For Jews in the Netherlands – this Catholic Carnival feels like Purim

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

For Jews in the Netherlands – this Catholic Carnival feels like Purim

Ahead of Purim this week, Cnaan Liphshiz finds out more about the cultural similarities with the Catholic festival of Carnival celebrated throughout Europe

Although he lives in a city with only a few dozen Jews, each spring Israeli-born photographer Idan Hemo and his family enjoy what he calls “hardcore Purim” street festivities.

“Everyone dresses up, including and especially the adults, in elaborate costumes and there’s just constant drinking and an incredible party atmosphere on the street,” Hemo says of the annual street party that takes place in his home city, Breda, and other places in Holland’s south.

But Purim this is not. These costume parties, held across Europe in early springtime, are organized independently of the Jewish holiday of frivolity, dress-up and excessive alcohol consumption with which they often coincide.

They are instead part of Carnaval, or Carnival, a Catholic tradition with pagan roots that grew out of the need to consume winter larders. (The name is derived from the Latin word for ‘meat’.)

It features a temporary suspension of the prohibition on consuming meat during Lent, a month-long period of repentance, and a license for tipsy and ribald behaviour.

The similarities between Purim and Carnival have long been apparent, and are probably the result of a universal desire to celebrate winter’s end and of centuries of cultural borrowing.

But for Jews living in the southern Netherlands, where Catholicism is dominant, it’s a chance to continue the beloved tradition of Adloyada, or Purim parade.

The name is a mashup of an Aramaic injunction in the Talmud that Jews should drink enough on Purim so that they should “no longer know” the difference between the holiday’s hero and its villain.

Of course, there is drinking, and there is drinking. The amount of alcohol consumed by Purim revellers is negligible compared to its Catholic counterpart, according to Kristina Tali Salman, an Israeli mother-of-one from Breda, where Carnival is a weeklong affair.

Even for a seasoned Adloyada participant from Tel Aviv — the city where the Purim procession began in 1912 — Breda’s Carnival was a “culture shock,” she says.

“The amounts of alcohol the Dutch consume is insane, simply insane,” she explains. “You see men lugging around crates of beer as they stumble around town in a drunken stupor that they begin in morning and continue, often without interruption, for 24 hours or longer.”

Some parents take children bar hopping on Carnival, which is a bank holiday in some parts of Holland, says Salman.

The children do not drink, playing around the tables “as their parents get hammered.”

She adds: “The bars are packed. When you enter one, you are overwhelmed by a unique stench of evaporated beer and the sweat-soaked costumes made from cheap materials like plastic and rubber,” Salman said. “Then you immediately get showered with beer from people bumping into you. But you don’t mind anymore after a pint or two.”

On the street, some neighbourhoods set up Carnival groups that prepare matching costumes for a local procession, like Brazil’s famous Carnaval celebrations. In addition to the grassroots processions, there are also citywide ones organised by the municipality.

Today’s Carnival has little to do with anything Jewish, although in the past Jews occupied a central and often demeaning role in two of the Catholic world’s main Carnival celebrations: the masked processions in Venice and Rome.

In 1466 in the Italian capital, the Catholic Church under Pope Paul II revived a custom in which Jews were forced to race naked through the streets.

“Before they were made to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators,” one witness to that event wrote, according to The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism by David Kertzer.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, rabbis of the ghetto in Rome were forced to march through the city streets wearing foolish guise, jeered upon and pelted by the crowd.

Replying to an 1836 petition by the Jewish community to put an end to the custom, Pope Gregory XVI replied, according to Kertzer’s book: “It is not opportune to make any innovation.”

The custom was abolished in the 19th century, but Jews were still made to pay for Carnival through a special tax.

In the larger Venice Carnival, participants wore “Jew” masks, complete with hooked noses and grotesque expressions, according to James Johnson, author of the 2011 book Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic.

Some academics believe this Carnival custom of dressing up may indeed be the reason why Jews wear costumes today during Purim.

But despite the similarities with Purim, it’s no replacement for the Jewish festival, agrees Hemo, Salman and Riki Nudler-Rahamim, an Israel-born mother-of-four from the southern city of Maastricht.

“No, it’s not instead of Purim,” she says. “It’s a lovely addition, not a substitute.”

Help perform the greatest mitzvah: save a life

While life in Israel has returned to normal and hopes are high that Britain is set for a summer without restrictions thanks to vaccines, for billions around the world there is no such imminent light at the end of the tunnel. In the majority of countries around the globe, particularly the poorest, the vaccine rollout has barely kicked off.

That's why Jewish News, the leading source of news and opinion for the entire UK community, is throwing its full weight behind UNICEF’s VaccinAid campaign by using this platform usually reserved for encouraging donations towards our own journalism to instead urge our readers around the globe to perform the greatest mitzvah: saving a life.

We have never before done this for any charity fundraiser but it's hard to recall a campaign that affects so many people, and indeed an entire planet aching for a return to normality. Just like the Chief Rabbi and Rachel Riley, we hope to boost the mission to deliver two billion vaccines, 165 million treatments and 900 million test kits around the world by the end of this year.

Please donate as much as you can, in the spirit of the Talmudic sages: “to save one life is to save the world entire”

read more: