They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust

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"The Cracow Wedding" Purimshpil

The holiday of Purim commemorates the steadfast faith and miraculous survival of a Jewish community in Persia. Some of us wore makeshift costumes and homemade masks. I put on a white sheet and smeared my face with charcoal or soot from the lamp chimney. We went from house to house singing a ditty to a familiar tune and collecting candies and pennies.

A highlight of the holiday was the Purim play. The most popular plays were Mordecai and Esther, which told the story of Purim; Mekhires yoysef, which was about the sale of Joseph by his brothers and always drew a few tears; and, above all, The Cracow Wedding (Krakowskie Wesele, in Polish), which is the subject of this painting. The troop would rehearse for months in advance. Most of the performers were laborers and artisans. They wore homemade costumes, the styles going back to the 18th century. The female characters are wearing the national costume of the Cracow region. You can see them to this day at folk festivals. If the women look masculine, it is because men are playing the female parts. In the Jewish tradition, a woman would not perform this sort of thing. Those playing male roles are wearing shako hats, inspired by the hats that soldiers wore during the Napoleonic wars to make them look taller and more intimidating. The hats were decorated with braid and tassels. The Cracow Wedding was the only Purim play that required instrumental music.

The Purim players would perform for five or six families in an evening. They did not visit every house, only those of prominent citizens. These were command performances in the homes of people who could afford to reward the players. They wouldn’t come to my house. We loved to follow the Purim players from place to place. You can see us standing outside Zayfman's home and watching the Purim play through the window. We weren't allowed inside. The place was too small and crowded. On the table you can see bottles of vodka and wine, candles, a few candies, and a few little nibbles. There are very few holidays in the Jewish tradition where you are allowed to get tipsy. Purim is one of them. Simkhes toyre is another. By the end of the evening and after a few drinks, the Purim players would go home happy.