Notes from a Purim Skeptic (And why I hope you’ll join me at JFREJ Purim this weekend!)

Purim is coming up, that Jewish holiday with costumes, partying and funny performances where you get to see those serious people in your synagogue make fools of themselves. The “Jewish Halloween,” it’s sometimes called.

Throughout most of my life I have felt uncomfortable with Purim. A therapist might trace it back to that time as a kid when I cut myself on a grogger (a noisemaking toy). During the Purim spiel (play), the audience is encouraged to boo, hiss, and spin their groggers at the mention of the bad character Haman. I remember being small and peering into the hole of the shiny metal toy, curious what would happen if I stuck my pinky inside and turned the gears like so. I don’t remember the pain, just the shock of seeing blood suddenly pouring from my little finger. I remember the older woman next to me suddenly shouting, “Oh My Goodness! Where are your parents?” while I inspected the wound in a sea of drunken, disguised adults.

Maybe it’s this memory of bleeding and feeling lost that is at the heart of my Purim discomfort. Or maybe it’s the intense violence of the Purim story, often left awkwardly out of the spiel. But it’s something else too. It’s the way my brain spins when I look out at a sea of children hysterically BOOing every time Haman comes on stage. I think:

  • Is it okay to teach our kids that all people are created in the image of G-d, but then for one day a year let them yell out their most venomous “BOOOOOS” at a single human?
  • But then again, isn’t BOOOing at someone who isn’t really there a good release of all of our pent up energy? A harmless art-based pressure valve?
  • But doesn’t it still send a message that it’s okay to pick someone as a target for our frustrations?
  • But isn’t it sometimes good organizing strategy to pick a person to hold accountable and rally people around the cause?
  • But doesn’t organizing strategy sometimes forget that this isn’t always the best tactic when involving Jews who have a violent history of being scapegoated?
  • But don’t we have to hold individuals accountable sometimes?

And on and on my brain goes.

Some years I go to Purim, telling my brain cycle to shush and Have Fun, and other years I just opt out.

That is, until I discovered the JFREJ Purim Party.

Somehow last year I found myself signing up to participate in the Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) epic Purim spiel. And for the first time ever, I had a wholly different Purim experience.

If you don’t know, JFREJ Purim is unlike anything. A team called the Afteselakhis Spectacle Committee works all year planning to make Purim a magical, mischievous, revolutionary ride. They meet with JFREJ’s ally organizations to learn more about their campaigns. They hold a big day called the Farbrengen, where members of JFREJ and allied organizations present what they are working on towards radical justice. They create a family carnival led by teens that includes games like Bowling for Social Change. They build puppets that tower to the sky, and props and costumes with arms and tentacles and buttons and doo-hickeys. They create a political script using a collaborative theater process with anyone who wants to be involved. They get a band for live, raucous music. Jenny Romaine is one of the masterminds behind it, and to see her weave everything into an art form that only comes together at the very last minute is truly incredible.

So I tried it out. I formed bonds with people ranging from 16-70 years old. I learned songs in different languages. I got to do a tango as a cop on a prop subway. I engaged in discussions about how art can be used for police accountability. And I had a lot of fun.

And what about Haman? Did we solve my existential crisis or did I have to struggle? Did we make him an evil character and encourage noisemaking, as per usual?

Yes and No. Our JFREJ Haman was as evil as ever. But we also created a new character to go along with him. This character was called “the Horse of White Supremacy.” The horse was a masterful piece of artistry: giant pieces of wood put together with enough room for a person to ride. We explained the horse like this: “This horse transports unfairness and injustice. It is usually invisible. People often don’t talk about how white people get better treatment and more resources than people of color. Or we talk about how it’s just about people treating each other better. But what about the big forces that affect our lives, like schools, police, housing, banks and money? Those structures often benefit white people more than others. That’s called ‘structural violence’ because it hurts those who aren’t in power. So we made something we could see to show this ‘structural violence’ – to remind us that justice takes more than people being nice to each other … So when you see the horse, remember that it’s not just Haman whose actions cause harm – he’s part of the big powerful systems that we can – and will – change to bring justice and freedom to all.” (credit: JD Davids).

Now that’s something worth BOOing.

And maybe the kids and families and partyers heard us say this or maybe they didn’t. But we planted a seed: that we can never just focus on the individual bad guy in lieu of the bigger system. If we do, we will never win.

Listening to my fellow spielers majestically explain the systems of structural violence to a room of bedazzled purim-goers left my own childhood grogger wound a little more healed.

 

If you’re near NYC, come join us for JFREJ Purim this weekend!

There is a Thursday night spiel, a Saturday night Spiel + Party, and a Sunday social justice carnival! Check here for more information.

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan in Manhattan, where she leads anti-oppression workshops for educators, parents, and high-schoolers. She is also a trainer for the JFREJ Youth Brigade. Contact talia@mayan.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music on Facebook and YouTube.

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