The author tells a personal story about Purim costumes and argues that the brilliance of Purim is that it understands how much of ourselves we hide, and that one way to reveal ourselves is to hide even further. The observance of Purim teaches us that masks often reveal more than they conceal and that the superficial is merely a means of exposing the profound.
By Maggid Jhos Singer
CN: This story includes references to alcohol and drinking.
The “Y’all Come Purim” in Berkeley, California
by Maggid Jhos Singer on Saturday March 03, 2007 14 Adar 5767
Exodus 17:8 – 17:16, Purim
I walked into a crowded and excited room full of revelers on Purim several years ago. It was a community-wide celebration and folks from every Jewish background were there—Reformistas, Chassidites, Conservadoxers, Orthostructionists, and a lot of strays. Everyone was dressed in elaborate costume. The energy was amped, the music blaring. The megillah had already been read, the majority of the kids had been trundled off to their homes and the good times were rolling.
There was a Lubavitch rebbe dressed as a rainbow clown, who was ladling out generous shots of Slivovitz to anyone who got within 5 feet of him. I tossed back the fireball brandy and sputtered out “L’chayim” and instantly felt my brain stem start to dissolve. The rebbe was pretty bombed himself, and after the Slivovitz had been depleted he started looking for something else to do. Ten minutes later I found him, up to his knees in schmutz in a large garbage bin, festively retrieving recyclable cans and bottles. I thought, “Now there is a REAL rebbe doing a REAL mitzvah!” and so I, dressed up as Debbie Friedman, joined him. Debbie and the rebbe, drunk as skunks, in the dumpster for the sake of tikkun olam.
After scraping squashed Hamentashen off of my Capezios, I wandered away with an alcohol-induced, stupid grin on my face. I headed back towards the packed dance floor. In my wobbly trek I rounded a corner at the top of a dimly lit staircase and there, standing in front of me, was a tall, sinister, specter—it wore a long dark cloak and a gas mask with springy breathing hoses dangling from it, large black lenses gave it a cruel insectoid appearance, and there was a dark hood topping its head. Its breathing was raspy and loud. It leaned into me and hideously gurgled, “Good Purim, Jhos” but I could have sworn it said, “Prepare to die Scumbag. . .” I must have been visibly shaken, because the mask lowered, and underneath was Daniel*, one of the gentlest and kindest men I have ever met. He was in his late 50’s at the time and is what I call a “Mattachine** kinda guy.” Earthy and elegantly homosexual, Daniel is quietly gay without being closeted. With a generous downy white beard and a full head of snowy hair, he looks a bit like Walt Whitman in about 1889. He is involved in things like yoga and meditation, social justice, and world peace. Even with his techno-terrorist mask removed it took me several minutes to comprehend who it was in front of me. I had been completely taken in by his costume, and so thoroughly filled with dread that it was hard to come back to reality enough to say, “Wow, Daniel! uh, sheesh, great costume, wow, yeah, good P-p-p-urim to you too… ” I slipped past him quickly, irrevocably sober. . .
A few years later I ran into Daniel at a café. We chatted and at some point in the conversation we got onto a subject on which we clearly had different views. We bounced our ideas back and forth in a friendly volley until Daniel said, “I don’t think so, Jhos” in a way that had a deeply buried edge. For a nanosecond, I saw a menacing anger somewhere in his eyes. Now, if I had never seen him in that horrifying Purim costume I doubt my radar would have detected the subtle rancor in his voice, but having once seen him in that guise, for better or worse the doors were open to know him more fully, to see parts of him that were normally well hidden.
Every Purim since I have thought about Rebbe L’chayim* and Daniel. The brilliance of Purim is that it understands how much of ourselves we hide and that one way to reveal ourselves is to hide even further. The observance of Purim teaches us that masks often reveal more than they conceal and that the superficial is merely a means of exposing the profound. As the Zohar says: “Woe to the human being who only reads the Torah literally if so we could have written a better book… the story of Torah is the garment of Torah. Whoever thinks that the garment is the real Torah…—may his spirit deflate!! Come and see: There is a garment visible to all. When those fools see someone in a good-looking garment they look no further. But the essence of the garment is the body, and the essence of the body is the soul.”***
All of us have developed a “Gameface” as a result of the lessons that we have learned and the damage that has been done to us, our families, the world. We establish our selves as survivors, successes, rebels, and victims. We live in the crossroads of our Pure Self⁄Neshama and our Identity⁄nefesh. Our “Gameface” evolves organically with each heartbreak, triumph, failure, and accomplishment. It emerges slowly and usually unconsciously. But on Purim we are given full permission to pick any face we want for one day—for 24 hours we can go anywhere, be anything. We get to deliberately, willfully, and knowingly craft a persona, a face, a mask. We are even directed to get intoxicated enough to find the chutzpah to show up as a fool or a monster, a hero or a villain. We can try out being who we wish we were, or what we’ve fantasized about, or who we fear we could be. There are no boundaries except those we impose on ourselves.
For one night we enter into a contrived world, a lawless and drunken and free society of holy fakers. The rabbi is a clown and the gentle-man is a fiend. All boundaries are porous. Definitions of male, female, human, beast, friend, foe, blessing, and curse lose their meaning. It can be dangerous and revealing. It is an invitation to have your mind altered, your reputation sullied, your image shattered. The goal is to get closer to God, Truth, and Authentic Self through bacchic conduct rather than through carefully designed ritual, prayer, or study. And it works—the truth will be exposed, but be forewarned: the truth is often messy.
Our task in this life is to manifest the truth no matter how messy. As culturally queer people it is no wonder that Jews came up with this day of inverted holiness, and sacred masquerading.
Queer folks in a dominant culture are constantly being masked as “other.” Regardless of what kind of life we are living, we are seen, at best, as different, strange, exotic, and at worst as abhorrent, strange, perverse. No matter what face we wear in the world once the word is out that we are Jewish, Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Trans, Muslim, or whatever the Cultural Cootie du jour might be, we are “masked” by our society’s stereotypes, attitudes, and biases. Some of us counter this by “passing,” some by wearing our queerness on our sleeves. If your life is steeped in rebellion, on Purim find the courage to swap out your lip ring for a class ring, show up clean-shaven in a suit and tie, or release your inner Martha Stewart. Those who wear mirror masks, whose lives look mainstream, let your freak flag fly, show up in full flaming drag, or festooned with tattoos. Whether we choose to parody ourselves, or the stereotype that dehumanizes us on Purim, we have the right—no, the obligation—to face our deepest fears, our greatest dreams, and our most heartfelt desires. Because somewhere between who we have learned to be, and who we don’t dare be, lies our authentic Self. So this Purim, take your “Gameface,” turn it sideways, play full out for 24 hours—change your game for a day. L’chayim!!!
**The Mattachine Foundation was organized in Los Angeles in 1950 by Harry Hay and seven other gay men. The group was named after the Mattachines, a medieval troupe of men who went from village to village advocating social justice. In 1951, the organization began sponsoring discussion groups to raise consciousness among gay men. For many, this was the first time in their lives they could share their feelings and experiences openly. In the early 1950’s, these discussion groups began to spread. In 1951, Mattachine adopted two major purposes: 1) It called for a grassroots effort to challenge anti-gay discrimination and 2) It called for building a positive homosexual community and culture. Besides raising consciousness through its discussions and publications, Mattachine began to legally challenge the entrapment of gay men by law enforcement officials and even began to poll political candidates on gay rights issues.
***Zohar 3:152a based on Daniel Matt’s translation in The Essential Kabbalah Harper, San Francisco 1995