Dress to Impress…for a Worthy Cause: The Purim Association Records 

November 28, 2023
by Tamar Zeffren

The Jewish holiday of Purim, which takes place in the springtime, is associated with a range of customs, chief among them donning masks and costumes, participating public celebrations, and making charitable donations. A small but exceptional collection in AJHS’s holdings, the Purim Association Records, demonstrates how a cohort of enterprising Jewish New Yorkers in the 1860s decided to blend and pay tribute to these traditions in a uniquely whimsical manner, in service of supporting local organizations. 

The first Purim ball was held in March 1862. It sold over 1,300 tickets, at $5.00 each, and was deemed by a local newspaper “[t]he merriest affair ever known in our city.” Soon after the inaugural event, the organizers decided to form an organization with the mandate to organize upscale entertainments to raise funds for a range of educational, cultural, and civic organizations. 

The success of the Association’s inaugural ball engendered tremendous interest, and attendance at subsequent balls, which were lavishly decorated, featured patriotic music and processions, and located at landmark institutions such as the Academy of Music, the Metropolitan Opera House, Madison Square Garden, and Carnegie Hall, continued to increase for several years.

Postcard invitation to the Purim Association Fancy Dress Ball

The archival records, which include contemporary news clippings, provide fascinating perspectives on how the Purim Association approached the creation and promotion of gala programming which would attract participants from a range of religions and backgrounds, from a charitable mission anchored in Jewish tradition. 

Review and account of the First Purim Ball hosted by the Purim Association

Moreover, this collection attests to the ingenuity and generosity of the Association through unique ephemera and artifacts, including a beautiful miniature scroll which was distributed as the invitation to the Association’s 1866 ball and a rare scrapbook containing photos and correspondence about the impact of its festive fundraising. 

Scrapbook of letters from members of the community in recognition and celebration of the ball’s achievements.

One of the many letters pasted in the scrapbook notes that “The altruistic spirit…is after all the most inexhaustible reservoir of true happiness.” The author of this February 25, 1895 letter, which acknowledges funds raised by the Purim Association for the United Hebrew Charities and the Educational Alliance, is Isidor Straus. A co-owner of the Macy’s department store and a U.S. Congressman, Straus would perish 17 years later in the sinking of the Titanic along with his wife Ida, who refused the offer to board a lifeboat and chose to remain with her husband. 

Letter from Isidor Straus, a co-owner of the Macy’s department store and a U.S. Congressman.

The uniqueness of these records is matched by their fragility. For this Giving Tuesday, we hope that you will consider supporting the restoration of this special collection. The values manifest in the Purim Association archives—mutual aid, resourcefulness, and different facets of a community uniting to support local institutions—keenly resonate today.  

As the Purim Association members might have written, we hope you will accept this invitation…to support the preservation of these exciting records so that they may continue to educate and inspire.