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Musings: Itay Cohen’s Purim

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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish child dressed as a British queen's guard during Purim celebrations at Braslev Chassidic Dynasty in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem.

Working on the pre-edit for Your Shot’s Daily Dozen means sifting through thousands of photos—every single image uploaded to our photo community. Occasionally I notice themes or long-term projects that some of our members are working on. In the case of Itay Cohen, it was his recent work with the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem really piqued my interest. He covered Purim, a Jewish holiday celebrated with festivities and costumes which commemorates a story from the Biblical Book of Esther. According to this story, Jewish people were saved from a plot to exterminate them 2,500 years ago under the Persian Empire. Purim is celebrated in accordance with the Jewish calendar. This year it began at sundown on March 14th and ended around sundown the following day.

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During Purim, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish celebrants drink alcohol in large quantities. Because many of them are not used to drinking they often become sick. Here, one of the celebrants lies on the synagogue floor.

In order to gain access to the this community Cohen had to earn their trust, making many visits without his camera to get to know them and have them learn about him. Only after building a rapport did he begin to visit with his camera in hand. In this work, Cohen gives insight into a tradition that is thousands of years old and allows us to understand it in a new way.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls dressed as princesses walk through the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem. As part of the holiday tradition the children exchange gifts of food.

Cohen already had experience working with sensitive and somewhat private cultures. Israel, similar to many European countries, requires two years of military service from citizens starting at age 18. For Cohen, this time was spent as a photographer with the army newspaper. Though he started practicing photography at age 15, he was not formally trained. Cohen’s photography in the military taught him the importance of gaining the trust of what can be a private community. “Throughout my service I learned through trial and error, and over the three years I noticed a lot of development. It was the best photography school I could imagine.”

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Ultra-Orthodox men celebrate the final hours of Purim with a feast called Se`udat.

“When I was a photographer in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) I learned how to approach and build relationships with people before you take out the camera and start to shooting. When people trust you they are much more open to live their own life in their typical way and they are not pretending to be someone else.”

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A young boy smokes a cigarette during the Purim celebration as part of tradition. Purim is the one time of year where practitioners of the ultra-Orthodox tradition engage in this type of activity.

To better understand the traditions of Purim I called Jeffery Rubenstein, a professor of Jewish Studies at New York University. He explains, “One of the themes of the book of Esther is the theme of reversal. Haman thought he was going to be honored, and in the end he had to honor Mordecai.” This idea of reversal, of the opposite, “becomes the kind of slogan or motif of the holiday.”

Many different customs are reversed. For example, in some groups men and women dress in drag, Rubenstein tells me, which is something that is not typically allowed.

Cohen explains, “One of the customs of the Purim holiday is to get drunk, and in the ultra-Orthodox community the men drink a lot of alcohol in that day if they are six-years old or 80 years old. Because many of them are not used to it they vomit it all, and it’s not a nice thing to see. Only in the most extreme Yeshivas do they let children smoke and only on the Purim holiday.”

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During the holiday of Purim, celebrants wander the streets and read from the book of Esther.

“Another customary tradition on Purim is food gifts and charity and on the last night of the holiday the ultra-Orthodox have a big meal and festive drinking and it’s called the Se`udat Purim.”

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men celebrate the last hours of Purim.

The photographs surfaced many questions for me. I had never seen children smoking in the ultra-Orthodox community before. As Cohen explains, it is only in the extreme Yeshivas that this happens, and only once a year on Purim.

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A young boy smokes a cigarette during Purim, the only day of the year he is allowed to do so.

Rubenstein sums it up like this, “There is a tension between what you might call the proper way to celebrate and the popular dimension that is liable to break boundaries. It is the one day in the Jewish year where boundaries are broken.”

Cohen brings something special to us with these images of Purim. As an Israeli living in Jerusalem he understands the community, and cares about sharing their stories honestly and accurately. This is his home. I look forward to learning more as Cohen continues documenting these traditions.

Itay Cohen has been featured on our Your Shot blog. To see more of Cohen’s work, visit his Your Shot Gallery. For a glimpse of day-to-day life in the Mea Shearim neighborhood, check out this short video Cohen produced.

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