Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Whipped Religious Jewish Man

I'm still a bit tipsy from the Purim party I just got back from, but I wanted to post this ASAP. It's an article in Ami Magazine, a kind of Time or Newsweek for the frum (observant Jewish) world. The article appears on page 36 of the February 29th issue, and is entitled "Outfit Outrage: Hundreds Unite Against Purim Costumes". Here we go, quoting from beginning to end, because I doubt Ami Magazine publishes online, and I'm too lazy to look, being half fershnukered on mashka (alcohol) and all:
In a united effort, hundreds of emotional avreichim [scholars], balebatim [laypeople], and lay leaders came together for what they deemed as a historic event. At the event, held in the grand Atlantis Regency Ballroom, hundreds of people signed the historic petition forming the Vaad Neged Tachposes Purim, the group against wearing costumes on Purim. 
"We are not against Purim costumes in general," explains lay leader Shmaryahu Shain. "We are against the new practice of married men, talmidei chachamim [Torah scholars], having to degrade themselves by dressing up in silly costumes and going along with the immature 'themes' concept that has pervaded the holy Yom Tov [good/holy day] of Purim these days. This is the problem in a nutshell. You have hundreds of bochurim [young guys] who work hard their whole lives to become ehrlich [pious] and serious bnei Torah [children of Torah]. Suddenly, they get married and all that gets thrown out the window come Purim time. Young women who are otherwise respectful of their husbands suddenly expect them to belittle themselves by dressing up in childish costumes that degrade who they are as talmidei chachamim and Yidden [Jews]. How can someone go to learn the next day in kollel [institution of Jewish learning] after dressing up like a clown, a cowboy, a mime, a pirate, or any other childish character? It ruins his self-esteem and degrades him in front of his wife and children and, more importantly, his friends."
The evening began with a short inspiring speech from Rav Chaim Leiter, rav [Rabbi] of East Milford, New Jersey, who spoke about how the Bais Yaakovs [religious schools for girls, literally mean "House of Jacob"] have to do a better job of educating the girls to respect their husbands and not to subjugate them to the childish act of dressing up. "The costumes cause significant rifts in shalom bayis [peace in the home]," explained Rav Neemus. "The men are embarrassed and belittled and cannot face their friends after Purim due to sheer humiliation. Can a man really go to learn [Torah] the next day after he davened Mincha [prayed afternoon prayers] in clown makeup?" 
"It affects our pnimiyus [the inner/inward/essence], who we are as human beings," said one attendee, Yitzchok Fromowitz. "Last year on Purim, after dressing up like a character from a children's story, I got drunk on cherry Heering and chocolate liquor, a vaiberish mashkeh [umm... heh, "feminine" alcohol, it's like a secular man getting drunk on hard lemonade, kind of a joke between guys]! How embarrassing! Every year I am mikayem 'ad d'lo yada' [until he "cannot distinguish" between Haman and Mordechai, the villain and hero of Purim, which is the religious obligation] on wine and beer and this year I was drinking pina colada! In addition, this year my wife wants to dress up as Mordechai and Esther; can you imagine? Only little kids do that. I just hope she wants me to dress up like Mordechai; if not, I'm in real trouble."
I promised to quote the entire article, but I can no longer handle the ridiculousness. This article is apparently not one big Purim joke; it's totally serious. It's about a bunch of grown men meeting together without their wives knowing - one might call it an anonymous support group - trying to gather the mutual courage to beg their wives to stop dressing them up in stupid children's costumes for Purim. They end the meeting resolved to distribute their petition in religious schools and on the walls in religious neighborhoods (that way they don't have to face their wives directly!). The picture attached with this article is of a frum Jew looking at a pink full body bunny costume. Presumably, his wife gave him the choice of either the pink bunny suit, or Supergirl. Whoever still claims that observant Jewish men oppress Jewish women have NO IDEA, NOOOO IDEEEAAA what actually goes on in the observant Jewish community. "Ami" is a serious magazine of the frum world, and this isn't a Purim spoof. No idea. None.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Purim: A Hidden Message

Before reading on, it would be helpful to have a basic grasp of the Purim story.

