Purim and Penelope

My son and I recently returned from Israel where we had the chance to spend Purim in Jerusalem. Purim is a bit like Halloween — kids and parents dress up in costumes. And while there aren’t door-to-door “trick-or-treats,” there is a tradition of giving kids candies. Our cab driver even offered us Purim chocolate.

So it was on a beautiful warm Sunday that we got to see happy Orthodox families stroll around the Old City in full Purim regalia.

But Henry and I were floored when we passed a 6-year-old who was walking along smoking in front of his mom and dad. Not every child was smoking. But we saw three different groups that had kids — with ages ranging from about six to 13 — who were smoking. And to be clear, I’m not talking about the candy cigarettes of my youth. These kids were lighting up tobacco.

Our Israeli guide said that some parents let their kids smoke on Purim. There are efforts to curb this tradition, but for now it is still alive and well in Jerusalem. Apparently many kids smoke their first cigarette as a kind of Purim present.

In retrospect, I’m struck that none of these kids were coughing and the first and youngest kid we saw even dangled the burning cigarette with a certain élan.

I am awash with questions. Is there an interesting religious or economic explanation for how this practice started or how it persists today?

And as I meditate on questions religious, let me bring up a thought I had while seeing the movie, Penelope, with my daughter a few weeks ago.

In the movie, Penelope (played by a very talented Christina Ricci), is born with a pig’s snout instead of a nose and is brought up by her family in a cloistered existence. When she finally breaks free and leaves the house, she insists on wearing a winter scarf as shown here in the movie poster.

But wearing a scarf in public is depicted as being an unworkable long-term solution.

Will this movie be shown in Muslim countries? How will Muslims react to the idea that wearing a scarf in public in unacceptable? Isn’t it just as illiberal for social norms to prohibit a woman from covering her face as it is for social norms to mandate that her face be covered?


I am a Muslim, and I wear the headscarf in America. And yes, I was born and raised outside of the middle east. As far as Muslim countries showing that movie, I can almost guarantee UAE will show it, its become one of the most tolerant Muslim countries. I don't really see how Muslims would be offended by it.

Like someone said, its all about context. I don't really find the idea of covering her face to be comparable to the idea of the muslim headcovering, or hijab.

And for the person who commented about wearing a veil to work as insulting, I find that ridiculous. It is just an article of clothing, I don't see why it is insulting. People can choose how they dress. The thing about USA is that its a melting pot of people, a country founded by immigrants. I should able to function fully in society, work, etc, and it shouldn't be a problem for anyone. I can't understand why people are afraid of things that are different, or look different, why the negative association with the hijab. The only way I can explain it is that they are afraid, they have been hurt by 9/11 and unfortunately they associate all muslims with terrorists, and thus feel vulnerable when they meet one. Believe me, not all muslims are extremists who want to blow things up.

If I were your coworker, would you be threatened by my headscarf? Is it because you think I harbor hate towards you? Well I don't.



Incest is taboo for the rest of the year . . .

Oh my G-d!

seen it

Most decisors of Jewish law, including the Rabbinical Council of America, maintain that smoking is prohibited. However, among the Haredi, and particularly those in Israel, smoking is still very prevalent.

Jewish law also frowns upon getting drunk on every other day of the year but for Purim. Perhaps a cigarette on Purim is similarly not prohibited. But that doesn't make it a very good idea in any case.

Keep in mind that, sadly, the behavior of many Orthodox Jews on Purim does not reflect what Judaism expects of its practitioners--and I say this as an Orthodox Jew myself.

Alfred C. Ingram

Is this why I saw video of drunk kids in Hebron throwing rocks at Palestinians? They were protected by soldiers and the entire city was in lockdown for Palestinians. I was shocked by a tiny armed minority making life miserable for the majority who vastly outnumbered them. It looked like apartheid South Africa. It didn't look like religion had much to do with it.


CandyKay says: "I don't think any movie featuring pigs (or people who look like them) will be shown in Muslim countries, Ian"

I disagree. I think they will jump at the chance to show a depiction of an Infidel born with the nose of a pig. It reinforces their beliefs that infidels are decedents of apes and pigs!

Shan says: "FYI, most Muslim countries don't mandate any sort of head-covering for women."

Really? I guess 'mandate' is subjective here. I think many countries where women would not dare go unveiled include Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza Strip, and Iran? Women are being intimidated all over Islamic countries to be veiled. Who needs a mandate when a stick can persuade quite well unfortunately.


