As a child, celebrating Purim was about dressing up and making noise when our rabbi chanted Haman’s name during his reading of the megillah. But two different life-changing events during my adolescence have led me to understand the holiday in a more complex light. What was once a day of dressing up and acting out has become, for me, a call to social justice.
Unlike most of my Orthodox peers, I celebrated my bar mitzvah on Purim. I traded the usual weekly Torah portion read on a Saturday morning for the much longer Megillat Esther. Although my Hebrew birthday—the eighth of Adar—was actually six days prior to Purim, the holiday became the time that, according to Jewish tradition, I entered adulthood.
Back then, I read the megillah primarily as a coming-of-age story. Esther went from being a shy, sheltered child to a brave and courageous woman in a matter of chapters. I understood her hesitation when she invited King Ahasuerus and Haman to a banquet, but decided at the last minute to push off her revelation to a second banquet. Esther’s reticence echoed my fears about assuming the role and responsibilities of an adult man in Jewish ritual life. Here was I, a kid of thirteen, trying to take off the mask of childhood and become a fully-fledged member of the Jewish people. My own family was firmly modern Orthodox, but I was raised in an ultra-Orthodox community. Would I ever be able to live up to the expectations set out for me by those far to my family’s religious right?
Three years later, Purim was the holiday during which I came out to my best friends. Since middle school, I had worked to keep my true identity hidden from my peers. I refused to do or say anything that might be even remotely been seen as stereotypical and lead people to the (correct) assumption that I was queer. I refused to listen to any music that was seen as “gay” or to wear skinny jeans or brightly-colored clothing. I was sheepishly quiet, lest I slip up and say the wrong thing to the wrong person.
When I came out, the pretense finally began to fall away, though it happened gradually. Around a few friends, I began to open up and leave both the closet and the personal cocoon that I had set up to protect myself. As I came out to my parents (who were probably just as surprised to find out that I was queer as Ahasuerus was to find out that someone was planning to eradicate his queen’s nation) and to more of my friends, I began to feel more comfortable with who I was. I began listening to music that I genuinely enjoyed, stereotypes be damned. I fully embraced the phenomenon of brightly-colored skinny jeans, which were already popular at my Jewish prep school.
Coming out also led me to see a new dimension in the Purim story. It was not only Esther’s fear of taking responsibility that scared her: it was the peeling away of the false identity she had created to conceal her Judaism. As a child, I had read rabbinic stories of how Esther would light Shabbat candles and practice Judaism in secret, with only Mordechai and a few of her maids aware of her real identity. After hiding for so long, she feared the response to her true self. Would she be rejected by her husband, the king, who had approved Haman’s plan to exterminate her people? What if she couldn’t save her people? And what if the king decided that she, despite being queen, would not be spared?
Like I did when I was coming out, Esther shed her false identity in stages. Initially she does not mention her Jewishness, only that a nation is about to be exterminated. Later, she reveals her affiliation with Mordechai and the greater Jewish community. Ahasuerus becomes angered not at the fact that the Jews are in danger, but that a single minority is in danger. In executing Haman, Ahasuerus sent the message that intolerance of any kind was unacceptable in his kingdom, which was known for its diversity (the beginning of the megillah tells us that the Persian empire included no fewer than 127 distinct nations). Megillat Esther is story about—and a call for—social justice, as much as it is about shedding the false identities we create so as to not be rejected.
Interpreting the story of Purim as a story of social justice has helped me identify my goal as an aspiring advocate for LGBT Jews. I should not only be fighting for the inclusion of those who feel excluded because they are queer. My goal is to create a community that encourages and celebrates diversity, a community that not only accepts LGBT people, but also other disenfranchised Jews. For me, the final goal is the creation of a stronger, more inclusive Jewish community: it is not only I, as a queer person, who benefits from this, but the Jewish people as a whole, which benefits from becoming more diverse.
Amram Altzman is a first-year student in a joint program with the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. He is also a blogger for New Voices, a website for Jewish college students. You can find him on Twitter @thesubwaypoet.