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Purim and Penelope—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on March 31, 2008.

Purim and Penelope
By Ian Ayres ’86

My son and I recently returned from Israel where we had the chance to spend Purim in Jerusalem. Purim is a bit like Halloween — kids and parents dress up in costumes. And while there aren’t door-to-door “trick-or-treats,” there is a tradition of giving kids candies. Our cab driver even offered us Purim chocolate.

So it was on a beautiful warm Sunday that we got to see happy Orthodox families stroll around the Old City in full Purim regalia.

But Henry and I were floored when we passed a 6-year-old who was walking along smoking in front of his mom and dad. Not every child was smoking. But we saw three different groups that had kids — with ages ranging from about six to 13 — who were smoking. And to be clear, I’m not talking about the candy cigarettes of my youth. These kids were lighting up tobacco.

Our Israeli guide said that some parents let their kids smoke on Purim. There are efforts to curb this tradition, but for now it is still alive and well in Jerusalem. Apparently many kids smoke their first cigarette as a kind of Purim present.

In retrospect, I’m struck that none of these kids were coughing and the first and youngest kid we saw even dangled the burning cigarette with a certain élan.

I am awash with questions. Is there an interesting religious or economic explanation for how this practice started or how it persists today?

And as I meditate on questions religious, let me bring up a thought I had while seeing the movie, Penelope, with my daughter a few weeks ago.

In the movie, Penelope (played by a very talented Christina Ricci), is born with a pig’s snout instead of a nose and is brought up by her family in a cloistered existence. When she finally breaks free and leaves the house, she insists on wearing a winter scarf as shown here in the movie poster.

But wearing a scarf in public is depicted as being an unworkable long-term solution.

Will this movie be shown in Muslim countries? How will Muslims react to the idea that wearing a scarf in public in unacceptable? Isn’t it just as illiberal for social norms to prohibit a woman from covering her face as it is for social norms to mandate that her face be covered?