Purim for Jews is a public riot, but in our family we celebrate Purim quietly. My brother Daniel can’t hear and our parents bought him a beautiful megillah so he could read it to himself. I volunteer to listen to his perfect tuneless reading, thrilled to skip the chaos in shul.
I try to stay home from work on Purim, but one year I was the lead lawyer in a litigation, and I had to be at our Manhattan offices by 9:00am on Purim morning. We brainstormed and decided my brother could read the megillah on the road between our Brooklyn home and my Manhattan office.
I dressed for work, davened, and watched for Daniel to come from shul. He arrived, we jumped into a black limousine, and Daniel unfurled the scroll to begin the story of Esther.
I get dizzy in cars, but not that morning. Holding the megillah in my hands, I thought only of black ink on white parchment. We meandered through the narrow streets of Sheepshead Bay through Ahasuerus’s party, and as he called for his wife Vashti to dance before him, we spun into Ocean Parkway, jugular of Flatbush, Babylon of the Diaspora. The road was clear, and we sailed through the execution of Vashti, the search for her successor, and Esther’s coronation. At a red light, Mordecai’s denunciation of the murderous stewards was recorded in the king’s archives.
Ocean Parkway merged with the Belt Parkway when Haman appeared, grinding his teeth over Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him. Traffic is always heavy there because many roads join, and perennial construction puts several lanes out of use. We were grateful for the time. Haman cooked up his evil plot, chose the day to annihilate the Jews, and made his case to the king. We moved at a snail’s pace, Mordecai tore his clothes, and Esther ordered her people to fast three days.
At the end of the Belt Parkway we had to make a choice: to enter Manhattan from the bridge or through the tunnel. The bridge is free but takes forever; the tunnel is fast and smooth and quiet, but dark. The driver turned to ask, and Daniel and I looked at each other. Would we make it in time if we took the bridge? Would we be able to continue in the dark?
We handed over the tunnel fee and entered a darkness strobing with orange lights. Our queen weighed her options and was convinced that Haman’s decree of death would condemn her too. Approaching Ahasuerus uninvited would be less dangerous than sitting still. Daniel kept his face close to the parchment through the pulsing light; we were feasting at Esther’s first party. By the time we reached daylight, Haman had built the gallows for Mordecai and the king was disturbed in his sleep.
Out of the tunnel, the limo made a parabolic turn toward the West Side Highway. The route is clogged with traffic lights but has a majestic view of New Jersey and the waterfront. As we lurched along the highway, the king was reminded of Mordecai’s loyalty in the matter of the treasonous stewards. Dressed in royal robes, Mordecai was led through the streets of Shushan by the man who had authored a death warrant against him and his people. Haman’s wife knew her mate was doomed. We passed the museum-battleship Intrepid, anchored at the pier on 46th Street.
My office was between 45th and 46th Streets on Sixth Avenue. To get there from the West Side Highway, we had to drive through Hell’s Kitchen, filled with elegant restaurants and catchy awnings. The drive is at walking pace when all the lights are against you, but once we turned onto 46th Street my stomach unknotted: the final stretch.
Passing Manhattanites brunching outside in early Spring, we launched into Esther’s second party, with the risky revelation she made to Ahasuerus of the decree against the Jews and her inclusion in it. The king was inflamed; Haman & Sons were hanged. We reached Times Square. The assault on the senses is extreme, with flashing lights, gigantic images of naked humans, steam floating from a hot cocoa ad, whole movies running atop buildings. We sped through the multimedia into the block that housed my office. Almost done.
Esther and Mordecai reversed Haman’s decree, and the Jews were given the green light to murder their murderous neighbors. A feast was declared for all generations, friends gave gifts to friends, and Mordecai wrote the story we held in our hands. Our driver found a spot outside my building for the brief last chapter. The king levied a tax, and Mordecai became the prime minister, spokesman for the peace of his people.
I rewound the scroll back to the days of Vashti, ready for next year. Our driver turned and grasped my brother’s hands between his.
“Purim sameah!” he said. “I am Jewish also, from Persia. We sing a different megillah tune. Thank you so much, I am so happy you sang it for me too.”
I stepped out, smoothed my skirt, and adjusted my thoughts. Ready for business.
If I ever had a rabbi, Ruth Calderon would be her. I only ever saw Calderon once, on Youtube, as she delivered her maiden speech to the Knesset. She knows Talmud, she’s got the right values, and she’s a mesmerizing sermonizer. The perfect rabbi sans rabbinic narcissism.
I was booked into the JOFA conference anyway because I was speaking on a panel, but when I heard Ruth was coming I resolved not to miss the plenary (my kids – bless them – delayed me at the last conference). My co-panelists queried why I belonged at JOFA. I don’t go to an Orthodox shul, my closest friends and family have exited observance, and I’m sometimes gabbai of my trad-egal minyan, Segulah.
My co-panelists were making me defend my attendance (as if anyone should need a defense for being a JOFA-nik!), and I responded: I am a gabbai at Segulah in a sheitel, I am the first woman to testify before Congress in that wig, I eat only apples and (bad) chocolate out of the house, and I don’t accept honors at the minyan at which I call others up to do so. You see, a (male) rabbi gave me an anti-partnership-minyan psak and I keep to it.
As a feminist spiritual seeker, JOFA seemed a place I might feel a bit at home.
Well, it was more than a bit. For Ruth Calderon, I stood twice – when she came up to the podium and when she went down. Her words were breathtaking and she has lost none of her modesty with all the adulation.
My mind spun with Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold’s description of the Shabbat babysitter who comes to watch her brood while she and her spouse both daven with the community. I thought back a generation to when I was both breadwinner and rebbetzin. I stayed home on Shabbat nursing my babies because there was no eruv and the babysitter was hired to cover for my actual job.
The vibe at the JOFA Conference was palpable, full of young people and their mothers and grandmothers. The young ones: we raised them but they raise us higher. They didn’t let us get away with last season’s false platitudes. They’re not out of the closet: they were never in it.
At lunch I invited a lone eater to join my daughter and me and she turned out to be a “mom in a sheitel in finance” like me; after meeting her I had another professional reunion I wished hadn’t taken twenty years to happen.
I wish the JOFA conference was longer and more often. Even if others question my credentials, I can proudly say “ich bin ein JOFA-nik!”