Several years ago, I started a new job in a new city and wanted to check out a local synagogue. A co-worker, Francine, also Jewish though less practicing than me, came along for the ride.
“One thing,” I told her before we went in. “Don’t tell them we’re Jewish.”
She agreed. Then promptly blew it.
“Hi. We’re both Jewish and my friend just moved to town, and…”
What I had wanted to know was how they would perceive me: bi-racial and not easily ethnically identifiable, and with a surname rapidly becoming recognized as the blackest in America. (I also thought a covert operation might help in finding out if new members were to be socked with a building fund.)
Jews have been traveling incognito centuries, though not necessarily undercover from other Jews. From Crypto-Jews to escapees from the pogroms and the Holocaust, it’s a story of survival that encompasses every permutation of identity, secret or otherwise. Clark Kent may not have been Jewish, but who can say about Superman?
And then there’s Esther, whose beauty so strikes King Ahasuerus of Persia that he marries her without even asking what religion she is (who performed that ceremony?) Though her cousin and legal guardian Mordecai seems to be the most public Jew in Persia, the king never connects those dots, and Mordecai instructs her to stay mum. Full disclosure comes only after Haman plots to kill all Jews, including, he learns too late, the king’s beloved wife.
I’ve never been sure what to make of the Purim story. It and the Song of Songs are the only two books in the Torah in which God doesn’t make an appearance. Maybe it’s something about kings falling in love with beautiful women.
More likely the message is “don’t be prejudiced,” with which I agree, and “or else,” which I find more troubling: The hanging of Haman, his 10 sons, and the slaying of 75,000 others is more than a little excessive. Sounding a noisemaker is one thing. Decimating a population the size of Evanston, Ill., is another.
All this, and the Jews’ subsequent good fortune under Ahasuerus, is made possible by Esther’s timing in outing herself. Had she made that revelation earlier, Haman — if he had exercised more opportunism than racism — could have done away with Mordecai and not the rest of the Jews. But because she waited we saw his true colors.
I’ve experienced something like that: white people saying the n-word in front of me, and Jews using schwartze, not knowing I’m black; blacks speaking derisively of Jews unaware of that part of my heritage. I’m happy to say it happens infrequently these days, but maybe less because of improved racial understanding than the way I pre-empt it by introducing myself: “Hi, I’m Robin Washington. I’m a Black Jew.”
Still, there are other times when it’s best to let my ethnic ambiguity speak for itself. Not to hide anything, just not volunteering; and with race an illusion created by humans, letting people draw whatever conclusion they want.
That also works with my name, by the way. A surefire sign that someone doesn’t know me is when I get a letter or email addressed to “Ms. Robin Washington.”
She sounds lovely, but I doubt as beautiful as Esther.
If you’re looking for a way to introduce children to the story of Purim but also want pay homage to its Persian roots, this children’s book, The Story of Queen Esther, weaves the classic tale of the woman who saved the Jewish people with bold and colorful Persian-inspired illustrations.
There’s also a custom to send mishloach manot, or food baskets, on Purim. Send your loved ones this Tradition in a Box Purim gift set. It’s full of delicious kosher goodies perfect for this holiday!
Happy Purim to you and yours!
Despite its air of frivolity, or perhaps because of it, the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim offers the opportunity to explore the challenges we face when it comes to identity inclusion and race. Both the story of Purim and the rituals of the holiday speak directly to a contemporary sensibility and provide us with some important lessons for living in a diverse multicultural world.
The king of the story of Purim, Achashverosh lived in the city of Shusan in ancient Persia. But his kingdom was vast, stretching over 70 nations from India to Africa. People of many backgrounds and religions came under his rule, including Jews and he was glad to host all at his palace. According to the legends of the Indian and Ethiopian Jewish communities, Jews had lived in those lands even before the Purim story era. The king had a Jewish advisor, named Mordechai (Esther’s uncle and guardian) but that did not mean he was aware of the value of the Jews as part of his multicultural empire. The king allowed Haman to threaten to destroy the Jews.
Ultimately redemption of the Jews serves not only as an omen of Jewish good fortune but also as a reminder of the folly of any society that does not value all its people. Among the many nations, the Jews as a group were singled out because of one element of their identity. By contrast, we need to be able to see people for who they are and not judge them negatively for being different; otherwise we will be no better than Haman.
Esther, the heroine for whom the biblical story is named, is a complex character. Born to a prominent Jewish family, she hides her Jewish identity to become queen. There is no record of what she looked like but her look must not have stood out as distinctly Jewish to others, allowing her to ‘pass’ undetected as a Jew. All of us have elements of our identities that are immediately visible to others and elements of our identities that are hidden. Esther’s ability to conceal her Judaism allowed her to navigate the politics of the palace community.
Every one of us, to greater and lesser degrees, learns to navigate different social and cultural settings, putting forward or concealing elements of who we are. At the same time, we often are seen as who we are on the surface, which can be misleading or not tell the full story. Haman, might have been more strategic about his approach to the Jews had he understood that one of the king’s favorite wives was a Jew. Living in a diverse society demands both the capacity to navigate elements of our own identity as well as be aware of our biases and assumptions about others.
And as everyone knows, the customary costumes provide a real life opportunity kids and adults alike to try on different identities. But even the foods, hamantaschen cookies filled with sweets, the raviolis that Italian Jews eat, or the kreplach of Eastern European Purim tradition, all have a hidden element, challenging us to look beyond the surface.
Purim is a festive holiday with much fun and good food. But concealed in the story and in the rituals of the day are a series of complex and meaningful issues that demand our attention in an increasingly global world.