Last week, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, in a remarkable display of bad taste (to say the least), decided to put on an Afro wig and blackface in order to portray an African-American basketball player for Purim. In response, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, pointed out the hypocrisy of Hikind’s insensitivity given his career as an outspoken critic of both actual and alleged (at least to Hikind) anti-Semitism. Stewart followed his comments with this hysterical segment entitled “Crazy Stupid Dove–The War On Purim” (see video below).
This is not the first time The Daily Show has captured the humorous side of Jewish holidays. As J.J. Goldberg notes in his recent Forward blog, Stewart also introduced a laughing-out-loud funny segment about Passover last year called “Faith Off” in which he called on Jews to make Passover more enjoyable than Easter.
If you have ever attended, taught, or sent your children to a synagogue religious school, you know that teaching elementary school children the essentials of Judaism in 4-6 hours a week is extremely challenging. Given how little time there is to teach and how many other facets of contemporary American life religious schools have to compete with, we often turn to games, skits, and other ways to depict Judaism as fun and attractive. But in doing so, we sometimes revert to a simplistic, easy to digest version of Judaism without complication or obligation.
What is fascinating about The Daily Show’s Purim segment, though, is not how funny it is but how substantive it is. The segment thoroughly rebukes the transformation of Purim into a Jewish Halloween and the general trend towards fitting Jewish holidays into mainstream culture. Its message is actually the antithesis of his Passover piece, in which Stewart suggests coming up with cartoon characters and making video games to update our celebration of Passover. Through intelligent humor and sophistication, the Purim segment makes a compelling argument for rejecting the commercialization and assimilation of Jewish holidays. It is this translation, this targum, that we would do well to embrace. Most young Jews today are not interested in frontal, rote transmissions of tradition. Our religious school educators are correct that we need to approach today’s students through creative, interactive ways to reach the “multiple intelligences” of the Jewish public, to borrow from educational theory jargon. But what The Daily Show segment teaches us is that we don’t need to be reductionist to make tradition contemporary and accessible. The challenge for us, as Jewish educators and teachers of the next generation, is to pick up where The Daily Show leaves off.
This past weekend was Purim, a holiday full of laughter, parody and dress up. Fittingly, many Jewish groups release Purim videos and plays to tell the story of Purim in different fanciful ways.
One video stood out from the crowd this year, a video called “We Doin’ Purim” by a group called Bubala Please. The video, a parody, features Latino and African American Gangbangers from the LA ghetto rapping about Purim complete with four letter words, Yiddish sayings, and the objectification of women. On one level, the video is highly offensive. The F-bomb and the N-bomb are dropped several times, and there are very crude sexual references including a shot of “Esther” holding a large triangle shaped hummantashen over her (clothed) vagina.
But the discomfort the video elicits is not just because of these racial and sexual stereotypes which most liberal Americans will have a knee jerk negative reaction too. The video is discomforting because in some ways it gets at the dark underbelly of the Purim story. In most communities today, Purim is a “fun” holiday aimed mostly at children. They dress up, and for once get to misbehave in synagogue yelling out during services and dancing around. But if you look closely at the Purim story, it is not for children’s ears. This is a story about sex, violence, and the abuse of power. It opens with the King throwing a drunken orgy, moves on to his picking a girl out of his haram of virgins, and ends with the Jews rampaging and killing thousands of people. Telling the story through gangsta rap which embraces sex and violence is appropriate.
Then there are the power dynamics on display in both the Purim Story and this parody video. The story itself is the triumph of the lowly over the powerful. A commoner, Mordechi, and his niece, Esther, manage to over throw a powerful advisor to the King, and gain the king’s ear and political power. The underdog becomes powerful. Gangsta Rap, whether we like it or not, is a vehicle for the African American and Latino gang communities to show how the underdog has gained power though violence and domination of others. To have these rappers mixing in yidishisms and telling a Jewish story conveys this power to the Jewish community which historically is also seen as the underdog. Again the method of using Gangsta Rap to tell the Purim story of triumph of power makes sense.
