Flashing a wide smile, Gabe Gammil showed off the tiny portrait of Elmo painted on one cheek and Oscar the Grouch on the other as a face painter immortalized Big Bird on his forehead.
"I think it's kind of funny," the 9-year-old giggled.
A few feet away, costumed children danced the Hokey Pokey while others ate kosher pizza and tried their hand at such games as "Give Haman A Toothache" and "Queen Esther's Bowl-A-Thon."
The revelry is a hallmark of the Purim Carnival sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Howard County. Held Sunday afternoon at River Hill High School in Clarksville, the 12th annual carnival was coupled with a Jewish festival. The festival featured Jewish art and jewelry vendors plus information tables showcasing Jewish organizations, synagogues, camps and religious schools.
About 2,000 men, women and children - more than double last year's turnout - attended the four-hour Purim Carnival and Jewish Festival. Proceeds will benefit Howard County's Jewish schools.
"It's a great crowd," said Roberta Greenstein, who until Monday was executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County. "Because it's a Jewish festival, we drew more people. It's wonderful to see generations, grandparents with grandchildren."
This year, Purim will be celebrated Saturday evening through Sunday evening. Hebrew for lots, Purim commemorates the victory of Persian Jews more than 2,300 years ago over King Ahasuerus' royal edict that called for their massacre.
The evil plot was planned by Haman, the king's prime minister, who drew lots to determine the day for the attack. But the plot was foiled by Queen Esther, Ahasuerus' beautiful Jewish wife, with her uncle Mordechai.
Traditional observance includes the recitation of the Purim story from Megillat Esther, or Book of Esther, during evening and morning services. Congregants drown out each mention of Haman's name with noisemakers.
Celebrants also exchange food packages, called shalach manot, donate to charity, eat a festive dinner and feast on hamantaschen - three-cornered pastries symbolic of Haman's three-cornered hat. Children and some adults also dress in costume.
"Purim is the one day of the year that you revel in the faith that the good guys do win in the end," said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Columbia's Beth Shalom Congregation.
At the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education at 770 Howes Lane in Columbia, tomorrow night's Purim observance is to begin at 7 p.m. After the reading of the Book of Esther, a Purim party, featuring a masquerade contest and a puppet show, will be held.
A gala ball
Sunday's carnival and festival followed the federation's first Purim Gala Ball, held Saturday evening at Savage Mill. The event featured New York comedian Joel Chasnoff, dancing to Columbia's Mike Kushner Band, a kosher dinner and wine tasting.
The gala was started after the Jack Pearlstone Institute for Living Judaism awarded its annual grant to the federation for its 2004 Pearlstone Kallah activity. This year's Kallah theme is: "The well-being of the body, the well-being of the soul."
"We decided to have the gala after learning the theme," said Greenstein, who first saw Chasnoff perform at a local Hadassah event and wanted to bring him back to the community.
"We feel that laughter is good for the body and the soul, and that Joel and the band are good for everybody. "We also thought Purim for adults needed an infusion."
Shops donated wine for the gala's wine tasting, while Savage Mill vendors contributed raffle prizes and centerpieces.
Nearly 200 adults attended, many in costume. Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation reviewed the Purim story.
"It was just pure fun," said Ruth Naftaly, county federation president. "Everybody is talking about it. And Joel was hysterical. I could hear my girlfriend laughing across the room."
Chasnoff also led teens in a comedy improv workshop at the carnival. "It was a lot of fun," said participant Stefanie Sass, 13, of Columbia. "Purim is about dressing up and acting."
The teens took on wacky characters and learned to think fast on their feet. "A lot of kids are inhibited, so one of my goals is to get kids not to be afraid of expressing themselves," Chasnoff said.
The hourlong workshop, he said, also helped usher in the holiday. "Purim is all about humor," Chasnoff said. "It's the lightest holiday we have, a very jovial holiday. This fits right in."
Nearby, 6-year-old Abby Kramer - decked out as a fierce red dragon - won the children's costume contest. In the grownups category, Abby's mother, Reisa Kramer of Ellicott City, shared first place with the Cat in the Hat. Dressed as a royal, Kramer also juggled. "A costume and talent to boot," said contest judge Doug Sandler of DJ Doug.
Among the regular carnival-goers was Deborah Smelkinson. The Columbia homemaker attends each year with her husband, Jeffrey, and their three daughters, who were dressed as Queen Esther. "It's very important to introduce them to the Jewish holidays and expose them to other Jewish families in Howard County," Smelkinson said.