PurimCon With The Manhattan Jewish Experience

Jewish professionals dress up as historical icons to celebrate Purim for a night out in the West Village

Sun-speckled cobblestones paved the path for almost 200 young Jewish professionals who came out to the Jane Hotel on Thursday night to celebrate Purim in the West Village. As the sun set over the Hudson, casting a warm, blood-orange glow on the water, people filed into the chic nightlife venue and New York City landmark dressed as iconic figures for the Manhattan Jewish Experience’s 17th annual Purim celebration.

This year’s theme was PurimCon, and interpretations of known personalities, both real and fictional, gathered in the nautically themed venue. “We decided to go with the theme of iconic, which was inspired by Bowie,” said MJE’s director of communications, Michelle Soffen, referring to the recently deceased rock legend. “We had the location first, which is an icon of New York, and we wanted to pay homage to the people who have shaped history and culture, which goes along with the theme of Purim,” said Soffen, who was dressed as Rose DeWitt Bukater from “Titanic.” In character, she looked very much at home in the grand space, which was originally built as a sailors’ lodging and could have been snatched from the set of James Cameron’s seminal film.

Among the famous faces were Janis Joplin, Magic Johnson, Bill Clinton, Jackie O, Rosie the Riveter, Elvis and several iterations of Danny Zucko and Sandy Olsson from “Grease.” Attendees mingled by the oak bar and gathered in the main room where a fire roared, complementing the indulgent feel of the large, Victorian rugs and inviting leather couches. In one corner, DJ Amir spun pop and house funk in an NYPD uniform reminiscent of the Village People.

Rabbi Jonathan Feldman, MJE’s associate and East Side director, who has dressed up as modern, topical characters in the past, including Zorro, Avatar, the Riddler and Darth Mall, shifted gears to fit this year’s theme. Cloaked in a flowing white robe to supplement a faux flowing gray mane and beard, Rabbi Feldman turned heads and turned back time when he walked in dressed as Moses. “He’s the ultimate icon because he’s a towering figure in world consciousness. He’s a leader,” said Rabbi Feldman. “He put up with those stuffy, nagging Jews who constantly kvetched. He stood up to Pharaoh. He was the ultimate freedom fighter,” continued Rabbi Feldman as he waved a large, wooden staff he procured from his home upstate, and wielded a rubber snake and two gray tablets bearing hand-painted scripture. “If as many Jews came to celebrate Purim as came to celebrate Yom Kippurim they would come around more the rest of the year. We want them to see the fun, joyful, elevated side of Purim,” said Rabbi Feldman.

Not everyone had the chance to transform identities. Brian Farhi, who works as a catering manager for Fordham University, was coming straight from the office and drifted around the venue sipping a gin martini in a black pinstriped suit and pink tie (he could have gotten away with telling people he was dressed up as “Mad Men” protagonist, Don Draper). “I want to meet a solid, Jewish woman,” said Farhi, who quickly clarified that he did not mean "solid" in a physical sense, “I mean a good, Jewish person. Not necessarily religious, but deep and spiritual.” Farhi said he attends many MJE events, “The energy is always good and I never go home feeling annoyed with anything," said Farhi. 

Perhaps his beshert was standing right next to him wearing a shaggy, blond wig, thick-rimmed, black glasses, a red flannel, and clutching a pair of drumsticks in her left hand. Dressed as Garth from the “Saturday Night Live” sketch-turned-movie, “Wayne’s World,” Doria Baraket displayed a similar hopefulness as Farhi: “If I meet someone that's great, if not, it's fun to come out and see all the costumes,” said Baraket, which ended up being a funny foreshadowing as she and her sister, Daphne, who was dressed as Wayne, went on to collect the prize for first place in the costume contest, ($500 off the organization’s annual trip to Israel). Second place went to Hannah Epstein, whose disguise as Biggie Smalls won her a Friday night dinner. Eli Lunzer, an event planner, won the raffle, taking home a FitBit activity tracker to gauge the damage incurred by the platters of hamantashen laid out on the tables.

Run DMC, who on most days is known as Rabbi Ezra Cohen and is the organization’s downtown director, said he chose the costume because of his passion for music and his being a child of the ’80s. “Besides a good time, one of the beliefs and fundamental tenants of MJE is to create a social environment where young Jews are able to meet and network and socialize with one another in a non-contrived, laidback, warm, inclusive way,” said Rabbi Cohen. “We try to keep things contemporary and cool at MJE, which is reflected in the location and venue itself. It’s downtown and a hip, swanky space — but not a loud club so that people can connect.”

Rabbi Mark Wildes, MJE’S founder and director, who was dressed as the late David Bowie, also spoke of the organization’s goal to facilitate connecting. However, he was alluding to an inner connection. “We all wear masks in life, we put on a charade for other people, so to expose our true selves and reveal our true identities is a major theme of Purim,” he said. Referring to an allegory in which Esther was told not to reveal her true identity — the name Esther means “to be hidden” — Wildes speaks to the importance of not living life behind a mask. “Who are we really? That is a question a lot of people are asking themselves today, and I think there’s an identity crisis going on with young people. Esther was told it would be dangerous to reveal her identity, but in order to do what we want in life we have to be ourselves and question who we are, and at some point we have say who we are.”

Much like the act of removing a mask, Wildes points to the importance of tearing through façades and finding meaning in something that may not be obvious. “The Megillah Esther is the only scroll in Hebrew scripture and Tenach that god’s name isn’t mentioned ever and he’s masked a little. God himself is behind the scenes, he’s not overt,” said Wildes. “You can kind of read the whole story without reading about god at all — he’s very quiet. But god really is there. You just have to find him,” said Wildes.

Covered in Bowie’s iconic lightning bolt face paint, Wildes said, “Just because you don’t see something, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Sometimes, you’ve got to dig a little deeper.”

The next MJE event is an 80's prom Megilah reading and Purim party. Wednesday, March 23rd, 7:30 p.m., $10 online/$20 at the door. Register here

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