Purim, ritual and ancestry

Out of all the Jewish festival and holidays, Purim, which begins this evening, is one which resonates with me fondly. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the original story of Purim took place in Ancient Persia, apparently in the 4th Century BC.  My family originally hailed from Mashhad in Iran, so there is a connection there in terms of heritage and identity. And the story has a Jewish heroine – Queen Esther, who saved the Jews from extermination. So Purim is very much a celebratory festival, it’s a bit feminist and has developed into something akin to carnival, where dressing up is de rigueur.

I went to a Jewish primary school where the school day was divided into two parts – mornings were devoted to religious education. The focus was on the Old Testament and Hebrew.  On Purim we were allowed to come to school in fancy dress. This is me as Queen Esther back at primary school in Hendon in the 1960s. I’m the one second from the right with the smudged Max Factor eye make-up. My costume is authentic in that the headdress belonged to my late grandmother and I believe it was part of her trousseau.


Here are some other pictures of me at Purim:

This is a still from an old home movie shot by my father. Here I am a hula girl – manifesting my love of dancing and exotic dress.


This was was taken at the Persian Synagogue in Stamford Hill. It was probably taken in 1967 or 1968 as I am dressed as Bonnie  from the film Bonnie and Clyde which came out in 1967. So I am Faye Dunaway; although I didn’t manage the blonde pageboy hair I still had the beret and the outfit for which I received a prize, being presented here by my late Uncle Khalil. I’m still into fashion and film, so again things haven’t changed much on that front.



I don’t remember much about the next photograph. I am with Ruthy Abinun whom I met studying on a gap year course at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The back of the photo says Netivot 1976. I’ve googled Netivot and it’s a city between between Beersheba and Gaza but I have hardly any recollection of it.  This must have been a Purim excursion, and one can detect in the background an effigy of the hanged Haman – the baddie of the Purim story.  I like the identical sheepskin jackets and the over-the- knee striped socks!  I kept that sheepskin jacket for many years and my younger son once wore it on halloween when he dressed up as a yeti. He was probably about 5 years old; he wore it inside-out so it was all shaggy and it came down to his feet.



Here are a couple of Purim photos from before I was born. This one was taken in Tel Aviv in the early to mid 1950s. My mother is 4th from the left on the top row.


This photograph below was taken in 1957 in London, after my parents were married. My mum is the glamorous one in the off the shoulder number, and my father is next to her sporting a fake beard.


Nowadays I don’t dress up for Purim and neither do my children, who are more likely to dress up for Halloween. But I do keep up with other rituals associated with Purim, specifically culinary ones!  Typical treats to eat on Purim include hamantaschen (yiddish for Haman’s Ears) which are having a bit of a zeitgeist moment. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz tweeted about designer gourmet versions, and my local Gail’s bakery have been selling hamantaschen  for the past couple of weeks. They said it was a temporary product, but didn’t provide any explanation. I bought the poppyseed and apple versions and have to say they were delicious! I’ve photographed one on a vintage plate belonging to Bibi, my late paternal grandmother:


Speaking of Bibi, when I was a teenager I decided I wanted to write down some of her recipes for traditional Persian Jewish foods as they had never been written down. I still have the notebook. One of these recipes is for an Iranian halva that we pronounced “holevoh”.  We would eat this traditionally on Purim, and it seems appropriate to pass it on now.

Be warned – it is very labour intensive! It is also addictive and high in calories.

NB I cup of rice makes two plates

2 cups of round pudding rice, washed and patted dry with a tea towel

2 cups of sugar

I-2 cups of blanched, slivered almonds (I like it ‘almond-heavy’). You are supposed to prepare these yourself and not cheat by buying pre-sliced versions which are invariably too small or the ‘wrong’ shape

to blanch: Bring regular almonds to the boil and the skin comes off easily


I tablespoon sunflower oil

Spices: 2 teaspoons cinnamon, some ground cardamon (about tip of a spoon to half a teaspoon according to taste)  and half a teaspoon of saffron strands dissolved in water

In a large saucepan, ideally with a handle, heat the oil gently. and add the rice. Stir continuously until it becomes a uniform honey brown colour. Bibi said approximately 15 minutes but it takes LONGER!! The heat needs to be medium so the rice doesn’t burn or stick.

Once golden brown pour on (boiling) water and bring to the boil and cook till it becomes like OSH. Osh is a sticky glutinous mush. Keep adding water little by little till rice is cooked – this may take an hour – keep stirring!!!  Once the rice is cooked and pretty much quadrupled in quantity add the diluted saffron, the sugar, the cardamon and cinnamon and finally the almonds. By the end it resembles a heavy jam, and is bubbling slowly. You can test it on a cool plate the way you would test a setting jam.

It is customary to give plates of holevoh as gifts on Purim.

Here are some I made today. I’ve made a concession to modernity and prepared a couple in takeaway containers for easy transportation!ma-5014




3 thoughts on “Purim, ritual and ancestry”

  1. Lovely post! I always find texts envolving ancestry, family stories and cultural traditions interesting, especially when they’re so well written and documented. Really enjoy your blog.

  2. Really interesting blog! Love the way past is threaded together with personal and family photographs, it makes the story real rather than a historical commentary. Bravo!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.