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?
I’ve always believed quite firmly that what is on our kids’ bookshelves, and what we, parents and children together, share at bedtime, makes them who they are. I was particularly excited to hear about the publication of a new children’s book, The Purim Superhero. This story of a little boy, and the Purim-costume dilemma he faces, along with the help of his fathers, feels like the children’s book I’ve been searching for a long time.
Books have fundamental power for our kids. Story time is a way to compellingly deliver the values we wish to instill in them. Books come alive, ideas flooding into minds, fueling connections and other ideas, feelings and sense memories. Expand the power of these books with the participation of a parent and children’s literature knows no bounds. And so I seek books that reflect and reinforce the reality and true diversity of my kids’ world, which we can share together. So, as I’ve written about in columns and blogs before, it’s always been important to me to have plenty of books about Jewish families and experiences. Then within that, we need winter scenes that involve palm trees and beach rather than snow, because, like other Jewish kids here in Florida, my kids don’t know from a white Chanukah and they do tashlich barefoot on the beach. Continue reading
Anyone who has ever been to a proper Purim celebration knows that a good Purim party could never be a drag, but for much of Jewish history, it was the only holiday when Jews could do drag. Though cross-dressing was generally forbidden by the rabbis and scholars of our traditional sources, they made an exception for Purim. (If checking traditional sources is your thing, you can find more on this in the Shulchan Arukh.)
To celebrate Purim this year, we bring you two very different Purim-themed, drag-related stories.
The first is a retelling of the Purim story… by some very funny drag queens. The Purim story as you’ve never heard it before!
Check out part one here:
And part two here:
Plus, check out “High Healing: A Purim Message,” a 2006 send-up dvar torah by the Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, the drag persona of Amichai Lau-Lavie. The piece originally ran as a part of the Torah Queeries collection. The Rebbetzin was writing about the Conservative movement before the decision to ordain out gay and lesbian rabbis, and her writing delivers the promised “kick in the tuchis!” Continue reading
The world’s first LGBT inclusive Jewish children’s book in English has arrived!
Published by Kar-Ben Publishing, an award-winning publisher of Jewish children’s books, The Purim Superhero is the sweet story of a boy named Nate who has a Purim dilemma: he loves aliens and really wants to wear an alien costume for Purim, but his friends are all dressing as superheroes, and he wants to fit in. With the help of his two dads, he makes a surprising decision.
Elisabeth will be reading from her brand new book on February 3 in Berkeley at one of our book release parties. If you’re interested in holding a book release party for The Purim Superhero in your area, Keshet can help! You’ll find a Do It Yourself Guide and other resources here. Plus, you can buy your copy of The Purim Superhero online from Keshet or Kar-Ben (e-versions too!) today!
The Purim Superhero parties are happening across the country (parties will be added to the Keshet website as they are scheduled):