Our interfaith press conference and vigil at the Islamic Center of Southern California on March 15 felt something like returning home. We were responding to the hideous massacre of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand, and all of us — Jews, Sikhs, Christians and just good people who couldn’t bear to be anywhere else right then were received so graciously and with so much love by our Muslim siblings that it was not at all clear who was comforting whom.
It’s the most cosmopolitan house of worship I’ve ever attended — where everyone from great-grandparents to toddlers smiles at one another; where people of every shade, size and style of dress, who come from six continents and speak multiple languages, unite in prayer.
We’d been there before: after the Muslim ban was announced; after the 2016 election; after the Orlando massacre of Latino gay men by a man who professed Islam; and after Pittsburgh.
So many of the Muslim people we prayed with at the recent Christchurch vigil had come to stand with us at our vigil after the Pittsburgh massacre. Women from my interfaith support group who share stories and food and sewing and art making — Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews — were there, embracing, not from an abstract sense of human fellowship but because we belong to one another. We love one another. We felt the pain, the wrenching body ache, one feels when someone hurts the people we love. It is the price — and the glory — that comes from reaching out to, making friends with, and building personal stakes in the well-being of people we have been told to distrust.
Also at the vigil were social justice organizations like Bend the Arc, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, L.A. Voice, and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. There were priests and rabbis, ministers and imams. There was Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Attorney Michael Feuer, City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, and Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council member Jarin Maruf.
Each speaker, in addition to offering words of comfort and shared grief, addressed some hard, necessary truths. Several reminded us that, like the Pittsburgh shooter, the accused killer in New Zealand wrote about Muslims and immigrants as “invaders,” deploying a trope that emanates from the highest office of our country.
“We have a bitter version of the story to retell. … we name the Haman who walks among us still.”
The very next Shabbat after the massacre was Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance which comes before Purim, the holiday in which we celebrate our own deliverance from a massacre. We remember Amalek, the ones who attack from behind and were the first, our Torah teaches, to attack the people Israel had after they had been liberated from slavery and entered the desert wilderness. We are told that Amalek attacked the old and very young, and those too weak or ill to fight. In our tradition, Amalek is conflated with Haman of the Purim story, the one who incites genocide, the one who wants to destroy an entire people or religion out of hatred and fear.
We will hear our Torah in synagogue and we will be asked to remember. “Remember what Amalek did to you on the road…” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 25:17). Remember our implacable opposition to the genocidaire, to all the Amaleks and Hamans, to the Hitlers and inquisitors and crusaders; all of those for whom difference is an unconscionable affront to be punished with extinction.
Then comes Purim. The holiday is fun for kids, but, at its core, it is a holiday for adults. Purim plunges us to the depths of our humanity, the mess and vulnerability that comes with being flesh and having partial knowledge, tethered to the Divine by the thread of our souls.
The narrative in our Megillah, which we are commanded to hear, is not really a story for children. It’s a tale of Diaspora Jews threatened with imminent extermination, who are saved at the last minute by a Jewish harem queen married off to a drunken fool, coached by her unmarried uncle and his best friends, the eunuchs.
Purim is a holiday in which Diaspora Jews celebrate their situation as insiders/outsiders. The emotional climax of the story puts the protagonists on opposite sides of doors and walls. Esther, the secret Jew, is married to a drunken, malleable king, who has been persuaded through bribery by a bigoted vizier to authorize the extermination of the Jews. The Jews, Haman the genocidaire explains, are a dangerous ethnic minority who persist in their own religion and customs. They are disrupters — invaders even.
Esther is confined to the harem. Mordecai, the known Jew, is making a public performance of grief, wailing immoderately just outside the city gate (where public conversations were known to happen). Mordecai is engaged in very serious performance art — clothed in sackcloth and ashes, he cries out his grievance, making sure that no one in the capital city of Shushan could say that, whatever happened to the Jews, they knew nothing about it.
The go-between who connects Esther with Mordecai is Hatach, a eunuch — a person who can slip between gendered worlds and between the inside and outside of the palace and the city. It is he who serves as the vital link through whom Esther and Mordecai can plan their resistance. The Jews and the eunuch act in solidarity to create change. They are insiders and outsiders, dependent on one another.
On Purim we celebrate deliverance with excess — first we fast, then we feast. It’s a mitzvah (only to be observed by those who don’t risk their health or life to do so) to get too hammered to know our best friends from our enemies.
There are four mitzvahs to fulfill on Purim. There’s the bit about drunkenness, to be enjoyed in the course of a festive meal. The others are to hear the story of Purim read from the Megillah once at night and once during the day, to give gifts of food to friends, and to give gifts to the poor.
Our custom is to celebrate with masquerade and song; to dress up in costumes (many rabbis allow and even encourage cross-dressing on this night); and to put on Purim spiels, satirical plays that retell the story, often in light of current events. This is Jewish carnival, a chance to lampoon and to wear those masks that reveal hidden truths about who we are and wish to be.
This year, we have a bitter version of the story to retell. This year, we name the Haman who walks among us still. As Rabbi Sharon Brous said at the Islamic Center, “I lift up all who suffer at the hands of white supremacy — a hateful, radical ideology that has wreaked havoc and devastation across generations and oceans.”
This year, as we celebrate the worth of keeping our religion and culture while being true to the larger communities and polities in which we live, we remember how vulnerable we are. We remember who was there to hold us when we mourned, and with whom we must identify if we are all to survive what’s in store.
Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches at Cal State Long Beach, writes for Shondaland, and serves as a Jewish Community Engagement Fellow at J Street.