The festival of Purim, which we celebrated two weeks ago, tells the story of hidden identities. For Phil, who is gender-queer, it was an opportunity to be themselves.
Jewish history is pretty peppered with periods of time when we had to hide our identities, or we’d suffer persecution. Our traditions nowadays reflect this, with many of our festivals commemorating our survival in the face of such adversity. We are now sandwiched between two such examples. Two weeks ago was Purim, when we read the Book of Esther, a tale set in Persia in the 4th Century BCE. In another two weeks it will be Pesach (Passover) when we retell the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
Both festivals share the common theme of survival in the face of adversity, but Pesach very much centres around freeing ourselves from centuries of hardship with the active help of God, whereas Purim talks about the sacrifice of one person to prevent the suffering of others. On Pesach we become who we are. On Purim we celebrate who we are. This shines through in the practices of today. On Pesach we are encouraged to ask questions, to challenge the ideas that came before us. On Purim we give presents, we have feasts, we get drunk. On Pesach, people wear regular clothes, or in some traditions will wear white robes like on Yom Kippur. On Purim, we wear dress up.
Except for me.
I am genderqueer and this Purim, I dressed up as myself. A blue button up Oxford shirt. A galaxy blue bowtie. Brown jeans. My regular attire, plus a lab coat to add a bit of fun and have a slight claim to be wearing a “mad scientist” costume.
Though I wear those clothes every day, there was special significance that day because this year I went to hear the Story of Esther being read at my parents’ United Synagogue shul. It’s a shul I know well, having spent most Saturdays there throughout my childhood. But, for the exception of a family dinner in October, I hadn’t set food in the building in years. I hadn’t been in any mechitza’d (gender segregated) space for a very long time.
Because, as a genderqueer individual, where do I sit? It’s the Orthodox equivalent of which toilet to use (another problem at this particular synagogue).
My feelings walking into the shul were not fear or anxiety, but awkward excitement. I loved Purim as a child – I was the one who got really crafty with my costumes and mishloach manot packaging. And the hamenaschen! What’s not to love? I would dress up as an angel, a hippy or more “boyish” costumes, but as I got older and social norms started to solidify, I stopped enjoying it as much. Skirts and dresses and all things pink became associated with something I wasn’t, and that led to me feeling uncomfortable and outside of the social norms.
One particular year, when I was around 13 or 14, I tried to dress up as something more like myself - a professional horse rider. I had the outfit - Jodhpurs, shirt, blazer, and a tie I borrowed from my dad. It was the first time I had ever been able to wear a tie and I very much enjoyed it. But what I didn’t enjoy was the questions and the presumption that the tie was my dad’s. Why couldn’t it have been mine? This all made me very uncomfortable.
But I had had my exodus from the oppression of Jewish senior school rules and United Synagogue traditions. I had shaped my identity and I was ready to celebrate it. So in I walked, ready to be ‘here, queer, and fabulous’, willing for someone to challenge me like last time. But, alas, no one spoke to me.
One teenage girl gave me a confused look during the reading, as if I was on the wrong side of the mechitzah but possibly because I was a new face she didn’t recognise. Another made a comment to my mum about my hair whilst I was standing close by. And another face from my childhood came over for a quick ‘hello’. But no conversations, no questions about my costume, nothing.
I was both peeved and pleased by this. Pleased because I don’t like making small talk with people I don’t know, but peeved because I was so ready to be defiant at people’s assumptions. Part of my ‘mad scientist’ persona included these slips of paper which said “Congratulations, one free pass not to be experimented on”, and I was so prepared to hand them out to annoying, presumptuous people. I walked into that room thinking, “Look at me now, look at me being comfortable in my own way and being here out of choice and on my own terms”. I wanted people to approach me so I had the excuse just to be myself, unapologetically, and revel in people’s confusion which is born from their own preconceptions.
Oscar Wilde said, “Give a man a mask and he’ll show you his true face”. I did that. I used Purim as an opportunity to reclaim a space that once alienated me. To return proud of my identity, just like Esther did. Was it the celebration of truth and openness that she had? No. But did I represent a group of people in a community where they often face negativity and adversity. Yes I did.