Sometimes I wonder what I would write about if I wasn’t Jewish and my mother hadn’t died. It’s kind of a weird question to ask yourself–what would you be like if you lost the central points of your identity? (I recognize that it sounds weird that my mother’s death counts as a central point of my identity, but to be completely honest, it was a life-changing event. I think it’s fair (if depressing) to say that everything I’ve done since I found out my mother was dying has been deeply affected by her illness and death.)
We like to imagine people losing their identity as a kind of magical or surreal event that happens on soap operas (amnesia) and Jason Bourne movies (government plot) and that awesome old show The Pretender. And it can be fun to imagine what it would be like if you woke up in someone else’s body, or with someone elses’s life. But we recognize, even in silly comedies (Freaky Friday) and soap operas, that losing your identity has to be scary and upsetting and confusing. Our lives are richly layered things, and when you suck out the bottom five or six layers you leave people shaky and unmoored.
Thinking through all this, I had this sudden revelation for why I’ve begun to connect with and enjoy Purim in the last few years. It used to be a holiday that made me roll my eyes. It just seemed…dumb (except for mishloach manot, which I’ve always thought are awesome). But of course, now I like Purim because its central character, Esther, is a Jewish woman whose parents died, and who has to pretend to be not-Jewish. She is forced to do away with huge chunks of her identity. And then, just as quickly, she is asked to own them again. And that’s what makes the Book of Esther such a compelling read to me, now. It’s about unforming and reforming identity.
There is not much that I really have in common with Queen Esther–I am not the hottest or sexiest girl in my city-state, I am not married to a drunk, I do not live in a harem, I am not friends with a eunuch, and my people are not at risk of being massacred. But the Purim story isn’t really about those things anyway. It’s about figuring out how to leverage your own identity to get what you need for yourself and the people you care about. It’s a pretty dark message, but one that I can appreciate as remarkably relatable.