What a ridiculous comment at the end, "isn't it as illiberal....". In Penelope, the girl had a pig's nose! Naturally, or rather, unnaturally, when a monstrosity of mutation like this presents itself, all sorts of social norms are held under the microscope and shown to be contradictory. More importantly though, is no social "norm" present in a case of a girl with a pig-nose wearing a face scarf. However, the societal expedient in Muslim countries of covering women's faces often completely with scarves or burkas can be seen as not only illiberal, but a damaging, archaic and unnecessary tradition both symbolizing and effecting the repression of women in those countries.

Carl in Jerusalem

Some parents hope that by letting their children smoke on Purim, they will see that it's not 'cool' and won't take it up as teenagers. Personally, I wouldn't do it.

In general, attitudes towards smoking in Israel are 20-30 years behind those in the United States (I'm an American who immigrated to Israel 17 years ago). In the last 15-20 years, people have started to get the idea that maybe smoking is not such a good thing. Unfortunately, one community where that has not caught on is the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where it is common for males (and almost unheard of for females) to smoke.


Do origins explain this? Given the wondrous multitudes of people who have become Israelis, it wouldn't be surprising to find an infinity of customs for celebration and for mourning.


Context is everything....

What's fine in Mecca, may not be acceptable in Manhattan.

What is understood in the mideast is not understood in the midwest.

We shouldn't beat our breasts at our "illiberatlity" because we have certain traditions that do no mesh with the traditions of others. If I visited Saudi Arabia, I would be happy to seek to comply so as not to cause discomfort or concern for my hosts. Likewise, I expect Muslims to recognize that, while we are indeed a secular socieity, there can be no doubt that our secularism is very much informed by the overwhelming Christianity in our past and in our present.

Period. Nothing to be ashamed of. That's just the way it is.

And people simply have to respect that. If they are upset with the way we expect things to be, I invite them to return to those nations that require the veil for women. Or to wear find some way to make it all "work" in America.

To my mind, wearing a veil at, say, work is just as disrespectful as we consider it to be when two, say, Mexican Americans carry on a conversation in Spanish in front of everyone else. Are you being insulted? Are they mocking your management style? Etc.

We all must make slight adjustments so that life precedes smoothly.



Does this have anything to do with the large number of Russian Jews? Russians seem to smoke like crazy.


I had a similar experience a few Purims ago. I was in Hod HaSharon (NE of Tel Aviv) and at the synagogue, adults over the age of 18 COULD NOT drink alcohol and the children (whos parent's let them) under 18 were allowed to. It certainly made me uncomfortable watching 12 year olds get inebriated, but apparently it is a tradition there.

Keith Weintraub


In case people want to make a cultural argument for allowing this kind of custom.

Check out the times article above.


Purim is a holiday of reversals, a bit like Carnival or Saturnalia. Some rules--generally social rules-- temporarily go out the window. Some anthropologists argue that the temporary, religiously-permitted, break from the rules strengthens their hold at other times. That something is allowed at Purim may emphasize that it is forbidden at other times.


FYI, most Muslim countries don't mandate any sort of head-covering for women. In fact, a woman can usually dress in a very Western way (i.e. low-cut blouse, short skirt), although they typically choose not to. I think Saudi Arabia is the only country with a mandate.


I don't think any movie featuring pigs (or people who look like them) will be shown in Muslim countries, Ian. Please note that a bank in the Netherlands just stopped issuing piggy banks for children, since it offended their Muslim customers.

Mike P

Amish teenagers are allowed to leave their community for a year during a period of "Rumspringa" (running around). They explore the outside world (including sex, drugs, alcohol, and tobacco) before deciding whether to join the church as an adult.

Here is an NPR link to the documentary "Devil's Playground" about some of their experiences:


before we go there i can understand the dilema first off all purim is a time that we comemorate the day that possibly saved the jewish nation and the happines of the ppl is somtimes changing the way they think for example if a child goes where you dont wont him to when your mood is crancky i think he would not like it after but when you are happy and very excited you make it like if you didn't see anything
second thing is - that the kids know its purim and the only day he can get by with it is that day
third its a old fashion from the shtetls in europe and so it was in jerusalem for many yrs ago 2 and 3 hundred yrs ago its known to be like that
in nowdays its no more like that because of the health issues that doctors have a direct link to smoke but the idea is still there therefore
its possible that this specific childs parents might of been a bit of drunk too and the kid sensed it

but you shell know its very rae in nowdays even forbitten by most schools they warn the kids before purim
thank you for reading ihope it was helpfull