Purim parties to remember

Purim parties this year (virtual or in-person) may be attended by someone dressed as a Shiva Baby, a Bernie Sanders, or even a loofah, but have you ever wondered about what Purim parties looked like in the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s?

Well, prepare yourself, because with Lili Friedman’s help we are taking a journey to the past and experiencing the dynamic and swinging parties hosted by Friedman’s older sister, Tamara Weinreich (don’t worry, we’re entering kid-free zones).

For approximately 30 years, Weinreich hosted lavish and widely attended Purim parties  that became a central event in the Toronto Jewish community for decades.

After the Second World War, the sisters stayed in Poland before Weinreich left for Israel and Friedman for Toronto. After Weinreich decided to join her sister in Toronto in 1959 and settled into her first home on Joicey Boulevard, with her husband, Mietek, they wanted to throw a Purim party. She simply said, as Friedman reflected, “let’s do something.” The first bash was held sometime in the mid-‘60s. This seemingly nonchalant idea turned into an annual extravaganza for around 30 years. “Everybody went all out,” including the hostess, said Friedman.

Weinreich did everything herself from crafting the holiday-themed posters to making all the food. It was the way they both did things, Weinreich for her Purim parties, and Friedman for her 50-guest seders.

The annual celebration started with a guaranteed list of 100 to 120 guests, with numbers rising to at least 150-persons when Weinreich moved into a larger home. Eventually, due to the number of guests, the  party moved to a hall at Shaarei Shomayim. But Weinreich’s generosity as a host was year round.

Weinreich in costume at one of her parties. Tamara Weinreich collection. Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2006-12-2.
Weinreich with her husband Mietek. Photograph courtesy of Lili Friedman.
The more the merrier! Tamara Weinreich collection. Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2006-12-2.

Friedman described her sister as a warm spirit, whose “door was more than open, always. We used to joke that if anyone arrived at the airport, the sign said this way to Tamara.” Even for the party, if a stranger found out about the event and wanted to attend, they were more than welcome to.

Most of the attendees, including Weinreich and Friedman, were Holocaust survivors. The shared history between them eventually led the annual festivities to become a site to raise money for the Anne Frank Foundation. On Purim, Jews celebrate Esther’s triumph over Haman’s decree to kill Persian Jews, and I couldn’t help but view Weinreich’s party as a double celebration of the holiday and of the life the survivors could all enjoy freely again while continuing to honour the memory of those who tragically perished.

At 83 years young, Friedman’s enthusiastic tales of the party throughout the years were bolstered by her memories of all the “fun we had, it was always fantastic.”

Ahead of a party one year, she was asked what her costume would be and stated, “I’m going as myself.” When she first said this to me I chimed in with, “amazing,” thinking what a nice twist it must have been to shirk all convention and attend a Purim party as yourself. Until she said “No, [I walked in] as a real witch . . . like I said, I went as myself. I always considered myself that way.” So she entered the soiree in black garb, a dirty face, a pointy hat, no teeth, black long nails, and with every witch’s trusty sidekick, a broom. (Contrary to what Friedman believes, she is not a witch, or if she is, I have yet to meet one as welcoming.)

Friedman enjoying the night as a witch (her favourite costume) with a friend and her sister. Photographs courtesy of Lili Friedman. 

Unsurprisingly, there was a flurry of costumes—rented and/or DIY—throughout the years. Friedman blessed partygoers’ hearts as a southern belle one year, while her husband, Arnold, in another year, went as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. If we had attended these parties, you might have shared a conversation with a man in diapers, a priest, the iconic Yenta from Fiddler on the Roof, Bert the chimney sweep from Mary Poppins, or Dolly from Hello Dolly.

Friedman as a southern belle with Arnold by her side (a child has snuck in). Tamara Weinreich collection. Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2006-12-2.
From left to right: Arnold as Prime Minister Golda Meir, Friedman as Dolly, and Weinreich as Yenta. Photographs courtesy of Lili Friedman. 

A notable master-of-disguise moment occurred when one of the parties was held at the synagogue. Friedman dressed as a man and Arnold as a woman. He had liked, she reminisced, a dress she had purchased from Hawaii. However, the memorable moment occurred when Friedman needed to go to the washroom. Wearing a fake beard, a fedora, and a grey suit, she tried walking into the ladies’ room but was barred from entering by the security guard. He did not notice—as she later admitted the one aspect about her costume that was amiss—the pink nail polish she forgot to remove from her nails.

Friedman in costume as a man. Photograph courtesy of Lili Friedman. 

While the parties never had a theme there were occasional commonalities. One year, a fake wedding was held that included a chuppah. Another year, the women dressed in the traditional attire of women from other countries such as the Netherlands. Two special memories involved Weinreich, Friedman, and Friedman’s sister-in-law Roma Buchman, and her sister Fila Blitzer, dressed as milk maids, and a second time as clowns. 

As 30 or so years passed, it eventually was time for Weinreich to hang up her Purim Party Queen crown. It’s “no picnic” throwing the parties she did, Friedman reflected. Though, “I think her younger son did it once also at a venue, and then that was the end of it. If I remember correctly.” 

The milk maids and clowns (below) report for duty. Photographs courtesy of Lili Friedman. 
Arnold in the dress from Hawaii. Photograph courtesy of Lili Friedman. 
Costumes galore! Tamara Weinreich collection. Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2006-12-2.

In 2006, a collection of 500 photographs of the Purim parties were donated to the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA), but it would take another 11 years for them to be scanned. It wasn’t until Faye Blum, an archivist and outreach associate at the OJA found them in 2017 while searching for Purim related content to share on social media.  

The OJA then posted an array of images from the collection on March 28, 2017, unfortunately, a month and a half after Weinreich’s passing. It would be another two years—after posting another series of photographs from the parties on their social channels—that Friedman, at the behest of her daughter, contacted the archives.

Friedman rallied her friends Yona Barzilay and Jean Chase (who took many of the pictures) to join her in perusing over 500 photographs to identify guests.

There may have never been another one of Weinreich’s famous Purim parties, but her legendary holiday celebrations have been preserved for the Jewish community to look back on through archival footage, and through storytelling. Looking through these pictures, perhaps you may have concluded—save for ‘70s staches and ‘80s hairstyles—not much has changed. 

Who knows, perhaps in another 50 years, someone will be looking through the archives and find a photo of you dressed as Alana Haim from Licorice Pizza, and there’s a journalist looking curiously over your shoulder as you show them what it was like to go to a Purim party in the bygone age of 2022.

Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photograph on the left is of Lili Friedman and is courtesy of her. Photograph on the right is, as was noted earlier, from the Tamara Weinreich collection. Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2006-12-2. 

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