Purim is almost here and in the midst of baking hamentashen, and thinking up and throwing together costumes, I’ve been keeping an eye on what’s going around the web for Purim. Two great resources really caught my eye this week. First off, G-dcast’s rendition of the Purim story, as told by Vanessa Hidary, while not one hundred percent faithful to the details of the Megilla, spins the message in an inspiring, socially responsible, empowering direction that feels so healthy for the girls the cartoon targets. And it’s a not just a great message for girls. It’s also a powerful and empowering reminder for women approaching the birth process, and new parents adjusting to life with an infant.
Watch the clip, in only four minutes, it gives a basic reminder of the Purim story in an entertaining and positive light. It starts out with Esther, a Jewish girl in Persia, who is proud of who she is, surrounded by supportive friends, smart, confident and capable. She nervously enters the contest to become queen with the encouragement of Uncle Mordechai and her friends, hiding her Jewish identity in the process. She takes on a whole new identity. Esther enjoys the benefits of being queen, but she feels isolated, cut off from her friends and family. When Mordechai informs her of Haman’s plot, Esther feels powerless to do anything about it. She sees herself the successor to Vashti, the queen banished for disobeying the king. She is scared by the story of her predecessor, and afraid to put herself in danger by approaching the king uncalled. In this version of the story, how does she get up the courage to use her power? She remembers who she is; who she was when she felt confident, surrounded by friends who believed in her. She calls up the support of that community and integrates her role as queen into her confident self image, and finds the courage to approach the King and advocate for herself and her people. She closes the clip encouraging us to “Always have the courage to stand up for what you believe in.”
G-DCAST is aimed at teenagers, helping them relate to the stories of the Torah and the holidays through story-telling and media. Its important for teens to have models of confidence, courage and a sense of what’s right as they form their identities as adults. As adults transitioning into a new stage of life, we redefine our identities again in the process of becoming parents. Like Esther in the cartoon, we probably feel pretty comfortable with who we are, and confident about some of the things we know we’re good at. We are probably part of some sort of community of friends, co-workers, or social group. And then everything starts to change. We have to take on a new identity, take care of new responsibilities. We may not be able to do a lot of the social things that used to keep us connected, and our friends may not go through the transition along with us. We may be far from family, and in the isolation and the quick transition to dealing with so many new experiences where we can feel like novices, we can start to forget the feeling of confidence and competence we had before it all started. It may seem like we should just go with the flow, listen to what the authorities tell us we should be doing, and do our best to stay afloat. We can lose sight of the reality of the situation, which is that our new status, our new identity, is an incredibly powerful one. Like Esther, we have a choice. We can cede power to people who are comfortable using it.
Or we can remember who we are, connect with the sense of confidence we have somewhere inside, call up the support of the communities we have or build communities to support us through this transition and go through the birth process and parent our new babies as the strong, powerful, confident moms and dads we hope to become.
Esther faces an existential threat to her people which forces her to find her courage, reach out for support, and be the queen. When she decides to do it, she reemembers her jump-rope chant from the beginning of the cartoon, “My name is Esther, and I am Jewish, and I am fierce!” Most new parents don’t face the same kind of existential threat that Esther does, but we do go through what is arguably the most powerful experience of our lives surrounded by frightening messages, doubt about our ability to do something incredibly important that we’ve never done before, expert advice offering conflicting views on the right way to do it, and so many authority figures ready and willing to make the big choices for us.
In most cases, nobody is going to die if we fail to own the power we have in giving birth and parenting our babies.
But we miss out on the opportunity to fully experience these milestones as our own. Birth and parenting can be scary because we don’t know if we’ll be good at it, because we’re inexperienced. Like Esther, we need the support of a community, people who have done it for themselves and believe in our ability to do it too, who can remind us that our choices are ours to make and trust that we’ll make the right choices for our families.
Esther, in this retelling, has a bad feeling about Haman. When she hears about his plot to kill the Jews, her first reaction is, “I need to start trusting my instincts.” Cut off from her friends and family, out of the context in which she feels competent, Esther can’t quite trust her instincts. The same goes for new moms and dads. We need to be able to trust our instincts, ask questions, understand the options, and make choices for ourselves and our families that we feel good about. And for that, we need a chorus of friends chanting in the background of everything we do, “Go Esther, go Esther, go Esther, go Esther!””
