Monday, March 25, 2024

Ordinary Superheroes


Purim, Woodcut from Sefer Minhagim (Book of Customs) Venice, Italy 1741

Wearing masks and costumes is a Purim tradition that seemingly arrived from nowhere. First mentioned in the early 1300s in Southern France, the custom quickly became well accepted; so much so, that several halakhic rulings allow costumes that violate halakhic prohibitions to be worn on Purim. This custom is now universally accepted, and the yearly pre-Purim question is: What are you dressing up as?

One contemporary Sephardic rabbiRabbi Meir Mazuz, wrote that wearing costumes on Purim is a purely Ashkenazic custom, which European Jews adopted from their Christian neighbors; he advised Sephardic Jews not to dress up for Purim. Yet even Rabbi Mazuz had to reverse course. When a young father who had read his book decided to forbid his children from wearing costumes, the mother sent an anguished note to Rabbi Mazuz about her children being the oddballs of their class. In response, Rabbi Mazuz wrote back that “there is no prohibition to dress up, especially after it has now become the general custom of all Jews.”

There are many theories about the reason for wearing costumes on Purim. The Eliyahu Rabbah relates this custom to the turning point of the Book of Esther, when Mordechai puts on the king’s clothing. Another explanation is that the masks in particular reflect the theme of hiding: both Esther hiding her nationality, and God hiding his face from the Jewish people.

Others see this custom as an expression of the general ambiance of Purim. Jeffrey Rubenstein, based on Victor Turner’s analysis of medieval carnivals, sees Purim as a holiday in which social status and structure are reversed. He notes multiple customs that reinforce this idea. Communities had fake Purim rabbis who parodied the rabbi, and held Purim shpiels in which the leadership of the community was lampooned.

The wearing of costumes by children is very much a part of this. As Rubenstein notes, children are relatively powerless every other day; but on Purim, they wear costumes that exude power and authority. They have changed their social position by putting on a new set of clothes.

Rubenstein’s description of Purim is correct, but how did it arise? According to Yonatan Grossman, the rowdy atmosphere of Purim is an outgrowth of the Book of Esther itself. He references Mikhail Bakhtin’s studies of literary “carnivals”, books in which hierarchy, status, and refinement are wordlessly tossed aside, much like a carnival. Esther is very much a book of carnivalesque reversals, in which the lowly become great, the hidden is revealed, and the weak become strong. In addition, eating, drinking, and lovemaking are on center stage in the Book of Esther, much like a carnival, where the sensual gets top billing. Our exuberant Purim celebrations are rooted in the text of the Book of Esther.

With this being the case, I would add that there is one further reversal in the Book of Esther that must be mentioned: previously marginal Jews take on leading roles. Both Esther and Mordechai don’t seem to be profoundly attached to the Jewish community at the beginning of the book. Mordechai (or his family) left Israel during the exile of Yehoyachin, an early Babylonian exile of the elite. The Babylonians brought these Jewish leaders back with them, with the intent of assimilating them into local culture and religious practice (as the Book of Daniel makes clear). Mordechai’s name is a foreign one, named after Marduk, the local Babylonian God. (The Tanakh mentions a Babylonian King with a similar name, Evil-Merodach, which means “the servant of Marduk.”) Esther also has both a Jewish name and a Persian one; her Persian name comes from the Goddess of love and war, Ishtar.

Mordechai and Esther seem to be content to assimilate ever so gently into Persian society. What is particularly telling about their attitude is their joint decision that Esther should hide her Jewish identity in Ahasuerus’ palace. Why did they do that? Perhaps the best theory is offered by the 12th-century commentaries of Rashbam and Rabbi Yoseph Kara, who say that Esther hid her Jewish identity so it wouldn’t undermine her chances to become queen. Rabbi Yoseph Kara writes that Mordechai told Esther the following:

But you, even if you succeed in the eyes of the king, and are considered to be deserving, (your appointment will be opposed because being Jewish) will be considered dishonorable in the eyes of the ministers, because Jews are despised in the eyes of all the peoples and hated in the eyes of the nations. Therefore, if the king asks you what nation you are from, do not say what is your nation and your homeland. And then, perhaps you will find favor in the King’s eyes, and he will choose you to rule in the place of Vashti.

Esther hides her Jewish identity in order to be chosen as the Persian queen.

Once Esther is chosen, she seems to have no concern about what she eats. This stands in stark contrast with Daniel, who after moving into the royal palace refuses to eat the meals, and eventually is given a vegetarian diet (Daniel 1:8ff). In the Talmud, the sage Samuel concludes that Esther ate pork, that most un-Jewish of foods, in the King’s palace.

Esther and Mordechai are not stereotypical Jewish leaders; no one would have expected them to risk their lives to save the Jewish people.

But they did.

Purim is a story of marginal Jews who take center stage, of an awakening of Jewish pride in the face of an implacable foe; much like Jews today.

I go to a lot of Jewish community events; and in attendance are the usual suspects, the dedicated stalwarts of the community. But not this year. There are new faces everywhere, at every event; there are people who didn’t go to synagogue who are coming now, and there are people who never went to Israel who are making their first trips after October 7th. It is remarkable to see the overwhelming outpouring of support for Israel in the Jewish community, oftentimes from Jews who had not engaged before. Once again, an army of Mordechais and Esthers have come to save the day. No one expects a Purim hero to be a hero; not then, and not now.

It is here where we need to reflect again on costumes. As Rubenstein noted, from an anthropological perspective costumes tell us about breaking social barriers. But costumes also tell us a story about ourselves; children very often play dress-up with their parents’ clothes and mimic their actions. From a psychological perspective, costumes are about potential, possibility, and imagination.

Children love to dress up as superheroes. Every Purim, a parade of Marvel and DC comics’ best and biggest show up in the synagogue, ready to sound their graggers. The costumes may seem cute to us, kids offering an homage to their favorite TV characters. But actually, by wearing costumes, they are preparing themselves for a true Jewish future; one day, they too might have to step up and be superheroes. And that is exactly what Purim is about.

Those children who once dressed up as Batman and Superman are now superheroes, just without the cape.

Endless stories tell of the heroism of everyday people. Two brothers, Noam and Yishai Slotki of Beersheva, both young fathers, rushed to Kibbutz Alumim on the morning of October 7th to fight Hamas; both ended up falling in battle. Rami Davidian, an oil and gas salesman, saved hundreds of people from the Nova festival; at one point, he impersonated being a member of Hamas and got a group of terrorists to turn over to him a young woman they had captured. After an army unit finally arrived at her home in Kfar Aza, Gali Ayalon, a 15-year-old, became a virtual scout for them, guiding them by text message to the homes where people were hiding.

The exceptional bravery of the ordinary Israeli inspired the group Hatikvah 6 to compose the song “Superheroes,” which was just released a few weeks ago. The lyrics are about how ordinary people, teachers, lawyers, electricians, and bus drivers, are taking on remarkable tasks in this war against Hamas.

The song goes on to explain:

It’s true that everyone here looks normal,

But we are a nation of superheroes

There is always a soldier hidden within

Ready to save the world…

And it doesn’t matter if in the middle of life,

or in the middle of a soccer game

Everyone will drop everything in a second if our country calls them

This is not a parallel universe or a Marvel comics reality

This is our story - the people of Israel

Yes, they are ordinary superheroes. And they’ve been training for that role every Purim since the days of Esther and Mordechai.

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