The 14th and 15th of Adar were closely approaching and costume stores were bursting with all types of people looking to disguise themselves in the wardrobes of others. A chiloni soldier tried on a Nachman kippa with peyot and a yeshiva student wore jeans for the first time, while a settler wrapped himself in a kefiyah and an Ashkenazi Jew held a bottle of dark spray-paint. Others wore scary masks, and some dressed as politicians and athletes. Most people, though, dressed like others they have seen on the streets.
Thanks to the different types of people with whom I have interacted, on Purim I also try to adopt an intriguing personality. However, a costume store can be a bit dull sometimes and the getup isn’t always real, so I ditch the store and go to the streets to find the most authentic wardrobe.
Two years ago, I dressed as a Charedi and went around the Mir Yeshiva dorms asking students for their old black hats. Last year I went to an Arab market to purchase a genuine kefiyah and thobe as part of my Palestinian costume. I thought about some of the people I had spoken with this year and decided to blend the two personalities together: Charedi + Palestinian = Neturei Karta. I already owned a bekesha, so my shopping list included: Chasidic hat, Palestinian flag, Palestinian scarf, Neturei Karta propaganda and any other anti-Zionist paraphernalia. I called up a Satmar friend who agreed to help me find props by taking me to the “Palestine shuk.”
Yoel, 21, from New York, met me at the Shivtei Israel light rail station outside Mea Sherim, an Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood, where, tucked between yeshivot and bakeshops of the modern-day shtetl, is the tiny Jerusalem office of the Neturei Karta. Yoel saw that I was wearing different attire than usual and asked why I wore a white shirt, velvet kippa and dress shoes. I told him this story:
Two months prior, I ventured into the same area with my Vizhnitz friend, Moishe F. Moishe brought me to a building that read in Hebrew: “Beit Hora’ah Falestin,” or “House of [Jewish] Teachings of Palestine.” Although no one was on the streets that Friday night, I remember tensing up, pulling my hood over my knitted kippa and thinking to myself, “I’ve been in many Arab areas in eastern Jerusalem, but I’ve never actually felt threatened like I do right now.”
As we walked, Yoel tried to convince me that I was overthinking my surroundings and that no one would physically hurt me. Yoel made a quick left-right that put us on a street one block parallel, but a world apart, from Mea Sherim Street, the main thoroughfare we had just been traversing seconds earlier.
Welcome to Palestine
The “Palestine Shuk” lived up to its name: Palestinian symbols graffitied on every other building, a flag hung from a telephone wire and banners condemning participation in the Israeli elections fixed to the walls set the backdrop of the busy street.
It’s hard to imagine that the Arab workers plastering cement to a yeshiva building weren’t grinning as they saw a Palestinian flag spray-painted on the wall behind them. However, I wondered if the Ultra-Orthodox passersby were actually happy with the decorations.
When asked what they thought of the Neturei Karta’s pro-Palestine position, two Chassidim who identified themselves as belonging to the Toldos Aharon Chasidic sect (known for its anti-Zionist views) responded:
“Neturei Karta – how many of them are there? 12? 15? 20? They’re all crazy,” they answered, distinguishing themselves from the “meshuga” Neturei Karta. “We don’t support a Palestinian government because they are murderers,” one commented, as he lifted his hand in a stabbing motion.
Although the numerous anti-Zionist depictions indicated that we were in the general vicinity of the Neturei Karta, we had trouble finding the correct building. Yoel attempted to ask a couple Chassidim whom we thought were Neturei Karta but he was either misunderstood or ignored. “Look at these guys, they won’t even look at me in the eyes!” Yoel sighed as we lost hope of finding the building.
Finally, we asked an 11-year-old, who led us to the headquarters. A bookshelf filled with weekly pamphlets published by the Neturei Karta leaned against the outer wall. I stuffed my pockets with the weekly newsletters before entering, afraid we’d be run out and wouldn’t have another chance to collect the papers. The door to the building was open and we peaked in – “Oy!” Yoel exclaimed. “This place gives me a headache.” A Chasid stood in the far-right corner, absorbed in learning, and the sound of snoring bounced off the stone walls. Paper, food and trash was scattered across the floor. The motto, “Chardaq hachutzah,” demanding that Charedi Jews who voluntarily join the Israel Defense Forces leave their communities, was spray-painted on the wall and freshly printed propaganda comics were boxed, waiting to be distributed. Another door led to an office where a Chasid was asleep. Next to him was a computer and an impressive office printer. It seemed that this was the only office investment made since the Nakba.
