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Purim goes to the movies: Purim portrayed in films preserved in the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archives
By Wendy Luterman, Senior Librarian
Purim is a festival in which fun and jollity are intrinsic. This can be seen in the phrase appearing towards the end of the Book of Esther: "The Jews had light, joy, happiness and honor" (8:16) or in the saying "…Who-ever ushers in Adar, increases happiness" (Babylonian Talmud, Tract Taanith, 29:1). It is also seen in traditions that have evolved around Purim, such as the Purimspiel, the carnival and children dressing up in costume.
Since Purim is not subject to such prohibitions such as Shabbat or the major festivals, it is natural that many filmmakers have captured these scenes on film. Many of these scenes are preserved at the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive located on the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Thirteen films can be viewed online via the Archive's virtual cinema (http://ssjfa.huji.ac.il).
Baruch Agadati (1895-1976) was one of the first filmmakers to recognize the cinematic value of Purim. In addition to being a filmmaker, he was also an artist, dancer and a colorful part of the cultural scene in Tel Aviv. In the 1920s, inspired by the carnivals of Europe, he persuaded Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff to allow him to organize the annual ad dalo yada carnival. Ya'akov Ben Dov (widely acclaimed as the father of the Hebrew film) filmed scenes of the 1928 carnival in which Baruch Agadati appears with Tzipporah Tzabari, the first Purim queen of Tel Aviv, in the film Springtime in Palestine (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBDuUKm8SyU).
In the 1930s and 1940s, Agadati not only choreographed these carnivals, he also filmed them. The popular pageants contain scenes of parades and floats. The floats include Biblical themes, such as the Exodus from Egypt or themes taken from folk-lore sources, such as knights in a castle. Agadati also filmed scenes depicting the gaiety associated with Purim, for example scenes of his brother Yitzchak, Ben Oyserman and Arieh Kaplansky using kitchen appliances as musical instruments and the "hora Agadati", a hora with a interesting difference arranged by Baruch Agadati.
Girl Dressed up for Purim from a Video
Adagati was not the only filmmaker of the time, to film Purim scenes. British filmmaker, Yosef Best began his film Eretz Yisrael: Building Up the Jewish National Home (1934) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e45TPC-22W8 with scenes of the ad dalo yada in Tel Aviv. There are also scenes of Purim in Ideal Travel Talks (1934) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNqDH4dsnxA ). In Carmel Newsreel 75 (21 February 1937) (no Archive copyright), Natan Axelrod includes scenes of two mock Nazi tanks with swastikas, which poignantly shows how current events affect the selection of the floats. This idea is repeated in a 1956 Carmel newsreel. Among the floats is one representing Prime Minister David Ben Gurion with Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.
The popular pageants in Tel Aviv were continued after Israel's Independence even during the period of Austeriy. The pageants spread to other cities, as seen in the collection of newreels filmed by Natan Axelrod (no Archive copyright), ad dalo yada 1960 and the Essence of it all (1962). In addition, many films contain scenes of children celebrating Purim, Purim parties or reading the Book of Esther.
Many kibbutzim made home movies documenting their activities. It is evident, from watching and cataloging numerous kibbutz collections deposited at the Archive, that Purim was an important theme even among ardently secular and socialist kibbutzim. This can be explained by the fact that Purim is not seen by them as a purely religious festival; rather it focused on merriment and jollity. It is also a very child-orientated holiday and young children dressed up are cute and photogenic.
Couple Dressed up for Purim from a Video
Purim celebrations on film are not limited to the land of Israel. Edge of the West (1960) is a documentary film portraying the Jewish communities in Morocco, just prior to their mass immigration to Israel. The film contains scenes of young children celebrating the festival in their Jewish kindergarten, of school-aged boys reciting and learning the Book of Esther, of a family preparing for the festive meal, and of the reading of the megillah in synagogue. The home movie collection received from Shmuel Gorr, contains a film showing a fancy-dress party on Purim in Melbourne, Australia. There is also a scene of Purim celebrations in Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City portrayed in the film A Year of Jewish Flavors Bittersweet (not archive copyright) filmed in 1974.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslau (z"l), founder of the Breslov Hassidim, coined the popular axiom "it is a great mitzvah to always be happy". This expression epitomizes the essence of Purim; it is a festival which causes you to smile. Filmmakers have reflected and continue to reflect this mood on film. Chag Sameach!
About the Archive
The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive is the world’s largest collection of Jewish documentary film footage, holding over 10,000 titles on film and video. It was founded by the Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry in 1972 and is jointly administered with the Central Zionist Archives. The vaults contain material shot in Israel before and after the establishment of the State in 1948, motion picture records of many Jewish communities in the Diaspora and two special collections relating to the Holocaust: the video recordings of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the film collection of The Ghetto Fighters’ House. The entire catalog is accessible online.
The Archive's website is:
http://www.spielbergfilmarchive.org.il. Correspondence may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
from the March 2011 Purim Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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