I think the video is offensive, and smart, and funny all at the same time. For me the essence of Purim comes through. This video throws off our equilibrium – Gangbangers are rapping “Hommies Nashing Hummantashen – We Doin’ Purim!” What? Really?
Having been warned about its offensive content, watch the video if you choose, and make up your own mind, offensive or good fun?
A number of years ago, I was at a Purim party and a male friend attended wearing a dress, make up, and jewelry. Knowing how thoughtful he always was with regard to everything he did, I commented on how spectacular he looked, and what a great combination the look was on him… I knew that there was a story to hear. Why a story? Surely it was just Purim – the one day of the Jewish year that cross-dressing is permitted; perhaps even encouraged? All in good fun, right?
He looked me in the eye and said, ‘this holiday is a very important day in the year for me. It is the one day of the year when it is officially ok to wear clothes that make me feel most like me. Who I really am. Without it being a big deal. Without being ridiculed, or worrying about whether I’d be fired for wearing these clothes.’
I understood what he was saying. For some people, part of the fun of Purim is dressing up, and sometimes in the clothes most commonly associated with the opposite gender. And, in that context, we usually call that ‘cross dressing’, although ‘drag’ is probably the more accurate terminology for someone who is intentionally wearing the clothing associated with the opposite gender, but doing so in an over-the-top, performative kind of way. But that’s not how my friend was dressed. His clothing was not a covering over of identity for the entertainment of others, but a deeper and truer expression of inner identity – cross dressing as an expression of self.
Through my own experience, I’ve come to believe that some of our deepest spiritual insights come from within – from getting in touch with our deepest sense of self. Perhaps this is the only thing that we can legitimately label ‘true’ in this life. So what do we do when we find something within Jewish tradition that appears to be a God-given statement that is counter to our inner truth?
In Deuteronomy 22:5 it states: ‘A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment’. The rabbis of past generations made an exception for Purim as a festival when reality is intentionally turned on its head. Rashi, (c. 1040-1105 C.E.), explains the verse to apply to a specific context: “Kli gever, a man’s item should not be on a woman: That she should not appear as a man so she can go out among men, for this is only for the purpose of adultery.” Perhaps it was simply a lack of imagination that led to the conclusion that the only possible reason for a woman to try and infiltrate a group of men was to be able to conduct an affair with another man! We need only think of the story of Yentl to know that the desire to study as an equal with men is just one of so many more explanations we could consider.
But, more to the point, what both the Torah and later commentaries fail to recognize is the way that genuine gender expression, which can be independent of sexuality, may lead a person to truly desire to wear garments that are not traditionally associated with their gender in their particular cultural context. We may have socially constructed gender in binary terms, but we are learning from those who are living a different truth that it is more complex than that. And why would that be so wrong?
We cannot truly do justice to the question without pausing to reflect more deeply on cultural understandings of male and female. From the moment a child is born, one of our first questions is ‘boy or girl?’ In cases where the answer is not immediately evident, anxiety often follows and physicians have often made decisions based on outer physical signs to designate a child in one category or another. As we have come to slowly understand transgendered identities, we are learning that gender cannot be so easily defined in this way.
But the picture is more complex than that. We immediately color-code and dress-code children to conform to the gendered labels they have been given. A baby girl dressed in blue may cause confusion. What is also clear from the evolution of gendered codes of dress over time, at least in our Western culture, is that there is much more social acceptability and comfort with women wearing garments also worn by men than the other way around. So it is that women wearing pants are a common occurrence in this day and age, but a man choosing to wear a dress or a skirt is not regarded as normative in day-to-day activity. For many this causes anxiety and uncertainty. We don’t know how to ‘read’ them.
In this instance, I find the Biblical instruction wanting. If my friend finds his religious tradition to inhibit the deepest expression of his true identity, then I find it failing to do the job that religion, in its highest moments, can do by giving expression to our deepest sense of self as we uncover the image of God in which we were uniquely made.
