Next week our community celebrates Purim! Sometimes Purim is categorized as a “kid” holiday, with a simple story of “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” But, in the words of the great ogre philosopher Shrek, Purim is like onions. They both have layers. Purim is also an opportunity to delve into themes of speaking truth to power; of having to conceal your identity; of gender norms; prejudice, revenge, and more. It’s a time to turn things upside-down and to try on different aspects of ourselves.
Dressing up in costumes is a Purim tradition that dates back to perhaps the 13th century. In addition to just being fun, it’s also a way to embody Purim’s tropes of what is hidden and revealed. In choosing our costumes, we need to make sure that we are acting in line with our values and avoiding accidentally hurting other people. One way that Purim costumes can cause pain is when they reflect racial stereotypes or appropriate other communities’ cultures, even unintentionally.
In a candid round-table conversation a few years ago for Tablet Magazine, Rabbi Shais Rishon, who uses the handle “MaNishtana,” assembled a group of Jewish leaders who are themselves Jews of Color to reflect on their experiences around Purim. Aliza Hausman, a Modern Orthodox woman from the Dominican Republic, said, “I don’t dread the holiday itself as much as I dread interactions with white Jews who I have to give serious side-eye or make comments to because they are actively participating in cultural appropriation because they think it’s amusing or appreciative. I really dread being on Jewish social media groups just before Purim because I know that I will see a barrage of comments from people wanting to wear our cultures as costumes with no thought to the Jews in the groups who represent those cultures daily.” (read the rest of the article here)
How should this awareness guide our choices here at Yavneh? How do we help our kids make decisions that demand a level of nuance that may be beyond them? Here are some simple tips that have helped Yavneh families for many years:
- Choose a character, not a culture, as a costume. So don’t dress as a generic “Native American,” but it could be appropriate to dress as a specific historical or literary figure you admire.
- If you are dressing as someone of a different background than yourself—you are fair and blond and you’re dressing as a Torah hero–do not darken your skin or alter your other features.
- If you’re not sure, don’t look for ways to justify a questionable choice. There are thousands of non-problematic costumes, from animals to movie monsters to puns to group “concept” costumes.
- No weapons of any kind, please–not only guns but also swords, nunchucks, lightsabers, etc.
As we read in the Megillah: For the Jews there was light and happiness, joy and honor–so may it be for us!