Monday, February 22, 2010

Purim and the Power of Unmasking

This Sunday is Purim which, just a week and a half after Mardi Gras this year, is our own masquerade holiday. We celebrate by donning disguises and drinking until identities blur ("until one doesn’t know Mordechai from Haman," goes the traditional injunction). It is the one day of the year where Jewish law officially countenances cross-dressing (suspending a prohibition that would, in my other life, put me out of business).

But I think at the core of this holiday is not the wearing of disguise, but the removal of it. It is a holiday about unmasking, about the dramatic reveal.

Unmasking happens repeatedly in the story of Purim. The Dor Hadash students helped me count some of the instances: conspirators are unmasked by Mordechai; Mordechai’s heroism is unmasked to Haman by Achashverosh; Haman’s evil plot is unmasked to Achashverosh by Esther. But, most famously, Esther – at just the right moment – unmasks herself.

It’s an interesting and odd story for us. We have other biblical stories involving disguise and mistaken identity: Jacob disguised as Esau, garnering his father's blessing; Joseph unrecognizable as an Egyptian overseer, engineering the reunification of his family. But this case is odd, perhaps because it feels so familiar to us. Esther is a precarious insider in a sort-of-assimilated sort-of-anti-Semitic Persian world. Like so many of us, she has a secular name – Esther, for the goddess Ishtar – and a Hebrew name – Hadassah. And like many of us, she can pass.

Esther is the bearer of a powerful secret of identity, a truth that can only be revealed once. She waits for the right moment; perhaps she is uncertain of what is the right moment. But in her people’s great need she finally plays her cards.

I recently had the pleasure of reading another book of Esther – the poet Esther Schor’s beautiful biography of Emma Lazarus. Born to a Sephardic family living in New England since before the American Revolution, Lazarus was as assimilated as a Jew was permitted to be in 19th Century moneyed society. She politely didn’t press her Judaism, and her Judaism was, in turn, politely overlooked. It wasn’t until outbreaks of anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic shook her comfortable world that she unmasked herself – writing poetry and essays on behalf of the Jewish people. And in doing so, she unwittingly drew to herself (and in some cases unmasked) a few of the Hamans of her time.

Her writing as a Jew changed her and changed the world. The Statue of Liberty was given to the US by France during Lazarus’s lifetime as a symbol of friendship and democracy. It was only her poem, The New Colossus, that transformed it into “the Mother of Exiles” – a symbol of refuge and hope to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This was a radical idea, a Jewish idea, reflecting Lazarus’s intense commitment to Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, and born of her peculiar vantage point as an outsider, an Israelite, a daughter of exiles.

So perhaps Purim is meant to remind us of our secret truths; the pieces of our blurred identities that don’t always shine through clearly. We are, after all, always masked in some way; who can possibly know all that we are? Perhaps, as midrash suggests, Esther's name is actually from the Hebrew hester, the hidden one. Each of us is hester. Each of us is hidden.

And that makes our truths all the more powerful. Like Esther, like Emma, we will have moments when we can choose to stay silent and masked, or we can unveil ourselves and speak out. In doing so, we have the chance to change the people and institutions around us. To change the world. This Purim, let us all take stock of the masks we wear, and ponder when the time might be right to remove them at last.

Photo: Queen Esther Comes Before Ahasuerus, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865;

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Difference, Disability and the Song of the Universe

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, February 2010]

How lucky for us to have spent this last weekend tuning our ears to Creation’s own songs of praise! Studying with Rabbi Shefa Gold, we chanted excerpts from Perek Shira – a mind-blowing piece of liturgy in which nearly 100 textual moments of praise, primarily taken from Psalms, are placed in the mouths of plants, animals and the natural phenomena of the planet. The effect was exhilarating and humbling. We are so accustomed to bypassing our own wide world when we offer words of praise! Instead, we conceive of ourselves as being in a private conversation with God. But Perek Shira cracks that unwarranted exclusivity open. Praise emanates from every living being, from every gust of wind, from every spiral galaxy and subatomic particle.

Perek Shira challenges us to imagine that every species and, by extension, every individual, has a song to offer. This is in fact a true challenge of imagination. We live our lives locked in our limited bodies and idiosyncratic minds. Our confinement within our familiar selves makes it hard to identify with others. How can we ever know what it is like to live in someone else’s body, someone else’s mind?

This month is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. It is an invitation to take note that all of us have different strengths and different limitations. Some of us have bodies that can’t keep pace with the activity of our minds or the desires of our hearts. Some of us have thoughts bursting like fireworks in our heads but which cannot find their way out of our mouths in the form of comprehensible speech. Some of our bodies pose staggering challenges for ourselves or for our loved ones. And still, our very existence is a song of praise to God, a Psalm to this Universe.

That is the lesson both of Jewish Disability Awareness Month and of Perek Shira. We share this Universe with each other. The peculiarities of our bodies and our minds might make us feel alien to one other. And yet, as the Rat, that most unlikely messenger, says in Perek Shira:

כל הנשמה תהלל יה
Kol han’shamah t’hallel Yah.
Every soul, every breath, is praise.

If you have ever attended our Celebrations program for children with special needs and their families (and if you haven’t, please join us), you would get it immediately. Our bodies are all different, some slightly, some quite. Our minds are all different too. But still, even so, when you open yourself up to the song of this Universe, every soul, every breath, is praise.

I am proud to be part of a community so full of difference and appreciation of difference. May our doors always be open to every soul. May we always ease each other’s burdens. And may we always hear each other’s songs.

Photo taken in West Marin County last summer.