Belief  /  Origin Story

How New York's 19th-Century Jews Turned Purim Into an American Party

In the 19th century, Purim became an occasion to hold parties to raise money for charities. These parties helped American Jews gain a standing among the elite.

The start of a fancy Purim Ball

In January 1860, Myer Isaacs, a lawyer and political activist, issued a proposal in the pages of the Jewish Messenger, a weekly published in his native New York by his father, Samuel Myer Isaacs. The younger Isaacs suggested “Purim night should be selected as the occasion of a good fancy dress ball, the proceeds to be devoted to charity.”

Isaacs’s assumptions about the linkage between a classy event and fundraising was typical of the “charity market” among Victorian Era elites. Philanthropy was an exchange: The donor obtained an “experience” — musical concerts, theater, for example — for his or her generous contribution.

It was a period when charity provided the affluent with an opportunity to solidify their place atop the social ladder.

Purim was an ideal candidate for this sort of ritual enhancement for New York’s Jewish elite. One of its traditions was charity-giving; the Purim Ball over time would become a reliable source of income for the Jewish orphanages and welfare societies in New York.

Purim in New York

No one was quick to pick up on Isaacs’s recommendation, however. Isaacs tried again the following year, always in the pages of his father’s newspaper.

In 1862, he took more concrete steps. The 20-year-old gathered a small group of first-generation American Jews with aspirations to appear on a routine basis in the New York society columns. They organized the first Purim ball at Irving Hall, a prominent theater space in Manhattan, decorating the space with ornaments and plenty of pageantry such as entertainment and plays.

New York statute forbade masquerades, so Isaacs and his friends publicized it to wealthy New Yorkers as a “Fancy Dress Ball.” The guests, Jews and non-Jews, intuited the meaning and appeared dressed as Little Red Riding Hood and Shakespearean figures such as Romeo and Hamlet. Even though it was a Purim event, there was no mention that anyone was expected to dress up as Queen Esther.

The affair was very well received by attendees, compelling Isaacs to formalize the Purim Association of the City of New York to help ensure the newfound tradition persisted.

The Purim Ball straddled the line between a Jewish ritual and a New York society event. Yet, it hewed in the direction of the latter, attracting the leading women and men of New York. The mayor, police chief and leading figures of Tammany Hall frequented the balls. The Purim Association did not hold the gala on the actual date of Purim — usually it was held the day after or in the subsequent week — allowing New York’s Jews to observe Purim with its more traditional and less extravagant trappings.