of Purim. Anticipation hung heavy in the air, as the car waited, and the rain dampened the mashgiach’s shtreimel. While they waited, a boy with long sidelocks in the passenger seat explained the Purim story to the driver in Yiddish-tinged English. The boy wanted to play some music, but was unhappy when the driver switched on his car’s radio; instead, he exclaimed to a friend, “Bring the USB!”. A minute later, the song “Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai” rang out, mingling with the sounds from all of the other trucks and vans on the street, and those on the neighbouring streets as well.
Eventually an older boy in the clothes of a Rebbe (with an ornate fur-embellished bekishe, a tall snowy shtreimel, and a gold-rimmed cane) appeared, and was ushered as royalty into the crowded car, where a central space had been left for him. The door slid shut, and the car sped away.
All over Stamford Hill, lively yeshiva students with vests showing the name of their school, knitted Yerushalmi yarmulkes or mock black or white shtreimels, tall and noble, filled up these vans and trucks. In one parked white van, which was open from the back, the children danced to the blaring music’s rhythm so vigorously that the van shook and bounced, while the rain fell obliquely onto the sweet wrappers which were strewn across the floor.
Inside, tables were laid with festive fare: challahs, all sorts of hamantaschen and glasses of wine covered white tablecloths, in addition to the majestic, carefully-wrapped bundles and baskets of Mishloach Manot.
According to the YIVO Encyclopedia, “teachers associated with the [Hasidic] movement considered dance, along with music, an avenue of worship. In Hasidic thought and literature, dancing is both an expression and a stimulator of joy, and as such has a therapeutic effect. It purifies the soul and produces spiritual uplift, unites the community, and enhances social relationships.” This was evident from the exuberance of the men, who danced in unison, carefree.
After having left the side streets, I followed the sound blaring loudest to Clapham Common, where earsplitting Yiddish songs were being played from a red double-decker bus, which was steering wildly to avoid crashing into a tree. Yeshiva students danced and sang and drank from the open bus top, while passersby smiled, bewildered, and filmed on mobile phones. The rain ebbed and flowed, but did not discourage the revellers.
This is Purim in Stamford Hill: boisterously, unapologetically joyful.