Why I Like Purim as a Queer, Secular Jew

February 2, 2016

By Josh Goodman

Starting this Saturday at sundown is the Jewish holiday of Purim, a celebration of Persian Jews’ resilience in the face of an impending extermination. Growing up, I always enjoyed the holiday, which included costumes and hamentashen (triangular fruit-filled cookies), but I’ve come to form a deeper appreciation about it as a queer, secular Jewish adult. Here’s why:

It’s about coming out. As the story of Purim goes, the Persian prime minister, Haman, wants to hang all of the country’s Jews; the Persian Queen, Esther, is secretly Jewish, and after much contemplation, decides to tell the King of her identity and ask that he save the Jewish people, which he does. In revealing her Jewish identity to the King, Esther essentially comes out. Being queer and being Jewish aren’t the same, but Esther’s courageous decision to reveal a part of her identity, despite the fact that it may not be well-received, is something many LGBTQ people can relate to.

It’s about standing up for oneself in the face of oppression. Esther not only states that she is Jewish, but also behests the King to spare the Jewish people. Her fight for her people is not all too to keep our rights limited. Passively hoping that rights come our way is less likely to be effective than actively making our case for why we deserve equal rights and fair treatment. (That said, some people do not feel safe or comfortable advocating for LGBTQ rights, and that is completely respectable, too.)

Notably, the Book of Esther, from which the story of Purim comes, is the only Jewish religious text in which the outcomes are solely attributed to human, rather than divine, interventions. Being culturally Jewish but not religious, I resonate with Purim’s humanistic theme, but regardless of one’s beliefs, the message that we as humans hold power to confront oppression is an important one.

It’s about bending gender norms. Purim is one of the only traditional Jewish stories in which the hero is a woman, and both the story itself and modern celebrations are ripe with gender non- normative behavior. An earlier queen before Esther, Vashti, refuses the King’s demand that she parade herself naked in front of his drunken friends, defying women’s then-customary obedience. Today, many Jews dress in costume for Purim, and a substantial number dress in drag, often as characters from the story of Purim. I even recall seeing my (female) rabbi dressed up as Mordechai, Esther’s uncle, one year.

All the other reasons. There are many great aspects of Purim outside of its parallels to LGBTQ experiences. I have fond childhood memories of making hamentashen, dressing up, and spinning groggers (noisemakers), per tradition, to blot out the name of the villain Haman whenever it was mentioned. My grown-up understanding of Purim’s queer and feminist themes merely adds to the joy.

As a bonus, thefirst LGBTQ-inclusive Jewish children’s book in English, released last month, is about Purim. In The Purim Superhero, a kid named Nate is unsure of whether to dress up for Purim as an alien, as he wishes, or a superhero, which all of his friends are dressing up as, and relies on the  support of his dads to guide him. It seems fitting that the first LGBTQ-inclusive Jewish kids’ book is about a holiday that is about being true tooneself.

To all the Jews reading, I wish a chag Purim sameach, or a Happy Purim. Whether gay or straight, transgender or cis, or anywhere in-between, it is a great occasion to be proud of who we are.