And so, a proposal for a radical re-reading of the Purim tradition. Let us consider what it takes to truly have the courage of Esther and reveal our true selves. Let us express that essence of self in how we dress and present on this festival day. When we speak to our children, let them not feel pressure to conform and dress like all the other children – the girls in their princess outfits and the boys in their superhero costumes. If those are true expressions of who they wish to be at this moment in time, of course! But if we see signs that there is another expression that they yearn for, how powerful it could be to nurture and support that.
What costume would you wear to reveal a deep truth of your innermost essence, sense of self, and identity?
Purim is coming and the inhabitants of my house are giddy with anticipation. It has long been a favorite holiday in our family. We talk about costumes for weeks ahead of time. We take annual Purim pictures of the kids in their costumes. Marathon baking sessions ensure adequate supplies of hamantaschen for eating and sharing. And the kids take special pleasure in sending packages of hamantaschen and other goodies to friends and family, near and far. That’s before the actual holiday even arrives, bringing with it feasting, megillah reading, and shpielling.
Amid all the frivolity and hoopla that accompanies Purim, however, is a serious obligation; feeding the hungry.
The commandment to provide food for the poor finds its basis in the Purim story itself (Esther 9:22). The Gemara (Megillah 7a) offers the necessary guidelines; it states that one must distribute gifts to the poor. And not just to one person but to no fewer than two needy individuals. Such gifts can be in the form of money or actual foodstuffs. So important is this oft-overlooked obligation that the Rambam places a higher value on the act of caring for the poor than on any other aspect of the holiday.
It is better for a person to increase gifts to the poor than to increase his feast or the mishloach manot (gifts of food) to his neighbours. There is no joy greater or more rewarding than to gladden the heart of the poor, orphans, widows and strangers. For by gladdening the hearts of the downtrodden, we are following the example of the Divine.
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah 2:17)
Once upon a time, the organization formerly known as the Jewish Fund for Justice established a special fund to help women successfully overcome barriers to becoming economically self-sufficient. The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty distributed funds to agencies that worked with ow-income women, providing them with skills and assistance in order to help them improve their economic situations.
Because women are disproportionately at risk for falling below the poverty line. Across all racial lines.
- In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty.
- 13 percent of women over 75 years old are poor compared to 6 percent of men.
- The poverty gap between women and men widens significantly between ages 18 and 24—20.6 percent of women are poor at that age, compared to 14.0 percent of men.
The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty no longer exists. But there are many worthy organizations in every community that are working tirelessly to gladden the hearts of the most vulnerable in our society. Won’t you consider increasing the joy of Purim by assisting those in need as our Tradition demands of us?
Last week we celebrated the holiday of Purim in which we recall the survival of the Jewish people against the attempted genocide by Haman, the chief adviser to King Ahasuerus of Persia. Every year we rejoice on the holiday of Purim just a few short weeks prior to entering the season of Passover and I believe that this is not at all a coincidence.
The story of Purim is the story of a Jewish community that had forgotten who it was. It is the story of a highly acculturated and integrated community into the larger Persian society. A Jewish woman named Hadassah changes her name to the Persian Esther and marries the King and no one even comments on this intermarriage in the account offered in the Book of Esther. [However, there is much rabbinic conversation on this subject offered in the Talmud.]
It is within this backdrop that Esther’s uncle Mordechai resists the wholesale neglect of the particular in favor of the universal and takes a stand, which is decidedly not a bow, against the phenomenon. He is singled out by Haman in particular for punishment and the entire Jewish people broadly. In a society marked by expected cultural conformity, one cannot have any sub-group demonstrating their uniqueness, living a counter-cultural life, so the decree issued by the government under Haman is nothing less than total annihilation.
To save the Jewish people Mordechai guides Esther to see who she really is and to be true to herself and to her husband, the King. In so doing she raises her mask from upon her face and embraces her destiny. Esther becomes a symbol for all the Jews in the empire to also raise their respective masks, the societally and the self-imposed barriers to full Jewish expression, and through their collective action and their renewed pride, overcome the challenge set before them and survive.
