Purim

By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz

Growing up in a secular Jewish home in the 1950’s, all I knew about Purim was that some kids wore costumes and that there was some kind of parade held at the local Jewish center. Curious, I went and the ‘parade’ was a long line of girls dressed up in fancy dresses waiting their turn to step in front of a boy sitting on a large chair with a crown on his head. In turn, they would curtsy to the ‘king’, who would then choose ‘the prettiest one’ to be crowned as queen…if that ‘beauty contest’ was Judaism, why would anyone take part?

Purim is a complex holiday, ranging in observance from the childish to the triumphalist, from the curious omission of mentioning God in the Book of Esther that is read on Purim, to the drinking, cross-dressing and satirical plays that are invented (and mostly enjoyed) each year by groups of Jews delighting in the opportunity to be silly…or so it seems.

There are many themes that emerge when one engages with the Book of Esther. The one I want to focus on, which seems particularly relevant this difficult year, is public identity. In an environment where Kippah-wearing men are donning baseball caps, where women are tucking gold chai necklaces under their sweaters and where mezuzahs can be seen as targets for antisemites, the question of hiding Jewish identity is, unfortunately, very real.

The Book of Esther is all about hiddenness. Her name, Esther, is related to the Hebrew word for hidden or concealed: (nistar) נִסתָר.  Esther, known originally as Hadassah, is an anonymous Jew before being taken from her guardian and crowned as queen, the beautiful replacement for Queen Vashti, who had refused to obey the King by dancing (perhaps nude) for the entertainment of the King’s guests. Vashti, an independent woman, is banished and replaced by Hadassah, thought to be a more appropriate queen, both attractive and compliant. She is admonished to hide her identity by her guardian Mordechai (who raised her after her parents died). As the plot twists, turns and unfolds, Esther is faced with a dilemma: should she risk her life to potentially save the Jewish people from destruction by revealing her identity to the King, who had authorized a pogrom against all the Jews of the empire?

This kind of problem has profound political implications, in a social atmosphere where threats of demonstrations have resulted in canceled concerts, angry demonstrations and intimidating tactics on university campuses and public events. More  personally, we are called to ask ourselves what parts of ourselves we have hidden, how those hidden places give us courage and how we balance our outward persona with our inward essence.

Here, in New Mexico, where Bnai Anusim (descendants of hidden Jews) are finding the courage to claim their religious identities which had been suppressed and almost lost for 500 years, the book of Esther is particularly relevant. There is a resurgent interest in celebrating the Feast of Esther, a celebration of her heroism described in the Book of Esther. Celebrants dress up, read the Book of Esther, eat small stuffed triangular cookies, and, in at least one event I was privileged to attend, bash a piñata representing Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther.

Since when and how to publicly claim Jewish identity and when and how to keep it hidden remains, unfortunately, a painfully relevant issue today, perhaps we can look beyond the messages of overcoming oppression through military might, and consider how true bravery consists of being true to yourself, truthful with the ones you love, and open to the possibility that there is more than one way to claim one’s spiritual identity.