Community Blog Royal Costumes: Purim and Identity Formation
What are some of the best Purim costumes you’ve ever worn? What do you think made those costumes so great? Did you manage to look exactly like someone famous or embody a witty pun or political joke? Did you display that which is most frightening or fully embrace the hilarious and the absurd? It seems to me that no matter the genre of costume, the most memorable ones are those that not only show great creativity, but also most effectively transform us into something or someone else, however temporarily.
Growing up, I did not give much thought to the purpose of dressing up on Purim. I regarded it simply as a fun thing to do to celebrate this raucous holiday. But in rereading the Megillah and thinking more carefully about costuming, I think there are some important lessons to learn from this ritual practice.
To begin with, wearing costumes allows us to let loose and defy “acceptable” behaviors. They create opportunities for us to evaluate, and even change, that which has become normalized. In the act of guising, we can hide parts of ourselves and/or display others we rarely tap into or regularly express. Further, dressing up once a year can draw our attention to the various costumes we may wear on a daily basis and over the course of our lives. The story of Purim and the ritual of dressing up beg the question, “What if we dare to defy expectations and dream more in our everyday lives?” In the Megillah it is none other than the heroine, Queen Esther, who best exemplifies the answer to this question.
Esther is introduced as a passive character. She is propped up by her uncle, Mordecai, to compete to become the new queen and is chosen on the merit of her outer beauty. We have no idea what she thought or felt as she was selected to become King Ahasuerus’s new wife. All we read about Esther during this ordeal is “and Esther was taken unto King Ahasuerus” (2:16). She doesn’t seem to be in control of her decisions or fate. Even in the rabbinic imagination, Esther was so generic that regarding her beauty R. Eleazar said that she appeared to every man as “a member of his own people” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7a). When Mordecai then instructs Esther to conceal her Jewish identity (two times no less!), she silently complies (2:10 and 16). And when Mordecai first asks her to uncover Haman’s wicked plot to destroy the Jews before King Ahasuerus, she refuses to take the (risky) initiative to appear before him (4:11).
Esther was able to “pass” and reach the highest ranks of King Ahasuerus’ court because she concealed her Jewish identity and individual will. As the Hebrew root (s-t-r) of her name suggests, Esther was all about “covering up” and “hiding,” as if in a costume. Yet, while such dressing up enabled her to win the heart of the king, Esther soon learned that wearing masks that hid her fuller identity would be detrimental if she kept them on for too long.
Through the urging of Mordecai, Esther realizes that she is actually in an ideal situation to save the Jewish people from Haman’s genocidal decree. A powerless minority living under foreign rule, the Jewish people needed someone influential on the inside to protect them. Esther came to understand that her mission as queen was to be this very savior. But she could only help her people if she defied the normal behaviors to which she had grown accustomed. Instead, she now needed to exercise her will and identify herself as a Jew.
However difficult it must have been for her, Esther quickly transforms into the story’s leading lady. We see her calling the shots and directing Mordecai, “Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). The chapter poignantly ends with a reversal of events in Chapter Two, “So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him” (4:17).
It is no surprise that at the start of the next chapter we read, “and Esther put on her royal apparel” before she entered the king’s court (5:1). My teacher, Dr. Rachel Adelman, commented that in this moment, Esther “steps through the looking glass into the reality of selfhood as she presents herself unbidden before the king” (The Female Ruse: Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible). To be this new version of herself, Esther needed a costume that would help her express herself. Her royal apparel seemed to give Esther the confidence to change her relationship with the king in the most effective way possible. And it worked! Esther was able to take charge of her life and change the fate of her people.
Like Esther, we too, wear different costumes or assume different personae throughout our lives. Purim, like the High Holy Days, provides us with an opportunity to do the necessary introspective work to bring forth the best version of ourselves here and now. So as you think about your costume choices this Purim, ask yourself how it might help you manifest more of the person you want and need to be.
Ilana Krakowski is a second-year student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.