The message of Purim is an essential one for the work of self-reflection that the time of Passover calls us to. Passover, as the foundational narrative of the Jewish people, is not only about our physical liberation from Egypt. It is not only about our miraculous rescue from the grip of oppression and the entering into the daylight of freedom from the nighttime of torment. Passover is about defining us as a people. It is about preparing us to be ready to stand at Mount Sinai only a short while later and receive the Book that would transform human civilization for all time.
To be able to experience a Passover in our lives and to be able to relive the account of the Exodus as our tradition commands of us (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5) we need to be able to lift the masks from our faces that work to hide us and to conceal us from ourselves and from others. The transition from Purim to Passover is about being ready to be capable of redemption. The first step in that redemptive process is reclaiming who we are – not who we act as or who we present ourselves as, but who we are at the deepest levels of our selves.
As a child, I looked forward to Purim each year. I spent weeks planning my costume and savored the excitement of the annual carnival and the entertaining megillah reading at my synagogue. Purim represented pure, unobstructed joy.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to experience the deeper meaning of Purim. Our rabbis teach that Purim (a day of exuberant, drunken celebration) and Yom Kippur (our holiest day of atonement) have much in common. In fact, the Tikunei Zohar, a section of Jewish mystical literature, makes a delightful pun using the names of these two holidays. Yom Kippur is often referred to in our liturgy as Yom HaKippurim (the Day of Atonements). Our rabbis adjust the phrase slightly to read Yom K’Purim, meaning “A day like Purim.”
On Yom Kippur, we strive to come to terms with the apparent chaos of our lives. When faced with the reality and complexity of the human condition, we turn to tefilah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteous acts of giving) as vehicles for making ourselves whole. We wear all white (a costume of sorts) and bang on our chests, fasting and engaging in deep personal reflection that will ideally leave us in an ecstatic place of restoration.
On Purim, we also strive to confront the chaos and complexities of human existence, and likewise we ecstatically celebrate our ability to transform these obstacles into entryways to a better tomorrow. We chant the scroll of Esther — the story of how our people came frighteningly close to being annihilated at the hands of Haman and his followers, but miraculously survived due to the brave conviction of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai. We remember how, through human courage and connection, our people were able to claim control over their destiny. And so, on Purim we celebrate the survival of the Jewish people with all of our kishkes — drinking, eating and acting silly.
On Yom Kippur, we do the internal work that is necessary to improve ourselves and our communities. Five months later, on Purim, we do the external work. On Purim, we are commanded to eat a festive meal. Each of us is obligated to take part in this celebratory gathering, rich and poor alike. We are also commanded to give matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor. During the remainder of the year, we give tzedakah, righteous charity. Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and legal scholar, teaches that the highest form of tzedakah is teaching a person a trade so she can help herself in the future. The second highest form of tzedakah is mutually anonymous giving.
Matanot la’evyonim — gifts to the poor — are neither proactive trade classes nor anonymous donations. Matanot la’evyonim come in the form of food or money that are meant to be used on Purim day for a feast. And matanot la’evyonim are given directly — into the palm of the hand. On Purim, we are forbidden from passing a poor person on the street without stopping, truly seeing him and sharing food. On Purim, we must see everybody in our midst, even those we may be in the habit of ignoring, and we must unite as a community.
Purim forces us to experience the wonder of a world, for one day, in which there is no 99 percent and no 1 percent, a world in which both the billionaires and the working class eat a celebratory meal. We remember that through our people’s ability to unite in the story of Esther, we were able to change the course of history. And so we imagine a time in the future when everybody will truly see each other without shame, and everybody will enjoy a beautiful meal, like we do on Purim, each and every day.
Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, conceals her Jewish identity when she marries the king. Her name includes the root letters of the word “hidden.” However, in order for Esther to do the transformative work of saving her people, she must reveal her Jewish identity. Our rabbis teach that when we dress up on Purim, we should pick a costume that not only disguises our immediate appearance, but also reveals an inner piece of us that we keep hidden during much of the year. With this intention, we use the act of covering to uncover, the act of disguising to reveal an inner essence.
