Gay Jews Connect Their Experience To Story of Purim

February 24, 2007

By Nicole Neroulias

The Washington Post

As a child, Idit Klein celebrated Purim by wearing homemade gowns and tiaras to play the beautiful Queen Esther. She fantasized about how she, like the heroine who bravely confessed her faith to save her fellow Jews in ancient Persia, could have somehow rescued her relatives from the Holocaust.

Thirty years later, Klein, the director of Keshet, a Boston-based advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews, likens Esther’s fearful revelation of her religious faith to the experience of coming out of the closet.

“Purim is really a quintessential coming-out story,”said Klein, now 34. “When I came out, I immediately felt the parallels between the experience and the Esther story. There are wonderful and exciting and obvious parallels to the experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.”

The raucous costume parties associated with Purim (which begins at sundown March 3 this year) commemorate the 2,500-year-old triumph of the Jews over Haman, the prime minister who had ordered them killed. Salvation came only after Esther told the love struck king that she also was Jewish.

Many gay Jews see the story as an allegory for coming out sexually as well as spiritually. Some, including Klein, would like to see Purim become “National Jewish Coming Out Day.”

Purim celebrations, during which even traditional Jews embrace cross-dressing and debauchery, serve as unofficial gay pride events, said Scott Gansl, past president of the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews.

“Purim is gay Jewish Halloween,” he said. “Everyone has put on a drag Purim festival, including most straight organizations. It’s a very gender-bending holiday.”

If Purim became widely known as National Jewish Coming Out Day, Gansl said, more synagogues might take the opportunity to welcome gay members, both out and closeted.

Another fan of the idea is Abe Rybeck, co-creator of “Pure PolyEsther,” a burlesque show last performed by The Theater Offensive at the Boston Center for the Arts in 1999; it’s tentatively scheduled for a revival in 2009. In the production, Esther’s guardians are a gay couple, and her defiant predecessor, Vashti, is a very different kind of queen–think drag queen.

Rybeck said he wrote the musical as a way to humorously create dialogue about the importance of being true to yourself, whether that means being openly Jewish, openly gay or both.

“Me coming out as queer, as gay, part of the power of being able to do that comes from the Book of Esther,” he said. “It really helps people understand oppression and what it looks like to fight for liberation…from the threat of death or slavery or the closet.”

Although Orthodox Judaism remains opposed to all aspects of homosexuality, the other Jewish movements have made great strides in gay rights in the last decade, Gansl said. Gay rabbis and same-sex marriage ceremonies are permitted in the Reconstructionist and Reform movements, and recently in some segments of the Conservative movement.

As acceptance becomes more widespread and their congregations become more diverse, some historically gay synagogues have begun focusing on other aspects of Purim, beyond the “coming out” interpretation.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Los Angeles’ Beth Chayim Chadashim, which calls itself the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue, said her congregation has no need for a National Jewish Coming Out Day. The 35-year-old community holds religious “coming outservices”throughout the year, she said, as commonly as bar and bat mitzvahs.

Instead, the synagogue will mark Purim this year as a day to embrace various cultures. The Megillah — the Scroll of Esther — will be read in different languages, and a Ugandan musician will teach Jewish songs from his country.

“In past years, there’s been more focus on dressing in drag and things like that,but that’s kind of less the official focus now,” Edwards said.“Now, it’s the ethnic diversity piece, embracing all of who we are.”