Every year over the two days which mark the holiday of Purim, the Orthodox Jewish area of Stamford Hill in north-east London is transformed from its straitlaced normality into a carnivalesque celebration. Children dress up in elaborate costumes, adults are encouraged to drink “until they can’t remember their names”, and the streets teem with tiny actors assuming alternate identities. For Paris-based photographer Estelle Hanania, who has long been fascinated by the rituals which surround dressing up, it’s fascinating.
Hanania first visited Stamford Hill during Purim four years ago, and was utterly enchanted by the atmosphere in the streets. “I was so surprised by the fact that there were so many kids,” she says. “I really enjoyed it, so I came back three times after that.” The resulting series of photographs, entitled Happy Purim, was created between 2011 and 2014, and it documents an alternate world for the Orthodox Jewish children who became her subjects.
"Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the holiday is the distinctly adult nature of the story it relates to," Hanania explains. While researching for the book, the photographer spoke at length to a female rabbi named Delphine Horvilleur, who told her that in spite of its appropriation as a celebration for children, the day’s festivities are underpinned by a rather sinister tale. “Children, in a way, act like a veil… making believe in order to hide the complex questions the holiday raises,” Horvilleur explains. “On this day, we read a text called the Megillah of Esther, whose content should practically be censored for underage persons. It deals with power, violence and sex… More specifically, it speaks of the power of extermination and of political force, both supplanted by a woman’s sexual power. In the Megillah of Esther women very clearly take over power, and men are found in a situation of impotence.”
Duly seduced by this eclectic collision of spiritual escapism, creative costumes and the feminist subtext of an ancient story, Hanania, who comes from Jewish heritage but who has never practised the religion, was hooked. Here the photographer reflects on the duality of the legend, the creativity behind the outfits created and the atmosphere in Stamford Hill.
On the allure of dressing up…
"I was drawn to the fact that the Jewish community gets dressed up for this holiday, which is funny because, to me, in this area of London, they’re already costumed in a way. The men wear robes and hats, and it’s full of history; there’s a legend around this outfit already. I found it interesting that they dress up on top of these costumes; there’s a second costume,which is more about letting go and the inversion of the daily routine.
"They’re dressed by their mothers and sisters, and some have a costume that you can find anywhere, but others had created their own. Some were very attached the the tradition, they’re dressed as priests and Princess Esther, but some were inspired by American Culture – the two little red-haired girls, for example, were inspired by Annie the orphan. There’s a slice of pizza, and there’s an astronaut. I like the freedom of all these kids."
On the root of her fascination...
"I think it’s a way for me to get closer to my Jewish origins, in a funny way – to approach topics like religion and tradition. Also, I have a twin sister and I’ve always liked Stamford Hill, because there are lots of twins and triplets about. Apart from being a Jewish holiday, I love watching the relationships between siblings; brothers and sisters trying to look alike or different. That has been my concern for many years."
On letting the children take the limelight…
"The rabbi told me that Purim should really be an adult holiday. The story is full of murder, sex, power and struggles – she doesn’t know why it became appropriated for kids. From my photographer’s point of view, I focused on the kids. I did make some images of the adults but I didn’t include them in the book. The kids were the kings of the day, so I didn’t want to interfere."
Happy Purim by Estelle Hanania is available in the UK now, published by Shelter Press.