This past week I had the pleasure of attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. With inspiring speakers, expressions of hope and dreams for a better world, and an unflinching defense for the State of Israel, I felt a deep pride to be a Jew during the only time since Alexander the Great, that Jewish community in the Diaspora was able to partner with the foreign governments—this is historical. Last night though, as I walked out of the convention center, dozens of people with their anti-Israel sentiments, signs, and slurs called me a murderer, called me a Nazi, called me a an animal. As I walked through the groups, some I tried to speak too, but my words had no voice, and my reasoning was beyond the possible, and so, myself along with a just five of my Jewish brothers and sisters (including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach) started to sing.
We stood with each other in solidarity in a sea of peering hatred. We stood in prayer, we stood for the thousands of years that our people were killed before they could even utter a breath—we stand, because we can, we stand because in every generation we are commanded to. Our Freedom Song, our story to tell is a story of every generation, and this time, it will be heard. It is a story that speaks not only to the heart of the Jewish nation, but to all nations, all peoples.
“In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hands (Passover Haggadah).”
In every generation there is a call, a command, and for the righteous few, a scream against the injustice committed against the innocent—this generation is no different. Now, more than ever, the world is hungry the world is thirsty, and as the prophet Amos projects (8:11) not just for food, not just for water, but for the idea that one day the flood-waters will subside, and that “their swords will be beat to plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4).”
As the darkness of humanity spreads further West and people desire to push me, you and our values into the sea; as the Haman’s and Hitler’s challenge our every step and creed, I grow more and more concerned, more and more despondent and faithfully stirred. But almost in that same moment, I remember the resilience and grit of our Queen Esther, I recall the eternal command of Mordechai to remember what Purim represents for every generation:
“and that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their offspring (Esther 9:28).”
Our Purim holiday calls for us to believe that despite the hardships found in every generation “we shall overcome.” In spite of the hatred found in the hearts of so many for the Jewish nation, we must still seek to blot out such hatred. No matter what they say, not matter what they do, we must walk hand in hand, we must stand among our enemies in the streets of Washington, and we must not falter in knowing that the time of Purim is perpetually among us, and that “Although you have been abandoned and hated, and it (this hatred) has not passed, I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations (Isaiah 60:15).”
Purim empowers our generation to realize that we are charged with the ability to defeat, with God’s help, and with glory, love and words, the hatred of our world, for the voice of Esther has been heard.
In the words of W.E.B Du Bois
“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”
Imagine Purim by the crystal clear and warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. No need for warm costumes or shoveling out the entrance to the synagogue. This week not one but two Jewish communities will have the opportunity to do just that, in a modern and multicultural celebration of an ancient Jewish holiday.
The blue sea is the only backdrop the Jews of Santa Marta Colombia have ever known to Purim and other Jewish holidays. They are an emerging community made up exclusively of Caribbean converts who, in the past decade, have built a small but strong chavurah, prayer community. Generally they are on their own when it comes to Jewish life. But this week, students from Vanderbilt University Hillel are joining them.
The 10 day alternative spring break for the visit, organized in conjunction with Be’chol Lashon is introducing these American Jews to the richness and diversity of Jewish life in Colombia. They started in the heights Bogata, where they met the established historic Jewish community before setting off for the shores of Caribbean.
In coming to Santa Marta, these young American Jews will be exposed to a community which, like a time machine, mirrors the origins of their own communities in North America many decades or centuries ago (picture the first Jews of New Amsterdam, or the first Jews to wander into the Tennessee frontier). There is a one-room synagogue with one little Torah and a small Hebrew Sunday School. There is no fancy buildings, no rabbi in site, but bucketfuls of enthusiasm to make Jewish life thrive and grow in a place where it had not before.
At the same time, the Colombian Jews will be confronted with the image of complex hyphenated Jewish American youths coming from a place where Judaism feeds the surrounding culture and is in turn nourished and morphed by it: almost a utopian dream for such a small minority culture, still in its institutional and demographic infancy.
However, as it has happened in the past with other visiting Jews, the common threads of our story will bind us together. The American students will not be eating hamentaschen this year, but rather, they will feast on a very different gastronomy. The music coming out of the speakers (louder than most American are accustomed to) during the Purim celebration will be ripe with foreign cadences. And yet, it will still be Purim. Unequivocally Purim. With Esther and Mordechai and gifts for the poor, and mishloach manot. Haman will be cursed not only in one but in many languages. Despite their differences, in the illustrious tradition of Jewish travelers throughout time, both groups will find common ground.
And it is particularly fitting that this encounter of two cultures is happening on Purim, the first truly global holiday. A people dispersed throughout the 127 provinces of the vast reaching Persian Empire, from India to Ethiopia (meHodu vead Kush) found joint reasons for revelry, and, in doing so, started to take responsibility for one another across the broad expanses of Diaspora, language, and culture. The encounter between Vanderbilt Hillel’s alternative spring break and the local Jewish community of Santa Marta will honor and renew the commitment “assumed and received” by the Jewish people on that first Purim of finding common ground in the face of adversity, but also, not less profoundly, in the promise of shared joy.
This idea came from a Holocaust survivor, no less, who decided in the death camps that he can determine the fate of his inner world, and later suggested in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that your identity does not need to depend on what is going on around you, and that you can control the spirit’s choice as how to respond to any given the situation. Indeed, also under the harshest realities of the African slave-trade, what did many of them do? They stood above their oppressors by singing soul songs, Spirituals, to channel their souls cry of inner yearning. Yes, while in the net of captivity, the heart soared with the eagle’s eyes protecting the soul, but what about the lions kinship to protect their physical freedoms? Would the spirituals freedoms be enough?
“Build for me a sanctuary so that my presence may dwell among you (25:8)”
Busying up nearly 1/3 or the Biblical text, the Mishkan takes the cake as the single most important Biblical creation made by Man. One artistic craft found in the Mishkan’s blueprint, that joins the sacred and the profane, the subtle opposites found in our human experience, are the curtains which serve as the inner and our ceiling covers. From within the Tabernacle, says the Talmud (Yoma 72b), one could see “A lion from this side, and eagle from that side.” From above the Tabernacle, one could see the Tachash hide, which as mentioned by the great Biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (RaSHI), was multi-colored animal that only lived during that specific generation (26:1).
An Eagle (spiritual) and a Lion (physical), have you, needed to be interwoven into the very fabric of our existence—literally. For without this space, and joining of dualities, Mankind, and the legacy of Abraham would cease to exist. This edifice of hope, this manifesto, of the spiritual to dwell in context, and freely among the physical, was the Tabernacle, the Mishkan.
That is why, according to Rav Kook (Orot HaKodesh 2:439), that the holiness of the Holy of Holies only comes into creation, after we separate a location as something above what the individual relates to, and rather to name it as a light-house for all to reference. Because by saying that you and me both can call the same thing special, is the way that the Lion comes to lead on soil and the eagle comes to lead in the skies. It is by joining the song within the sanctuary that causes the outer to reflect the inner: A Tachash, a diverse, colorful people with many layers, many colors, and many thoughts, to all dwell within the Holiest of places.
Similarly, Purim is just two weeks away! And today marks the head of the new month of “Adar!” J J J Our Rabbis teach that one reason why King Achashreirosh was considered an evil person was because he confused the Jews out of spiritual longing, by creating lavish parties, a physical place without a soul. He caused others to think that the soul’s deepest desires do not come from the same place as your neighbor’s, namely the Temple (Mishkan), but rather “according to each person’s desire (Esther 1:8).”
Mordechai the Jew would not show to these events, but waited always, at the “Kings gate,” he stood above. But as the story unfolds, it was not enough to dwell with individual holiness, a Mishkan was needed so that fate of my soul and yours are linked. The place of the Lion and Eagle could not be forgotten.
“Ba’yamim HaHaym, Bazman Hazeh—In those days, and in these.”
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.