Jewish Bacchanalia

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So, Purim is coming. In America, it’s pretty much a holiday for kids. Temples have their Purim spiels, kids dress up either as characters from the story (well, girls can wear whatever princess costumes they have lying around and call it Queen Esther) or whatever Halloween costumes still fit them. There’s a carnival in which kids can win plastic stuff (or sometimes goldfish) and everyone enjoys the rabbi acting silly for the day. In Israel, Purim = Halloween, with all that entails. Well, all except children ringing your doorbell all night.

And much like Halloween here, apparently, in Israel, Purim is getting sluttier. At least according to this piece was published by Tablet last week. If you’re not going to click, it’s an essay in which the author, Dana Kessler, complains about the sluttification of Purim, tries to buck the trend by dressing like a settler (an Orthodox person moving to the occupied territories), and is looked down upon because of it.

I gotta say, I know I’m supposed to be offended or angry or something about the sexification of Purim, but . . . hello? Esther was a concubine who used her sexiness to save the Jewish people. The absolute most logical and true-to-the-story thing to do is for women to dress their sexiest.

Kessler, the author of the piece, opines:

Even though they typically dress as Dora the Explorer or Angry Birds rather than biblical characters, Israeli elementary-schoolchildren may remember that Purim is supposed to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people from genocide in the Persian Empire. But most secular Israeli adults don’t seem to care.

So let’s unpack this a bit, shall we? A) So the schoolchildren don’t dress to reflect the gravitas of the holiday, either, then? Okay. Maybe let’s not be snide about the righteousness and virtue of THE CHILDREN, then.

B) The Purim story is fictional. I’m not saying this as an agnostic crank who always wants to point out that the Bible is “not true.” I’m not saying the story of Purim is “not true”; I’m saying it’s fictional. The rabbis who put it in the TaNaKh did so knowing it’s fictional, and they let us know it’s fictional by helpfully putting it in the Ketuvim section of the TaNaKh. Ketuvim = Writings. Where the short stories, poems, proverbs, and that sort of thing go. Not where the history goes. The history goes in the Nevi’im, or Prophets, section. We can argue about whether or not the stuff in the Prophets section is true, because it purports to be true, so it makes sense to try to verify. The Purim story doesn’t purport to be true. It’s true in the way that fiction can be true. We are a people, after all, who have needed to band together and find allies in politically tenuous times that could spell extinction for us. But there’s no real-life deliverance to commemorate here.

C) True or not, Esther is a concubine. Our “deliverance” from genocide comes in the form of a woman being sexy. The title of the article is “What Happened to Queen Esther?” but the answer is, “Nothing. She was always a concubine. Probably never dressed as a sexy bee – but hey, if they had sexy bee costumes at the time, she probably would have.”

I also objected to Kessler’s interpretation of her ostracism at the party she went to dressed as a settler. Apparently, for the first little bit, she and her husband were claiming to actually be settlers. They had nice, Orthodox names all picked out plus a fake blood relationship with the host that would explain their presence at the decidedly secular party. And everyone believed them and at first she and her husband thought that was kind of awesome that everyone at the party was looking at them suspiciously and then demanding to know who they were. But, Kessler notes:

And then it dawned on me. The reason they thought we were settlers wasn’t that our costumes were so unbelievably believable. It was that nowadays, it is so utterly and completely inconceivable that a woman would actually deny herself this yearly free slutification-pass and dress like an observant woman in modest dress instead of a French maid with a lace garter on her exposed thigh, that I must have been the real deal.

Now, my American sense of things is that dressing as a settler – and purporting to be a settler – would be politically divisive and a no-no at a party. But my friend assures me that Israelis are impervious to such things and that dressing as settlers is not, in and of itself, an issue.

But maybe Kessler and her husband were at a party where they didn’t know anyone very well, and instead of getting to know people, being friendly, or joining in the fun, they lied about their identities and took on personas that were decidedly not party-friendly (what with the modesty and stuff), while sneering at everyone else’s whorish get-ups, and that’s why no one wanted to hang with them. Just guessing.

Kessler even feels free to complain that, although her children’s preschool Purim party was innocent enough, their “obese-but-cuddly” (How is that a “but”? I thought “obese” = “cuddly”.) teacher told her that she would be attending an adult Purim party later, dressed as a dominatrix.

Oh, my God, you guys. TEACHERS HAVE LIVES OUTSIDE OF SCHOOL. For real! Even your very own child’s preschool teacher! Sometimes they do things in their free time that would be inappropriate to do in front of their kids! (Hello, I’m a religious school teacher who writes steamy romance novels in her free time. Nice to meet you.)

I mean, yes, I think compulsory sluttiness is bad. For sure. Having no other option on Purim BUT to dress like a prostitute isn’t great. And uninspired compulsory sluttiness with no cleverness or creativity is just boring. But I’m also not a big fan of compulsory modesty and slut-shaming, which Kessler feels very free to engage in. And why did she have to tell us that the teacher was obese at all? Was it to increase the shock value when we learn that even the FATTIE is sexing it up on Purim?

The thing is, Jews are always going around worrying about losing the young people to some other faith/lifestyle. We’ve been worrying about this forever; worry about this is what, in fact, created the Torah and changed the nature of religion forever. (Want further discussion of this point? E-mail me.)

Right now, we wring our hands about the young adults, the ones who’ve already finished the childhood Jewish education with their b’nai mitzvot or confirmations or even graduating high school, and haven’t started the Jewish education of their children yet. How do we keep them in? How do we keep Judaism relevant and meaningful for them? How do we make Jewish space a space the young folk want to be? How do we make Judaism cool instead of perpetually nerdy and old-fashioned?

I don’t know, how about we start with a yearly bacchanalia?

That’s what Purim is supposed to be! Every culture has had a day of the year where you’re allowed, even commanded, to go a little nuts. Mardi Gras/Carnivale. May Day. The Feast of Fools. Saturnalia. And Purim, on which you are commanded to get so drunk you can’t tell the difference between the name “Haman” and the name “Mordecai.” Go ahead, say those two names aloud and then figure out exactly how drunk you have to be to mix them up.

Kessler says that Purim is supposed to be a “fun family holiday” but it’s not! It can make for a great family holiday, because costumes and cookies are fun, but that’s not all it’s supposed to be! It’s supposed to be drunk and silly and sexy and you’re supposed to go a little nuts! And you know what? I think we should push the sexy more! I think we should host bar nights, rent out clubs, parade through the Village, have wild, crazy, sexy costume nights! Throw a friggin’ ball! Look, I can’t do this, myself. I have a four-year-old and a husband and I’m already, like, old. Not in years so much as lifestyle. But you young’uns, get on this! Next year, make Purim a night you’ll want to remember but can’t because you were so drunk but oh shit someone had their camera phone out and you’re never going to become president now, are you? That’s what Purim, honest to God, is supposed to be about.


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