A teenage Chasid entered and saw us rummaging through papers. In Yiddish, he asked, “Vous zukhstu?” (“What are you looking for?”)
Yoel pointed to me and responded on our behalf, “Der heyliger yid vil zikh onton vi a neturi karte pirim.” (“This holy Jew wants to dress up as Neturei Karta for Purim.”)
Without hesitation, the Chasid stuck his hand into a seemingly endless pocket of his rekel (long Chasidic weekday coat) and gave me more than a dozen stickers that read in Arabic, English and Hebrew: “Zionists are not Jews.” We asked him if he had any identifiably Palestinian objects, but he said no.
At this point, Yoel had to go back to his yeshiva for afternoon seder, and I did not feel comfortable in the “Palestine shuk” by myself. I thanked Yoel for his help and headed to the Old City’s Muslim quarter to find a Palestinian flag and scarf.
Capture the Flag and Scarf
The flag was an easy catch.
I went to my friend, Yousef, a Muslim shopkeeper in the Christian quarter. Yousef, as usual, greeted me warmly, invited me to sit and let out a sigh, “I’ve sold 100 shekels worth of goods so far today.” It was 2:30 PM.
I told him about my costume idea, and he pointed to a flowerpot filled with small Palestinian flags. I was shocked to see them in plain sight. Somehow, I had never noticed them despite my occasional hour-long visits.
I purchased one for five shekels.
From there I zipped by Christian quarter churches, played running back as I dodged tourists, avoided a particular vendor who once threatened to kill me if I would return to his shop, cut through a couple of alleyways, and finally made my way onto Haggai Street, the store-filled thoroughfare of the Muslim quarter that connects the Kotel Plaza to Damascus Gate.
I came to a store that displayed the exact Palestine scarf I wanted and asked the owner for the item. Surprisingly, instead of blinking as a Jew requested a scarf with the word “Palestine” in large print over its white-red-green-black background, the merchant asked in English, “How many do you want?”
“Wachad.” I replied in Arabic. (“One.”)
Now, he blinked. “Inti tikhbi Arabi?” (“You speak Arabic?”)
“Shwei.” (“A little bit.”)
He sold me the scarf for 10 shekels, and I stuffed it deep inside my bag along with the Palestinian flag and Neturei Karta items. I wanted to go to the Kotel to daven Mincha but decided against the thought after imagining the reactions I would receive had my bag been checked by security.
Hats for Sale
My Purim costume was almost complete, but I was missing one essential feature: a biber hat (Chasidic weekday hat).
The next day, Taanit Esther, I saw a Chasidic man, Chaim, at a bus stop. I had three minutes until my bus would arrive, so I approached him and asked, “Where can I buy a hat like yours?”
“These hats are expensive, you know.”
“I know. I meant where can I find a used one for Purim? Do you know anybody with an old hat?”
“If only you would come to my house,” he replied. “I have a couple old ones that I could lend you.”
Chaim didn’t know how serious I was about my Purim costume. He didn’t know that I went to the Mir Yeshiva knocking on the dorms to find a black hat or that I had just been in Neturei Karta central the day before. “Be careful what you offer. I really would come to your house to get it.”
“Take my details.”
I started typing Chaim’s number and he began to look antsy – his bus was arriving. I finished typing and was not sure what to expect. Was Chaim actually about to bring a complete stranger to his home and lend him a pricey hat?
As I finished the last digit, Chaim took his hat off his head and handed it to me. “This is your hat!” I protested. But Chaim was already running to his bus, saying, “It’s okay, I have more at home!” After Purim I called Chaim to figure out how to return the hat to him, but he insisted I keep it for next year.
* * *
Every Purim we read a story that does not mention G-d’s Name explicitly, but beneath the surface He is running the show. While this blog post did not mention G-d, it is clear that He orchestrated many moments to help me build my costume. Our lives, too, are full of stories in which G-d’s Name is not mentioned unless we search for Him. Let us unclothe G-d’s costume of nature and recognize His everyday involvement in our lives.
Oh, and I’d love to tell you the reactions I got from the costume, but it was Purim, so I cannot remember a thing.