25 February 2010

Purim Costume Provenance

With the holiday of Purim coming up this weekend, one of the common practices associated with the holiday is dressing up in costume. It was never clear to me how this came about, although having read an article last year on the topic (see Herman Pollack, "An Historical Inquiry Concerning Purim Masquerade Attire," Proceedings of the World Congress on Jewish Studies 7 (1981): 217-235) helped me understand where it comes from. It is interesting to consider that "by the sixteenth century, the parsuf (פרצוף), as the Purim mask was called, had become popular in Italy, Germany, and Poland" (p. 217).
The mask - or rather - the Purim mask was what was first developed from "the carnival celebration," Pollack writes, "derived from the commedia dell'arte. The carnival, which was accompanied by processions and parades, was associated with the demonic and 'souls of the dead' (anime del morte)" (p. 232). He continues:
First, the mask was a means of mocking and ridiculing prestigious members of the community. Second, through their antics, the masked clowns and jesters contributed to the festival gaiety. Third, and as already suggested, the disguise enabled a person to assume "the role of another" by pretending to be someone else. Herein is a release and escape from being continuously the same person.
The masquerades, parades, and carnival festivities must have appealed to individuals of the Italian Jewish community, otherwise during the time of repression religious and civil authorities would not have required them to wear the "badge" so as to differentiate them from non-Jews. Leon da Modena, for example, was among those who would participate in a non-Jewish masquerade.
The commedia dell'arte was also called the "comedy of masks" in that masks were worn for "stock characters" given a "fixed role". Jewish comedy was influenced by social types portrayed by the mask in the commedia dell'arte. Among the personalities adopted and made part of the Purim celebration through the mask were the paltoniere, the "beggar"; the arlecchino, the "clown"; the capitano, the "blustering soldier"; the pantalone, the "pantaloon". (pp. 233-234)

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