And so we say that Yom Kippur is a day like Purim, and Purim is a day like Yom Kippur. Some Jews repent hard on Yom Kippur, and some Jews party hard on Purim. In truth, both holidays are essential. Our internal reflection on Yom Kippur and our external celebration on Purim both propel us past life’s moments of chaos and pain, and help us embrace our potential to reveal goodness and light.
Today saw the spreading of some enticing rumors regarding a soon-to-be-announced ordination program out of the newly-created Kabbalah Institute (KIRR – Kabbalah Institute for Reincarnated Rebbes). The program has already been running in pilot phase for 7 weeks, hence the rumors that the first ordination class is about to be announced.
When contacted for further details, KIRR would not divulge the full details of their program of study. However, it is believed to include sleeping with a volume of Zohar under your pillow for 40 nights, a daily mikvah, and the learning of a series of daily affirmations designed to align the sephirot within you. Rabbis ordained by KIRR will be qualified in the supervision, cutting, and wrapping of red string. They will be able to determine if string that has been worn for some time is still kosher or in need of replacement. All are expected to complete an Advanced course in Powerpoint, due to the centrality of glossy and impressive visuals that accompany the various curriculum they are trained to teach about where to find the secrets of life, the universe, and everything (Douglas Adams is a compulsory text for the first 7 days of the program).
But the biggest potential game-changer in this new rabbinic program lies in the promise that, when the first class of ordained KIRR Rabbis are revealed tonight, it will include their first woman. While the identity of this woman has not been confirmed, many are postulating that it no other than Madonna Ciccone. Evidence from her recent performance at the Superbowl points to this conclusion. A cleverly-orchestrated choreography, provided in partnership with Cirque de Soleil, has been analyzed using the most sophisticated Gematria and Torah code software on the market today, and was found to reveal the secret message, ‘I am a Rabbi Without Borders’. Asked for official comment at CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), Rebecca Sirbu, the Director of the Rabbis Without Borders program simply said, ‘Madonna is not currently one of our RWB Fellows, but we have just put out a call for applications for next year’s cohort (at http://www.rabbiswithoutborders.org).
Upon hearing the news, the Rabbinic Council of America (Orthodox), expressed outrage at the use of the title Rabbi for women ordained by KIRR. However, they were willing to tolerate the use of an alternative title, Baalat shum davar, (Mistress of absolutely nothing).
Those of us who fall under the general rubric of “believers” may feel a sense of God’s presence in our lives at most, if not every moment, and others may find God hidden or seemingly absent much of the time. This experience of God’s absence probably goes back to time eternal and the Bible records how our ancestors confronted it. Much has been written, and much will be written as people of deep faith continue to face this question.
One of the much discussed themes of Purim is this hiddenness of God in the Book of Esther. I will not attempt to add anything new to this theological concern, except to point out something that emerges from the mitzvot/practices of Purim.
After describing the mitzvot of Purim which include reading the Megillah, giving gifts to the poor, gifts of food one to another and have a festive meal, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Laws of Megillah 2:17) adds:
“It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15)”
Maimonides reminds us that while all the mitzvot of Purim are binding, gifts to the poor should be of greatest importance. What is striking is his use of the idea that to support the poor is an expression of imitating God. This is a theme expressed in a number of areas by Maimonides (see my previous post Hysteron Proteron for one example). While Jewish law has its specific applications in all areas, we who follow the law should also be a certain type of religious personality whose goal is to lead a life in imitation of the Divine. Thus when I come to Purim, I must observe all its practices. The serious religious personality who understands that they must be seeking to emulate God, will pursue supporting the poor to a greater extent than the other mitzvot.
While I have no illusion that Maimonides intended this, supporting the poor on Purim (and any other time as well) is a way of addressing the problem of God’s apparent absence. On Purim I “emulate the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones”. While God’s absence may and perhaps should bother us theologically, it in no way can hamper us morally and ethically. I must always act as if I am in God’s presence, seeking to emulate all that God does.