To be the great parents we want to be, we need to be able to see ourselves as competent parents. We need to develop an identity and a self-image that integrates our new roles into the competent, successful people we’ve already become.
The other great piece I saw on the web this week is an article on Jewish Women International about purim masks. Rahel Musleah explains that though masks and costumes seem to hide who we are and allow us to take on an identity other than our own, actually, they can reveal aspects of our identities that are normally hidden. She reminds us that there is more to a person than what she projects, that both we, and other people are always hiding some parts of ourselves and playing up others. She challenges us to think about when hiding the hidden is good for us and when revealing more would allow us to connect better with our community.
As I’ve been saying, part of the process of pregnancy, birth, and becoming a parent is acquiring new identity, swapping one identity for another, and hopefully, integrating the new with the old. It’s easy to get caught up in the new identities ourselves and to be pegged there by others. We can feel competing pressures to be entirely our new parent selves, or to resume our old identities as if nothing has changed. We may return to work or school and feel we have to be the same as we were before the baby or be perceived as less serious. If we don’t return to work, or during a long maternity leave, we can feel as if our previous self has been lost. The challenge is to realize that all the aspects of our identity are in there somewhere, that we can wear different masks, different hats. It can feel uncomfortable to wear two hats at once, to be all of who we are, but it’s not impossible.
Last week I wrote about my three and half year old, Zalmen, who wanted to be a kangaroo for Purim, and I was sure he would not change his mind. Well, I was right and I was wrong. He still wants to be a kangaroo, but he wants to be a tiger too. Now, its my job to figure out how to make him a tiger-kangaroo. I suggested that he could be a “tigaroo.” “No,” he answered, “a tiger-kangaroo.” For him it’s no problem to be both. They can be integrated into one costume, but both fully present. When Zalmen was born, actually starting before he was born, when I was pregnant, I struggled to figure out how to be a rabbinical student and a mom at the same time. I worried about maintaining my focus on my studies, being present and perceived as present, remaining a good student. I also worried about having enough time and attention for my baby, being able to hold him enough, nurse him as much as he wanted and needed, be there for him during that first year of extraordinarily rapid development. I wanted to do and be both, and do it well, and I felt sure I could figure out how to do it. For me, doing both meant that my worlds collided, that one informed the other, that I wasn’t a rabbinical student despite my role as mother, but through my role as mother and vice-versa. When I was pregnant with Zalmen, I couldn’t stop thinking about pregnancy, babies, the parenthood process, but I could relate it to Torah. So I started doing my school assignments with a focus on birth and babies. And I brought that Torah that I learned into my birth process, into the way I thought about what I was going through and how I found the confidence to give birth and make choices for my baby.
It helped that my teachers and classmates encouraged me to bring my new mom self to my studies, that my family supported my integrating my studies into my birth process. That both my family and my school helped me be present in class with my babies.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’ve succeeded in bringing all the elements of who I am to everything I do. I agree with the JWI article that it wouldn’t be possible or even appropriate to do so entirely, but I love the suggestion that we take Purim as an opportunity to get in touch with the aspects of our identity that we feel are hidden, that we wish we could bring out.
So here’s to Purim, a holiday of hiddenness and disguises, to revealing our true identities and getting in touch with the aspects of our identities that make us feel strong and righteous.
I want to conclude by suggesting an affirmation for women going into the birth process. An affirmation is something a woman in can repeat to herself to remind herself of something she believes, that will help her get through labor with confidence. Maybe the best thing that we can get out of the Purim story is the example of Esther as a confident Jewish woman who can stand up for herself and the people she cares about even in the face of fear, threat and danger, and can accomplish the seemingly impossible. So when labor starts to feel scary, when the self-doubt starts to creep in, I suggest an affirmation from this Purim’s G-DCAST. “My name is Esther, and I am Jewish, and I am fierce!” And maybe, just maybe, the birth team, (partner, doula, midwife, doctor, mom, sister, whoever is present) will respond, “Go Esther, go Esther, go Esther, go Esther!”
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