I read something very interesting the other day about Vashti. If you remember, she was Queen to King 
Achashverosh, ruler of Persia. After getting drunk during a big feast, the King bragged about her unparalleled beauty and was challenged to prove it, so he called her to appear naked for his guests. She refused, and was killed for it.

Some years ago, I read a post on a progressive Jewish blog which praised Vashti as a feminist who sacrificed her life for her dignity, and extolled her as an example to Jewish women. This reasoning bothered me very much, as it didn't seem consistent with the text. Then again, why would the megillah speak of her at all? It could have just started with, "and 
Achashverosh needed a wife, so he ordered all the beautiful women to appear..." Presumably, we're supposed to learn a lesson from Vashti, since she's in the story, but is feminine honor the lesson? What an odd way to promote feminism, with the death of the heroine.
So, just the other day I happened to come upon a discussion about this very issue. From Gemara, we discover a few things about Vashti that aren't in the megillah. For one, we learn she's the grand-daughter of King Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the First Temple and had a special hate for the Jews. In an indirect way, we also find out she inherited this hatred from her grandfather. You see, she knew that Jews can not perform certain types of labor on Shabbat. So it was precisely on Shabbat that she would torment Jewish children (young girls, according to Talmud, Megillah 12) by forcing them to undress - stripping them of their dignity - and perform all sorts of demeaning tasks.
When the King called for her, Vashti replied indignantly, "Is the Queen to be sent for like a common slave, a mere servant girl?" Perhaps Vashti would have acceded the King's request at any other time, but on this day, she had special reason to feel indignant, though feminine dignity was furthest from her mind. For this day, the last day of the feast, the day of her execution, was the very day on which Vashti herself had often delighted in degrading Jewish girls under threat of death - Shabbat.
Purim is a holiday of mystery and concealment. The text of the megillah hides many secrets, including the name of G-d, who is not directly mentioned at all - itself unusual for a Jewish text about faith and deliverance from evil. In the world of Achashverosh, much as in our world today, G-d, Himself, is hidden. The characters plot and scheme, make various plans, thinking themselves masters of their fate. On the surface, the story of Purim would seem to affirm the narrative that only by the labor of Jewish hands was salvation achieved. If Mordechai hadn't... and if Esther wouldn't... and if the Jewish people didn't...
Likewise, in our own time and place, we are consumed with managing our worldly affairs, with controlling the direction of our lives and writing our own destiny. As for G-d? Look here, buddy, religion is all good and well; it's relaxing and traditional, fun for the kids, but let's get real. Where is G-d? Will G-d put food on the table? Will G-d place a roof over our heads? G-d is seemingly nowhere to be found. If we want something done, we need to roll up our sleeves and get it done.

Yet, no matter how hard we work to stay in control, regardless of how diligently we delay the day on which our fates our wrenched from our hands, finally the unexpected happens. When that day comes that we finally lose control, our best laid plans count for nothing. Disaster looms. Look here, buddy, this is the real world, not a fantasy, not a fairy tale where G-d comes to right the wrongs and avert tragedy. This is the harsh, bitter world where men cut their teeth on each other's bones. And G-d is nowhere to be found. Is there no hope? We fear. Is there no justice? We tremble.

Vashti, Queen of Persia, was put to death on Shabbat, the day of her perverse delight at the suffering of others. And her executioner? None other than the lowest of the King's advisers, Memuchan, but soon to be the highest, renamed as Haman. What a plot-twist! A tormentor of Jewish children, slain on the day of their torment, by their would be mass-murderer, himself later hanged on his own gallows. The remarkable irony of it all; the 
unlikely convergence of happy coincidence - each villain earning the justice of their particular demise.

Purim is neither a fantasy nor fairy tale; It relates a world as real and brutal as ours, where G-d, too, is seemingly nowhere to be found. Like ours, it is a world where injustices multiply and disasters loom; where our best efforts are rendered useless and we are made helpless, stripped down to our fear, trembling. 
In such a world, a real world, relates the megillah, a world just like ours, still justice is done, salvation comes and evil is merely an instrument wielded for its own destruction. If even such things are possible, then what sense does it make to fear anything? As we say in the final prayer of each service, three times a day, al tirah... do not fear! The hidden message of Purim, it seems to me, is a guarantee, even in the depths of concealment, the bitterness of exile, the hopeless moments in our lives, that G-d is with us.

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