You're probably familiar with Israeli holidays such as Hanukkah, and Yom Kippur, but there are far more celebrations on the Israeli calendar than those! If you plan on taking a trip to the Holy Land, it might be a good idea to check the calendar and see what events are taking place that month so you don't get caught by surprise because there are plenty you may not know about!
Take Purim, or the Feast of Lots, for example. Held on the 14th day of Adar (which places it on February 28 this year), Purim is Israels first major holiday of the year and it is a doozy. Sometimes referred to as the "Israeli Halloween,” it is a time of celebration, remembrance, and merry making.
Purim has its roots in the familiar biblical story found in the Book of Esther. In retaliation for Mordecai's perceived lack of deference, Haman, a prime minister of considerable influence conspires to convince King Ahasuerus to execute all the Jews living in the area. Haman plans the date he'll carry out his scheme by casting lots (or "purim”). In the end though, he's foiled by the courageous actions of Queen Esther, wife of Ahasuerus. While she had hidden her Jewish heritage from Ahasuerus before, when it becomes clear that he is about to sign the death warrant on her people, she boldly steps forward to claim her heritage and share their fate. Moved, Ahasuerus instead decides to spare the Jews while condemning Haman and his family to death.
The modern holiday commemorates this event and takes many of its practices and customs from this story. To this day, the holiday begins with a communal reading of the Book of Esther and goes from there.
Purim customs include making charitable gifts of food to the needy. As the Book of Esther directs "the sending of portions one man to another, and gifts to the poor" the modern celebration carries that value forward. People observing the holiday are expected to give either food or money enough for two people to eat a regular, fulfilling meal. Collections for this purpose are taken in the synagogue to provide structure to the giving and then distributed to the needy. There are no set limitations or exclusions, anyone who declares themselves as in want is entitled to charity.
Apart from the synagog though, Purim takes another form in the streets of a widespread party. Gatherings big and small pop up throughout the land in celebration. The largest of these is the carnival, a mobile parade and exhibition featuring song and dance.
Purim carnival is especially breathtaking due to the the common practice of "masquerading.” Celebrants don all manner of flashy costumes and masks in honor of the story told in the Book of Esther. There is some degree of uncertainty on how the tradition arose. Some say it commemorates Esther's concealed status before revealing herself as a Jew. Others say the practice is more focused on God's subtle, unknown presence in the story and how even now he moves among us undetected. On a practical level, the costumes lend a unique flair to the celebration and also help maintain the dignity and privacy of those accepting charity on the day.
It may also help in protecting dignity when it comes to another tradition of Purim. During the holiday, revelers are encouraged, even expected, to drink to the point of drunkenness. Yup, you read that right. While most Israeli holidays tend to restrict or frown on excessive "celebration,” it's all part of the fun on Purim. The traditional directive is to drink until you "don't know the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai.'” It's certainly a different tone from many of the other holidays commonly celebrated in Israel!