Ancient festival, modern philanthropy: How New Yorkers celebrated Purim in the 1800s

Elaborately dressed revelers fill a packed ballroom. In the background, floral arrangements and lights spell out the words “Merry Purim” and “Charity.” One wall showcases a large sign labeled “Order of Dancing.”

On March 10, 1887, New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House glittered “with a large and brilliant company” for a ball celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim. Hardworking decorators had placed so many “flowers and evergreens,” according to a reporter for the New-York Tribune, that “the building looked like one great floral bower.” Guests reveled in the music, dancing, and fine supper—served at midnight—before the ball ended in the wee hours. Hosted by the Purim Association, it was a night devoted to fun—and to fundraising.

Cover of program program for the March 10, 1887, Purim ball Depicting two well-dressed women giving packages and food baskets to a woman and child who appear in wind-swept and fraying garments
Depicting two well-dressed women giving packages and food baskets to a woman and child who appear in wind-swept and fraying garments, this page was from the cover of the program for the March 10, 1887, Purim ball held in New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. (GA.02538)

The 1887 ball belonged to a tradition that endured for four decades in the late 1800s. In 1862, a small group of young Jewish men in New York City founded an organization, the Purim Association, to celebrate the ancient holiday. The story of Purim comes from the Biblical Book of Esther. In fifth-century BCE Persia, a royal official named Haman planned to kill the Jewish people. The plot was thwarted by a Jewish leader named Mordechai in conjunction with his cousin, Esther, the Queen of Persia. Esther was Jewish but had been hiding her identity from her husband, the king, out of fear for her safety. To save her people at this time of crisis, Esther revealed her background. Angered by news of Haman’s plan, the king authorized Jews to defend themselves and had Haman hanged. Commemorating Jewish survival, the holiday falls on the 14th day of the Hebrew month Adar. (The Hebrew calendar is determined by the positions of the moon and the sun, so the holiday’s date varies in the western calendar, usually occurring in March, with Jewish days running from sundown one evening to nightfall on the next). Purim is a joyful celebration and, traditionally, it’s a time to give donations to people in need.

Two metal plaques
Charity balls were but one way members of Jewish communities fundraised during Purim. Written in Hebrew, these small metal plaques from the late 1800s or early 1900s encourage people to give donations to the poor. The top plaque says “maot purim” and is shorthand for the commandment, “matanot le-evyonim,” meaning to give gifts to people in need during Purim. The bottom plaque reads “mechatsit ha-shekel” from the commandment to give a half of a shekel (the money of the ancient Israelites) for charity. (CL.314493 and CL.314494)

New York had had a Jewish population since the mid-1600s, but in the mid-1800s, the city’s Jewish community was growing as German and other Central European Jews arrived in significant numbers. For many, the timing was good. The market economy was growing, and a good number of immigrants were able to seize opportunities to build successful businesses. Others, however, struggled, and, along with Americans of other backgrounds, Jewish Americans established charitable institutions to serve and steer their community. Many of the well-off young men who founded and ran the Purim Association over the decades also led some of the city’s Jewish charities. Myer S. Isaacs, who had a career as a lawyer, instigated the founding of the Purim Association and helped found United Hebrew Charities, among other organizations. By supporting benevolent organizations with an elegant event, Isaacs and his philanthropic colleagues knew they might also help counter ignorance about Jewish culture and prejudice toward Jews.

Initially, the organizers planned to revive a Jewish Purim tradition begun in the late 1400s in Italy—the masquerade. Borrowing from Christian carnival festivities preceding the abstemious period of Lent, the Italian Jewish revelers dressed up in costumes and wore masks to celebrate Purim. Masquerades were pleasurable and, moreover, with their identities hidden, people could give and receive charity anonymously. Alas, the Purim Association founders soon learned that New York State law prohibited wearing masks in public places. So, the organizers updated the centuries-old celebration to the philanthropic practices and legal requirements of their time and place. Charity leaders of all backgrounds had long known that they could raise significant funding by holding special or even spectacular events. Clergy gave sermons to benefit particular charities, and musicians played concerts to do the same. Charity balls were another option and one that was popular in the mid- and late-1800s. While some commentators criticized charity balls generally as wasteful indulgences, many a philanthropic organization used the method. So, an invitation-only fancy dress ball it would be.

Elaborately dressed revelers fill a packed ballroom. In the background, floral arrangements and lights spell out the words “Merry Purim” and “Charity.” One wall showcases a large sign labeled “Order of Dancing.”
This illustration from the April 1, 1865, issue of Frank’s Illustrated Newspaper hints at what that year’s Purim ball looked like, complete with elaborate costumes and decorations. The caption reads: “The Hebrew Purim Ball at the Academy of Music, March 14.” 

Within a decade, the annual Purim ball was a fixture in the city’s social scene. Newspaper reports beforehand helped to build excitement. News accounts afterwards praised the organizers for their success in hosting fabulous events and for raising money for charitable institutions, including the Hebrew Free School Association, United Hebrew Charities, Mt. Sinai Hospital, and the Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews, among others. Newspapers also noted that partygoers included significant numbers of Christians and other guests from outside the Jewish community. Not only were these New Yorkers introduced to Jewish customs, commentators at the time noted, but they also were exposed to the Jewish community’s concerns. In 1866, for instance, some attendees dressed in costumes referencing both Jewish persecution by the Catholic Church’s Inquisition and the contemporary high-profile case of a young Italian Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, who had been kidnapped by papal forces to be raised as a Catholic.

At a time when they sought both to assimilate and to maintain their culture in the face of bias, Jewish New Yorkers embraced modern philanthropic fundraising practices to support communal institutions and also promoted broader public understanding of Jewish culture. Jewish communities in other cities adopted the practice, while in New York, the Purim Association balls continued until 1902. The leaders of New York’s Jewish Museum revived this fundraising method in the 1960s, and the tradition continues today.

Amanda B. Moniz is the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy in the Division of Work and Industry. 

The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein, whose generosity also supports the initiative's Power of Giving symposium.