OpinionJewish & Israeli Holidays

Purim 2024

Drawing strength from Purim’s message

Masks have the power to transform how we see ourselves, and in so doing, to reshape how others see us.

Israeli girls dressed up to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim in Jerusalem. The festival of Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jews of Persia from Haman's plot to annihilate them. Photo by Orel Cohen/Flash90.
Israeli girls dressed up to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim in Jerusalem. The festival of Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jews of Persia from Haman's plot to annihilate them. Photo by Orel Cohen/Flash90.
Jan Lee. Credit: Courtesy.
Jan Lee
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer and former news editor. Her articles and op-eds have been published in a variety of Jewish and travel publications, including the Baltimore Jewish Times, B’nai B’rith Magazine, Jewish Independent and The Times of Israel.

Courage and identity are often our most powerful allies.

For many of us this year, Purim festivities won’t arrive soon enough. The Jewish holiday that is always marked by joyful celebrations seems to offer its own unique antidote to the challenges and pain that Jews everywhere are facing right now. For one night, we can forget our worries about the hostages, the war and antisemitism at home. We can don our masks and celebrate Mordechai and Queen Esther’s bravery. Purim, the calendar’s happiest Jewish holiday, emboldens our spirit and renews our sense of hope, even at the darkest of times.

But the true reason for this unusual tradition, rabbis tell us, has nothing to do with our need to “let loose” or de-stress. It has to do with identity and how we see ourselves.

There are a myriad of religious and cultural explanations for why the simple, humble costume mask fulfills such an integral part of Purim celebrations, but one of the simplest and most eloquent, is offered by Rabbi Ari Kahn: “Purim is a reminder that we spend so much of our lives dressing up and leading lives that are in dissonance with our souls,” he explains.  “We allow our disguises to lull us into a false sense of identity … rather than [acknowledge] the natural beauty of our Jewish identity.” Esther is said to have spent the first few years as queen masquerading as a non-Jew until she discovered that revealing her true identity might be able to protect the fate of her Jewish community. Our masquerade is a whimsical nod to Esther’s story, but it’s also a statement about the power of courage and standing up for who we are.

Each year, as we approach Purim, I find myself reflecting on one of my first real Purims. I say “real” because, until that night in 1974, my appreciation of why we celebrated this holiday each year was pretty superficial. I had been raised in a secular household with minimal exposure to Jewish traditions. It wasn’t until I decided to start attending synagogue in my teens that I heard my first Megillah reading. Some four years later, freshly out of high school, I signed up for an ulpan, and to the consternation of my parents, headed to northern Israel to learn Hebrew.

The Yom Kippur war had formally ended by the time I arrived in January, but skirmishes on the Golan were still taking place. Tensions were still high in the Galilee Valley where I lived. By March, a new threat had begun to emerge from Lebanon: terror attacks from the PLO. My kibbutz was less than 10 miles from the border.

Preparations for the holiday had been in the works for weeks. The kibbutz was buzzing with soldiers returning home for the holiday, and excitement was high. After months of what seemed like daily shelling in the valley, everyone was ready to enjoy a celebration.

But a few hours before the festival was to begin, the kibbutz canceled the event. There would be no Purim, we were told; the risk of an attack was too high. Residents weren’t restricted to their quarters, but large public gatherings and noise, which the council worried could attract attention, were banned. The mood around the kibbutz was understandably bleak.

Looking back, I realized that even three months into my stay, I was remarkably ignorant about the message of a terrorist alert. That evening, I decided to walk over to the dining hall to get a cup of tea. I took a short path to the stairs leading up to the dining room.

Just as I was about to climb the steps, I saw something move on the porch above me. I froze. The building was completely dark except for a bright light above the entrance. Standing to the right of the door, partially hidden in the shadows, was a tall figure. I could just make out the frame of a man in a green Israel Defense Forces uniform. In fact, his face was the only part that was fully illuminated. A bright red bulb sat perched on the tip of his nose, surrounded by swirls of blue, red and white paint. His mask, expertly applied, transformed his face into that of a jolly clown. As my eyes accustomed to the darkness further, I could see that his uniform was unaltered; only his face hinted at the fact that tonight was Purim. The soldier never once moved from his post. His eyes were locked on the entrance to the kibbutz, though I suspect his actual orders were to deter idiots like me from entering and turning on lights during an alert.

Didn’t he realize that the party had been called off, I remembered thinking naively as I walked back to my room? Maybe he didn’t have time to wash off the makeup? It wasn’t until later that I realized his appearance wasn’t a mistake; it was meant to remind him of Purim’s message. In a moment of danger, you can erase the festivities from the calendar, but you can’t erase who we are—and the Jew from within.

Masks have the power to transform how we see ourselves, and in so doing, to reshape how others see us. At a moment of uncertainty as Esther initially found, a mask has a way of convincing us who we need to “be” at that moment. The soldier facing an unseen threat in the darkness can draw strength when he reminds himself that the courage and identity within are all he needs.

May this Purim be joyful, and may we all draw strength from its story.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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