Last year, at two and a half, was the first time I asked Zalmen what he wanted to dress up as for Purim. He answered immediately and decisively, “Haman Harasha” – evil Haman! I told him he still had time to think about it, waited, asked again a little while later, then a few days later, then a few weeks later. I put off working on the costume in case he decided along the way he didn’t want to be the villain. But the closer it got, the more he got into it. He told everyone he was going to be Haman the evil, and everyone was going to make a lot of noise when they said his name. He declared that Daddy would be the King Achashverosh. I jumped in to tell him that his brother Velvel and I were already planning to be kangaroos, which he grudgingly agreed to. He went on to declare that my parents would be Queen Esther. Both of them complied. Zalmen never changed his mind. He loved the costumes, loved looking at himself and seeing Haman. He wasn’t crazy about all the noise, but he got into the story and dressing up.
This year, I started asking about a month ago, “Zalmen, what do you think you want to be for purim this year?” He enjoyed being Haman so much last year I thought he might want to do it again. His answer, again quick and decisive, “I’m going to be a kangaroo!” Again, I told him he had time to think it over. I told him Velvel and I were not going to be kangaroos again this year. It shouldn’t surprise me that he’s showing no signs of changing his mind. He’s going to be a kangaroo. Never mind that the costume last year took advantage of Velvel’s seemingly permanent home in the pocket of my babywearing wrap. I don’t know what the rest of us will be, but Zalmen is set on Kangaroo.
Today is the first day of Adar Bet, the month in which Purim falls. There’s a saying, “When Adar arrives, joy increases,” but over time I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with this holiday. As a kid, I loved it. It was a fun family holiday with baking and a chance to dress up, to be someone or something else for a day. As I grew older, the story began to bother me. Of the three women in the story, one, Queen Vashti, demands the smallest modicum of respect and autonomy over her body and loses everything. Another, the heroine, Esther, succeeds by using her sexuality to manipulate those in power. And the third, Haman’s wife Zeresh, is pure evil. The hero, Mordechai, is happy to send his adoptive daughter, Esther to be a concubine in the King’s palace just in case she might gain some power. And in the end, rather than reverse the evil decree, the King places his support behind the Jews retaliating, killing many of their enemies. I joined the ranks of women dressing as Vashti because she was the only sympathetic character.
In fact, the when the Bible was being canonized, there was a debate over whether or not to include the Megilah at all. After all, the story doesn’t take place in the land of Israel, and God is not mentioned directly anywhere in the book. The story of Purim is an exile story, and a satire. It depicts our world turned on its head. The king, who should be in charge, is a fool. The queen who disobeys the king’s foolish ruling is quickly dismissed. The Jews are subject to the whims of an evil advisor with a bruised ego. Gender roles are all mixed up; Mordechai plays the role of nurse to Esther. According to one Midrash, he even nurses her, miraculously lactating. Esther is one of very few women in the Bible who affect the world without bearing children, and she’s unique in that there is no concern expressed that she has no children. This is Esther, whose name is a play on the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar, whose Hebrew name Hadassah means myrtle, another fertility symbol. (That’s right, the expression “fertile Myrtle” isn’t just about the rhyme.) We might expect her to fix the situation by giving birth to an heir who would succeed Achashverosh and establish a fair and God-fearing order to the kingdom, but she doesn’t. Even the miracle that gets the Jews out of danger is a bit topsy-turvy. They are not delivered from the enemy by a showy supernatural occurrence. The heroes of the story have to save themselves, first through careful planning, then through organized violent action. They don’t arrive in a promised land. They remain in Persia, living among people who would have gladly killed them, under the rule of a foolish king, who is now, at least for the moment, deferring to Mordechai and Esther’s good judgement.
In many ways the story of the Megilah is not as satisfying as some of our other stories, particularly the powerful narrative of the exodus from Egypt. But it occurs in a world which, though farcically presented, looks a lot like our own. The world-view of the Megillah includes a lot of imperfection that God won’t just step in and fix for us, and it depicts people doing their best to be the agents for God’s miracles, even if they have to do so in imperfect ways. So the story ends with a lot of violence, and with a situation that doesn’t feel totally stable. The miracle, wrought through human action, is imperfect, but it works. What makes it really work, what makes God’s presence apparent in the story, is how Esther and Mordechai and the Jewish people react to their experience and establish the holiday for years to come. The Megilah establishes Purim as a holiday of feasting and joy, a time to send treats to friends and gifts to the poor.
Purim could have been a holiday about a victory of power, about tragedy averted by cunning and strength. But it gets spun as a miracle, an opportunity to express gratitude for the goodness that we enjoy within a world that often seems upside down, a call to connect with community and take care of those in need. So we celebrate every year, dressing up in costume, embracing that our world often feels upside down, that it can turn upside-down in ways that we can’t control, but that how we respond matters, that we can turn the world right-side up, that we can affect our world and must do so responsibly, to be the human agents of hidden miracles.
When I was pregnant with Zalmen, I experienced the joy we’re supposed to feel in Adar in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. I dressed as a farmer, because I had a pair of pregnancy overalls that fit. I listened to Purim music, and sang to the baby, wondering if he’d recognize the CD the next Purim. I couldn’t exactly say why I was so excited about Purim that year. Maybe I was anticipating seeing the holiday from the uncomplicated perspective of childhood again. Maybe it had something to do with being in my second trimester and just feeling good and pretty secure that the pregnancy was sticking. Or maybe it was just easier to get the message of Purim in the midst of the miracle that was turning my world upside down and inside out.
When a family adds a child to the mix, their world changes, everything can be topsy-turvy in ways that are scary, exciting, and hopeful. Birth is a miracle that happens within the realm of nature, to a large extent brought about by human beings acting as the agents of God, yet not entirely within our control. There’s a lot that is hidden and progressively revealed, from the reality of a new life growing, to who that person will become, to who the parents will grow to be along with their child.
The years of pregnancy and infancy are also great times to dress up in those costumes that work particularly well with a pregnant belly or for a mother-baby pair while the baby is still willing to be carried (and dressed up). When Zalmen was a baby, I came to the Rabbinical School Purim party dressed as Mordechai nursing Esther (Zalmen) based on the midrash I mentioned before. Last year, Velvel and I were a kangaroo and Joey. So if you’re pregnant, or your baby is still young and cooperative, it’s time to start thinking about what you’ll be for Purim. Embrace the upside-down world we live in and the disguised miracles that give it meaning. And join the Jewish Birth Network Babies & Bellies Costume Contest. What is your favorite pregnant or mama-baby Purim costume? Share your pictures or ideas on our Facebook page. Or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. One winner in the pregnant belly and one in the mama-baby category will receive a gift card to Magic Beans toy store. We’ll announce the winners shortly after Purim, so send in last year’s pictures now and don’t forget to capture this year’s costumes in time to share!
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