Purim costume dramas

PURIM has made a surprising number of appearances on film in recent years.

In the past it was often divorced of its religious specificity by being explained away as either 'Jewish mardi gras' or compared to Halloween.

But over the last couple of decades, in a celebration of Jewishness and Judaism, it pops up in several films, some of which I have discussed in previous columns.

A full photocopied page from the Book of Esther fills the screen in extreme close up in Homicide, perhaps the only time this has ever happened in a mainstream Hollywood, or any other, film.

The reference to Purim is not merely incidental either as the writer/director David Mamet uses it as a device to refer to and develop the themes of being a Jew in a gentile culture, as well as those of mimicry, hiding, deception and revelation that are key to understanding both the Purim story and the film.

Similarly, it makes an appearance in The Governess where Rosina da Silva is attempting to pass as a gentile governess in a non-Jewish household on the Isle of Skye in Victorian Britain.

Adopting the name of Mary Blackchurch, her real ethnicity is unknown to her employers. In a subtle hint of her real, yet hidden, identity she performs as Queen Esther for her gentile employer who becomes her lover.

The Hebrew Hammer's main characters are called Mordechai and Esther respectively, referencing the two key Jewish characters in the Purim story.

Mordechai wears a black trench coat, cowboy boots, Star of David shaped spurs and belt buckle, two exaggeratedly large gold chai neck chains and a tallit as a scarf.

He drives a white Cadillac with Star of David ornamentation and a registration plate that reads 'L'Chaim'.

Two furry dreidels hang from his rear-view mirror.

The 2006 mockumentary For Your Consideration uses Purim to openly scorn the assimilatory and universalising strategies Hollywood adopted in previous decades.

It features a film within a film entitled Coming Home for Purim.

However, studio executive Martin Gibb (Ricky Gervais) deems the project 'too Jewish' and insists it is changed to Coming Home for Thanksgiving.

Gibb's fear that the film is too specific satirises and reverses the Hollywood Jewish moguls who, from the 1930s until the early 1960s, divested films such as The Ten Commandments of their ethnic origins, de-semitising, de-Judainising and Americanising them as a universal message.

In a sense, whether explicit or not, one could argue that the themes of Purim are pertinent to all Jewish performances in film.

On one level, Jewish actors and actresses dress up to hide their 'real' offscreen identities and personae. On another level, the struggle of all Jews in western society has been to pass, to be accepted, just like Mordechai, Esther and the Jews of Shushan.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph