Purim is about concealment. More specifically, it is about movement from the covert to the overt. There is a sustained tension between what characters are and what they seem to be that moves the plot forward. It is the careful unraveling of disguises that makes for salvation.
The major characters are all Marranos disguised in costume. They all struggle to manage a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that, if revealed, would seem to undo them. By the end, everyone is unmasked.
King Ahashverosh, according to tradition, was not of royal blood; he had married into Persian royalty. Vashti was the true Persian princess and, because she refuses to take off her royal robes, she is banished or killed. She is the only one who refuses to dress up — or in this case down — as something she is not. Ahashverosh has risen to royal power, but he is not royal material. He is a foolish, pompous lush dressed in royal robes. He is also terrified of being challenged or used – and that is exactly what happens anyway.
Esther and Mordecai are closet Jews. Each is fearful of the consequences of being found out. Mordecai warns Esther not to reveal her identity. The people perceive Esther as a lovely Persian woman who has become a Persian queen. Mordecai is a statesman who is known in the king’s court. He does not flaunt his Jewish identity.
Haman is the scoundrel who, like Esther, is in the right place at the right time. Like the king, he rises to power without any merit. His secrets are his bloated ego and his hunger for royal power. Haman conceals all this from the king, including his irrational hatred of Mordecai.
The turn in the plot occurs when Mordecai is forced to choose between his inner and outer identities. Is he a Jew or a Persian noble? If he refuses to bow down to Haman, he will almost certainly lose his status among the Persian elite. If he bows, be understands that he will lose his inner Jewish self. In this moment of reckoning, Mordecai recognizes himself as a Jew and refuses to bow. The story isn’t clear as to how Mordecai’s secret if found out. Someone tells someone who tells Haman that this rude fellow is a Jew, and Haman begins his plot to avenge himself of Mordecai and his people.
Unmasked, Mordecai realizes that he must turn his secret inside out. He must now bear witness to the inner truths. He sits at the gate of the palace in sackcloth – congruence between the man and his clothes, a boldly public expression of an internal state of affairs. Mordecai’s naked protest sets in motion the unmasking of Esther, then of Haman, and finally of Ahashverosh.
What does all this drama between revealed and concealed selves say to us? Of course, the Book of Esther could be read as a midrash on Jewish life in the diaspora. How we play hide and seek, how we reveal and conceal ourselves as Jews, is a diaspora story.
But there is also a more personal journey described. In many ways, we are all Marranos, hiding behind our various masks and robes. What can we glean from Esther to help us manage the interplay between our inner and outer lives? Can Mordecai teach us something about the search for wholeness? Al the end of the story, all the inner truths come to light. As the story unfolds, there seems to be a redemptive quality in self-expression. When all is revealed, Esther becomes a powerful queen and Mordecai becomes the king ‘s most trusted counselor. Even Ahashverosh seems to achieve a more royal demeanor. Each of these full identities was achieved by reconciling the inner and outer persons.
The story is also about the need to protect a life apart from the public eye. As Esther enters the king’s palace, Mordecai warns her not to reveal her identity. Later be commands her to do so. It seems that there is a right and a wrong time to reveal the self. Perhaps the story is about the dynamics of identity that cannot escape a tension between expression and inhibition. We are who we are not only by our self-revelations, but by our careful nurturing of a private world.
As well, not all inner lives are equal. Haman uses disguise for singularly destructive ends and is ultimately destroyed by his inner self. Haman falls on Esther’s couch, revealing more than an urge for power. Mordecai is revealed by his principles, Haman by his libido. At the perfect moment, Esther reveals herself as a Jew and saves the Jewish people. Though the war between the inner and outer worlds is over, there is no clear victory of one self over another. Instead there is a new and diverse wholeness, an integration of mask and man.
The rabbis describe the God of the Book of Esther as a hidden God, a playful God who dances in between the revealed and the hidden, patient and waiting for the right moment to burst forth. So we, too, find our journey in both inward and outward movements. Often we work behind the scenes nurturing a life apart, a sense of privacy and clarity. And when the moments come to stand for one’s inner truths, for principles, or for one’s people, then we must turn inside out and witness, loud and proud and sure.
This essay originated on the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and is reprinted with permission.
A year ago The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner, a story of a young boy named Nate struggling with his Purim costume, hit the shelves. The book, the winner of a Keshet book-writing contest, represents a first in Jewish children’s literature—an inclusive story with LGBT characters. This year, the book was added to PJ Library’s collection—for individuals who opted in.
Reactions to PJ Library’s decision to offer the book only when requested have been mixed. Some people have heralded the decision as a step towards inclusion. And some people are applauding the effort, but are wondering why the book isn’t available to everyone.
When PJ Library conveyed the news of the limited run on their Facebook page, it was shared over 440 times. Within less than 36 hours, the book sold out. We’ve gathered some of the reactions we’ve seen—on Facebook, over email, and from conversations—to share (unedited) with you.
Jan Oosting Kaminsky: I am so happy to hear that there are many enthusiastic people who are ready to order this book, and we purchased several copies last year when it was first released and distributed them because it is such a sweet book! However, I have to say that I am disappointed that PJ thought this book so controversial that it had to be distributed through a separate link! Honestly, is it so shocking to have a loving family with two fathers who care for their children that this had to be sent separately?? In no way does this book talk about LGBT issues – it simply shows a family with two fathers. I have received our PJ Library books for many years gratefully, but this was the wrong decision, PJ Library. Making this book a special order degrades our families, makes us feel shameful, second-class, all of the things that hurt LGBT families so much every day in the Jewish community and beyond. I appreciate your perspective, but the fact is every other book that we received from PJ has an opposite-sex-parented family in it. I am happy that this book is being publicized, but very sorry that it was not distributed widely and in the same manner as every other PJ Library book. It hurts.
Bari Greenfield Gilbert: Thank you! Very much look forward to getting it! My children have Jewish friends with two Dads and it is amazing that this book exists and that you are offering it. Children who see these different family makeups make for less ignorance – more tolerance – and, hopefully, less hate in this world! Thanks again! I hope everyone takes advantage of this opportunity for their children – and for themselves!
Lisa S Greene: PJ Library: We love your books. And would love it if you would add The Purim Superhero to the regularly distributed books going forward. It is warm and wonderful and supports the individualism of the protagonist.
Wendy Barnet: So pleased that so many people want this book. As a retired Jewish educator, I am so proud of Kar-Ben Publishing and PJ Library for taking a risk by offering, The Purim Superhero. All Jewish children should see themselves in our Jewish literature and our temple libraries.
Lisa Rabinowitz: Thanks! So happy you made this decision. It would have been even better if you just sent it as your monthly offering without having to order it.
Emily Mathis: Thanks for making The Purim Superhero available as an extra offering — I hope you will include it in your regular offerings, just as you’ve done with an orthodox book we received. You have an amazing sphere of influence, and I hope you will use it to the extent you can.
Carrie Bornstein: Thanks for the extra gift of a Purim story featuring two dads, PJ Library! Perhaps you’d like to send it to all of your families? After all, some of the books you send me don’t reflect my practice either, like the family who comes home on Rosh Hashanah day to bake challah and cook their meal. Thanks for sending that one anyway – it invites me to offer a lesson in diversity when I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to order it online.
Naomi Sunshine: My two daughters have been receiving PJ Library books since they were babies, and I am very grateful to you for the monthly gift, which has helped me teach them about Jewish holidays, traditions and values.
I wanted to share with you my disappointment that you’ve chosen not to send the book The Purim Superhero to all your members, but only to families who specifically request it. I know you put a lot of thought into this decision, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to share my thoughts with you.
As a proud Jewish mother and a proud lesbian, I aim to surround my children with a rich Jewish life. But I have to be honest with you. When I read things like your blog post “In Search of Perfect Gifts,” coupled with your decision not to make this book available the same way you do so many others, it hurts. And it makes me wonder whether the Jewish community you are creating really wants me as a member.
The message that you send to families like mine (and there are lots of Jewish LGBT people and families) is that we are second class. That families like ours should only be read about by children whose parents go to the great lengths of finding out that you are offering the book and then ordering it. That our lives are so marginal that you could not possibly send a book that features a family like ours to everybody, because further marginalizing LGBT families is a lesser evil than offending homophobes.
Now that you’ve heard the word on the street…. What are your thoughts about The Purim Superhero and the PJ Library’s decision to offer the book to families who request it?
Get a copy of The Purim Superhero, the first Jewish children’s book with LGBT characters, in time for Purim. And, if you are a family participating in the PJ Library program, be sure to request your copy of The Purim Superhero by March 13, 2014!
One year ago this month, the world got its first look at you. The truth is, though, I’d had some version of you in my head for over a decade before that: I’d wanted to write about a kid with a Purim costume dilemma ever since my days as a Jewish day school librarian, looking for holiday books to read aloud in class. Then, when Keshet announced its picture book contest in 2011, you came a little more clearly into focus: you’d be a kid with same-sex parents, whose struggle to be true to yourself at Purim echoed your dads’ experiences as gay men. Your personality really crystallized one day when my friend’s son, bored at being dragged along to his mom’s writing date, started tossing ideas at me, and some of his unique imagination (and his interest in aliens) was infused into you. And, of course, I didn’t know what you looked like until I saw Mike Byrne’s adorable illustrations for the manuscript.
Over the past year, I’ve been honored to hear from GLBT parents, and other nontraditional families, that you’ve provided a way for them to see their family life affirmed in the pages of a book, and from many “traditional” parents that your story has given them a chance to see the diversity of their neighborhoods or congregations reflected in a Jewish book they can share with their kids. You’ve been part of the celebrations at birthdays, baby showers, at least one wedding, and, of course, at Purim festivals all over North America. You’ve even inspired some Halloween costumes!
I’ve been heartened by the warm welcome you’ve experienced in the Jewish online and print world, and by the support I—and you—have had from other writers at venues like the Jewish Book Council event I attended last June, or the LimmudVancouver conference where I presented just last week. I’m grateful that you came into the world at a cultural moment when you can be recognized and celebrated for all of your identity—as a Jewish kid, as a kid in a same-sex-parent family, and as a boy who finds a way to honor the unique interests that make his heart sing, even while he wants to be part of his group of friends.
It’s that last part that I’ve seen resonate the most strongly with kids, especially kids around your age. Over and over, at school visits and author readings, they’ve wanted to talk about how you feel pressured to dress as a superhero like the other boys in your class, and how hard it can be to be different from your friends, and how important it is to find a way to be yourself anyway. Your story certainly isn’t the first time that theme has been sounded in a children’s book, but you’ve helped bring it to life for a lot of kids—whatever their religion or family structure.
So, happy birthday, Nate—and chag Purim sameach! I’ve been thrilled to share this first year with you, and I’m excited to see where your future will take you. You are a super friend to many, and I hope you’ll continue to fly high.
Tu B’Av is a little-known Jewish holiday, coming just six days after the mournful commemoration of tragedy during Tisha B’Av. In ancient times, Tu B’Av was a joyous matchmaking holiday for unmarried young women; in our day, it’s observed as a more general day of love. In the spirit of this holiday, we present you with snapshots of three well-known, real-life, queer and Jewish love stories.
Tony Kushner is a playwright and author, best known for his epic play Angels in America, while Mark Harris is an author and editor whose focus has been Hollywood and cinema. So it is perhaps not that surprising that the two reported that their first dates, way back in the late ‘90s, took place “in theaters of bookstores.” In 2003, this couple had the distinction of being the first same-sex commitment ceremony to be featured in an extended column in the Vows section of wedding announcements of The New York Times. (The very first same-sex couple to be featured in The New York Times wedding announcements was another Jewish couple, Steven Goldstein and his partner Daniel Gross, on Sunday, September 1, 2002. Their wedding website www.Celebrating10.com is still up and features the original announcement. Thanks Steve for sending us this!)
They sometimes speak or present together under the title “Too Tall Blondes,” and for Kate Bornstein, author, playwright, and gender theorist, and her partner Barbara Carrellas, author, sex educator, and university lecturer, it seems a fitting title. This couple resides in New York City (with a house full of pets), but between teaching, presenting workshops, writing, and appearing in online classes, their combined reach is huge. (You can read more about Kate, one of our LGBT Jewish Heroes, here!
A Jewish power couple if ever there were one: Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, have only been romantically linked since December 2012, but they’re already a familiar site together at public events throughout New York, as well as in the Jewish press. Rabbi Kleinbaum is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, one of the oldest LGBT synagogues.
How Jewish is the Hebrew Calendar? When we use a Hebrew word to identify a period of time, we may believe that we are making a more authentically Jewish choice. However, like so many words and concepts in ancient Judaism, the name “Tammuz” typifies the syncretic past of our people, fused together from various traditions.
We learn in the Book of Ezekiel:
“And God brought me to the entrance at the Gate of the House of the Lord which was at the north; and there were there women sitting, bewailing the Tammuz.” (8:14)
Why were the women bewailing “the Tammuz”? They were weeping, at least in part, because “the Tammuz” is not only a Hebrew month, but also the name of a pagan deity revered by some Jews in Babylon. The Jewish people had once again gone astray, and would pay dearly for their spiritual infidelities. In Nissan, we celebrated our liberation with Passover, and now in Tammuz we come to understand the risks inherent in the freedom to choose.
We in the Jewish community just spent forty-nine days counting the Omer, the period from liberation to revelation, from leaving slavery in Egypt to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. We marked the passage of time, each day, remembering, recalling, and reflecting. We arrive at Shavuot, and prepare to receive the gift of Torah, our story, our memory, our history, our guiding law.
The journey of the Israelites and the counting of the Jewish people have striking parallels to the work for marriage equality in Minnesota. The Israelites wandered for forty years, we are taught, after leaving slavery. Forty years is a long time of waiting, of watching, of wondering. They left Egypt full of hope and promise, but that youthful optimism quickly faded, and those who left slavery did not live to see the Promised Land. Continue reading
Part of the observance of Shavuot, the traditional spring harvest holiday, is the celebration of the bikkurim, the first fruits of the year. In this post, Becky Silverstein honors those “first fruits” of the LGBT movement who have made so much progress possible.
The journey from Passover to Shavout is seven weeks. Counting each night, we count the steps towards revelation and still, suddenly, the time for receiving Torah is here! As I prepare for my own experience of revelation this year, here is what I expect to see at Sinai: I expect to see millions of Jews standing together. I expect to see cultural Jews standing next to Orthodox Jews standing next to our non-Jewish family members and friends. I expect to see families, of all different configurations, huddled together under one tallit or around a picnic blanket. I expect to see cisgender Jews and transgender Jews, Jews with matrilineal lineage and Jews by choice. I expect to see millions of people staring at the heavens, watching the thunder and lightning. Continue reading
According to Jewish Law it is the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). It is recorded that this practice serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi Akiva who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.” (Yevamot 62b) Continue reading
[Below is the full text of the insert. You can also download a pdf version to bring to your seder table.]
Every year, Jews gather at seder tables around the world to remember, retell, and reconnect with the story of our collective redemption. Passover compels us to ask ourselves how we are moving out of Mitzrayim, the narrow straits of oppression and brokenness that still mar our world, and toward liberation in our lives today. As mothers, fathers, parents, and family members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Jews, we are inspired by our tradition’s story to strive for LGBTQ recognition, freedom, and acceptance.
Allies can have a powerful voice in that struggle, supporting LGBTQ people in their coming out process and helping others to understand the importance of justice, fairness, acceptance, and mutual respect for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The role of allies is critical to the work of creating a Jewish community that is inclusive, safe, and supports all Jewish children, teens, and adults to be fully themselves.
At Passover, it is the family’s responsibility to retell the story, to inspire each new generation to accept the task of living out our values, of remembering that we were once strangers, and therein find an obligation to those on the margins of our own societies. As gay and straight parents and family members of LGBTQ children, we invite you to join us in considering our role in assuring LGBTQ liberation for generations to come.
The connection between the Passover story and LGBTQ liberation is easy. Too easy. A group of people suffer under oppressors for hundreds of years and, thanks to a charismatic leader and a little perseverance, they are delivered amid clap and thunder, free at last to live their own lives. And indeed the Passover story has served as a prototype for liberation narratives for ages, not just in an LGBTQ context. It’s a story of underdog triumph that we Americans love. Our culture has embraced this Biblical tale with an almost unprecedented tenacity, and Americans who haven’t the slightest clue what the “books of Moses” are can at least summarize the book of Exodus for you. And can anyone read the line, “Let my people go!” without hearing Paul Robeson’s rumbling baritone?
But we’ve got the story all wrong. I’ve been saying this for years, poo-pooing people’s feel-good glow of freedom during this season, but no one wants to listen to a curmudgeon during Pesach.