Purim and the Power of Unmasking

This Sunday is Purim which, just a week and a half after Mardi Gras this year, is our own masquerade holiday. We celebrate by donning disguises and drinking until identities blur ("until one doesn’t know Mordechai from Haman," goes the traditional injunction). It is the one day of the year where Jewish law officially countenances cross-dressing (suspending a prohibition that would, in my other life, put me out of business).

But I think at the core of this holiday is not the wearing of disguise, but the removal of it. It is a holiday about unmasking, about the dramatic reveal.

Unmasking happens repeatedly in the story of Purim. The Dor Hadash students helped me count some of the instances: conspirators are unmasked by Mordechai; Mordechai’s heroism is unmasked to Haman by Achashverosh; Haman’s evil plot is unmasked to Achashverosh by Esther. But, most famously, Esther – at just the right moment – unmasks herself.

It’s an interesting and odd story for us. We have other biblical stories involving disguise and mistaken identity: Jacob disguised as Esau, garnering his father's blessing; Joseph unrecognizable as an Egyptian overseer, engineering the reunification of his family. But this case is odd, perhaps because it feels so familiar to us. Esther is a precarious insider in a sort-of-assimilated sort-of-anti-Semitic Persian world. Like so many of us, she has a secular name – Esther, for the goddess Ishtar – and a Hebrew name – Hadassah. And like many of us, she can pass.

Esther is the bearer of a powerful secret of identity, a truth that can only be revealed once. She waits for the right moment; perhaps she is uncertain of what is the right moment. But in her people’s great need she finally plays her cards.

I recently had the pleasure of reading another book of Esther – the poet Esther Schor’s beautiful biography of Emma Lazarus. Born to a Sephardic family living in New England since before the American Revolution, Lazarus was as assimilated as a Jew was permitted to be in 19th Century moneyed society. She politely didn’t press her Judaism, and her Judaism was, in turn, politely overlooked. It wasn’t until outbreaks of anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic shook her comfortable world that she unmasked herself – writing poetry and essays on behalf of the Jewish people. And in doing so, she unwittingly drew to herself (and in some cases unmasked) a few of the Hamans of her time.

Her writing as a Jew changed her and changed the world. The Statue of Liberty was given to the US by France during Lazarus’s lifetime as a symbol of friendship and democracy. It was only her poem, The New Colossus, that transformed it into “the Mother of Exiles” – a symbol of refuge and hope to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This was a radical idea, a Jewish idea, reflecting Lazarus’s intense commitment to Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, and born of her peculiar vantage point as an outsider, an Israelite, a daughter of exiles.

So perhaps Purim is meant to remind us of our secret truths; the pieces of our blurred identities that don’t always shine through clearly. We are, after all, always masked in some way; who can possibly know all that we are? Perhaps, as midrash suggests, Esther's name is actually from the Hebrew hester, the hidden one. Each of us is hester. Each of us is hidden.

And that makes our truths all the more powerful. Like Esther, like Emma, we will have moments when we can choose to stay silent and masked, or we can unveil ourselves and speak out. In doing so, we have the chance to change the people and institutions around us. To change the world. This Purim, let us all take stock of the masks we wear, and ponder when the time might be right to remove them at last.

Photo: Queen Esther Comes Before Ahasuerus, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865.