Say “Purim” to me and a scrapbook of memories opens in my mind. I can recall the satiny feel of my Queen Esther gown, the stickiness of the lipstick and the sweetness of the traditional prune hamantashen. And then there’s me and my little sister lined up for the costume parade at Sunday school with all the other pint-sized Mordechais, Esthers and Hamans. In the Purims of my childhood, nothing ever changed. Every year we were Esthers, every year we got to wear some of Mom’s lipstick, every year we got a whole hamantash from the kosher bakery all to ourselves. And every year at the carnival, after one of us would manage to hit Haman’s hat with the wiffle ball, we were rewarded with a tiny goldfish in a bowl—a fish that, despite its initial friskiness and all the tender loving care 6- and 7-year-olds could muster, had a life expectancy that rarely surpassed a few hours. That familiar formula—hamantashen, costume parade and carnival—was Purim as far as we were concerned. As it was when I fast-forward the memory machine to myself as a young mom painting a beard on the chin of my own little Mordechai and lipsticked smiles on his two queen-for-a-day sisters. Only by now it fell to me to bake the hamantashen (peanut butter replacing the prune), survive the cacophony of the carnival without resorting to aspirin and, after the kids were safely in bed, flush the poor dead goldfish down the toilet.
Each Purim was in fact a carbon copy of the one before it, the only change would be how quickly the kids were growing and which parental bathrobe they used for their costume. That is, until as a newly-minted BT— baalas teshuvah— I experienced a Purim that had very little in common with the holiday I knew, or to be more precise, the one I thought I knew. Maybe the first time I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore was witnessing a thoroughly drunk rabbi, a man who’s normally the soul of dignity, tearfully throwing his arms around an equally plastered congregant and telling him what a wonderful person he is (“deep down!”) and how much G-d loves him. Maybe it was the first time I sat down and actually read Megillas Esther (instead of just waiting around to hear Haman’s name so we could let loose with the grogger). Or maybe it was when it dawned on me that Purim is not a silly holiday for children but a deadly serious invitation to adults to unmask ourselves and see who we really are. With or without the aid of whiskey. But this can be scary, since there is something somewhat sinister about the fact that you can’t see the real people behind their masks, their makeup and costumes. A powerful reminder of how much we all hide 364 days a year behind our own invisible masks, something that on this one day we freely admit to. And G-d–willing we gather the courage (refill anyone?) to move beyond. Yes it can be scary to drop our masks but it gifts us with an authenticity that, if done right, can change us forever and for good. What fascinated me as a new BT is how hidden Hashem was at this time in our people’s journey through time and space. To begin to understand that this story of our narrow escape from destruction is as much the unmasking of a G-d who is hidden not only from Esther and Mordechai—but from us as their children—by veils as thin and gossamer as Esther’s own.
So when we push past our own fears (another refill?) to enter a place where we are wholly/holy truthful to ourselves, to others and, yes, to Hashem, when we pry off our masks and hold up the mirror and see ourselves as we are, we are also given to see how present He is in our lives. When we accept its challenge to us, the 14th of Adar is that mirror. What also intrigued me was the transformation of Esther herself. She may have begun her journey as a nice Jewish girl who’d landed herself in a tough bind, but Esther’s courage had something to teach me that year. We can only imagine her life. Surrounded by the whispered intrigue of the palace, the poisonous jealousies of the king’s other wives hoping, with an ear to the door, to overhear incriminating evidence against this young girl who’d won his affection. There was no one for her to trust with her the secret of her true identity. And then Mordechai spoke those pivotal words: The Jewish people will be saved, he told her. Her only decision is whether she would step up to be a part of that salvation. What young girl in such treacherous surroundings would have had the chutzpah? But Esther did. And, once she made up her mind, she did not have to be told what to do. “Go gather all the Jews,” she instructed Mordechai. “Tell them to fast for me for three days …(no small request). And my maidens and I will do the same. And so will I go into the king which is not according to the law. And if I perish, I perish.” Imagine how terrified she must have been when she approached the king.
No food or drink had passed her lips for three full days—was she too weak to even notice if he raised or lowered his scepter? But in those few days something had changed in her: Regardless of what others thought, from behind the mask the real Esther had emerged, the woman she needed to be to play the role she was born for, to save her people from imminent destruction. On my first Purim as a baalas teshuvah Esther gave me the strength I needed to emerge from behind the mask I’d worn for a half century and become the person I was born to be, regardless of what others thought. That year, decked in a feathery purple hat, I raced over to shul in record time, since I’d learned that you have to hear every single word of this powerful story of salvation and courage. I got there just in time to hear “Vayehi biymei Achashveirosh.” Catching my breath, I was glad to see some things had not changed: Like generations of children before them, like my sisters and me and my children too, these pint-sized Esthers and Mordechais greeted every mention of Haman’s name with ear-splitting groggering. And, if some of the grownups were acting a bit silly too and somehow… different from usual, well the kids didn’t seem to mind.