Sunday, February 28, 2010

Religion in Drag

There’s a first time for everything, and last Saturday was my first time to attend Purim services.

Now, understand: I’m not a highly religious Jew. Really, I’d say I’m only a Jew by heritage and somewhat mild interest. I was raised approximately 80% Christian and 20% Jewish, since my family attended church every Sunday, exchanged presents on Christmas, dyed eggs on Easter, and celebrated both my sister’s and my Baptisms and Confirmations, while the only Jewish holiday my family celebrated regularly was Passover (unless you count setting out—but often forgetting to light—the menorah at Chanukah)--and I certainly never had a bat mitzvah.

In spite of my upbringing, however, I’m not a highly religious Christian, either, and when I moved to NYC, I decided to pick and choose what holidays I would celebrate. I made my selection based upon a) the holiday's meaningfulness to me, and b) the people with whom I could celebrate. Christmas is non-negotiable, and fortunately I have been able to return to Pittsburgh to spend that holiday with my immediate family thus far. The only thing I’ve ever really liked about Easter is the music, particularly making the music, and since I am not part of an ensemble here, that holiday has fallen by the wayside. For my other favorite holiday—Passover—I was lucky enough to receive an open invitation to celebrate with my Jewish friend L____ and her extended family. It turns out that they invite tons of people to their house for this holiday, so last year I was stuffed in among a number of jovial strangers with dish after dish of delicious food. I cannot wait for this year’s Seder!

Apart from those holidays, however, I don’t celebrate much else. In fact, I don’t know about many other holidays, particularly Jewish holidays, other than Chanukah (as mentioned before) and Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year). Consequently, I was a bit surprised when I called up my friend L___ to do something this past Saturday night and received an invitation to attend servies for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Purim is the holiday on which the Jews celebrate yet another foiled plot for their extermination. The story is told in the book of Esther (who, not-so-coincidentally, is the main female character in the story) in the Old Testament of the Bible. There’s a pretty succinct synopsis here, but the basic idea is that there is a king who is tricked into thinking it's a good idea to exterminate all the Jews, and Queen Esther changes his mind and saves them all. The point of this holiday is to celebrate her success.

While there are certain aspect of Judaism (as with pretty much all religions) I have encountered, I must say: Jews are good at nothing if they (we? can I count myself?) are not good at rolling remembrance and celebration into one big event. This is why I’ve always liked Passover—who doesn’t like hearing a good story while eating a good meal? The equation is one anyone would be amenable to: Passover = Story + Feast (so, obviously...) + Alcohol. Purim is a similar equation: Purim = Story + Alcohol + Halloween Costumes. I'm not as big a fan of the costumes as of the food, but they're definitely more irreverent, and therefore more entertaining!

To celebrate Purim, I first went to L___'s family's apartment, where her mother fed me Hamantaschen while L____ dressed up what she deemed to be a "Little Red Riding Hood" costume. (I later dubbed her "Ghetto Goldilocks" because, as I pointed out, once she took off her red coat, all she had left with was a gold "pigtail" hat and a yellow boom box purse. How could anyone associate her with little red riding hood?) Then, we walked to a nearby bar, where a pre-services singles event was happening. We mingled with two Bunches of Grapes, one Double Dare contestant, one witch, and one guy who chastised me for not wearing a costume but wasn't even wearing one himself! (I told him I was a Jersey Girl, since I had come to the Upper West side all the way from Jersey City. My lame attempt at being witty actually made him laugh, which just goes to show how awkward this entire scenario was in the first place.)

Once we were finished there, we walked to B’nai Jeshurun for the actual services. This is where the real fun started.

First, because Purim fell on a Saturday, a separate service had to be said to end Shabbat before the actual Purim service could begin. The prayers for this service were all recited in Hebrew, so I had no idea what was going on; what I did recognize, however, was the fact that they were being recited to tunes from The Sound of Music. The two individuals reciting the prayers would sometimes start clapping and the congregation would clap and chant along. One prayer even got so rhythmic that a little girl spontaneously ran out to the center of the wooden floor where the service was happening and began to break dance. Just like that, an eight-year-old was doing coffee grinders in the middle of a worship service!

Because there were so many people in attendance, all of the folding chairs on the ground level were occupied. L___'s family did not seem inclined to go up to the balcony, so our options were to either stand in the back or to sit on the floor in front of the chairs. L___ and I opted to sit on the floor. Then, about a third of the way through the Purim service, L___ pointed out two vacant chairs, and we scooted over to sit in them. Casually looking to see who was sitting to my left, I did a double-take and nearly fell off my chair. The man two seats away from me looked just like Mr. C___, my former band director. He had smart-looking wire-rim glasses, a narrow face, intense eyes, and a formerly-dark-but-now-salt-and-pepper beard. And he also had the same strong, slim legs--which I could SEE, because he was dressed in a rather short red dress with matching knee-high stockings, plus a loosely laced red corset blouse, red veil, and black wavy wig. It really was just like seeing Mr.C___ in drag, only this was made even more shocking by the fact that we were sitting in a Jewish Synagogue, celebrating a religious holiday!

Speaking of irreverence, I must make clear the fact that at least 75% of the congregation at this service had attended in costume. And this was not a markedly young crowd. Everyone from senior citizen men with canes, to pregnant mothers, to teenage sons, to three-year-old toddlers were dressed up as if Halloween had arrived early. And a cross-dressed older man was actually not the most scandalous outfit I saw. No, the most outrageous costume in the synagogue was, in my estimation, Santa Claus. When I saw this, all I could think was, "Someone is here as Santa, and no one cares. But if Christians held a costume party and someone showed up as Buddha, what would people say?!"

As if this all weren't enough, the rabbis were parading around the entire time wearing ears, whiskers, and tails, with fake money sticking out of their lapels and cigars dangling from their lips. They had entered at the beginning of the Purim service announcing that they were "fat cats" who were going to take "this Mr. America [pan to giant drop-down screen where Obama's face was projected]" to task. Did he really deserve to be Mr. America? His qualifications would be judged as follows: Swimwear (judged by photos of --you guessed it--him in swimming trunks!), Eveningwear (judged by a video of him and Michelle dancing at the inaugural ball), Oratory (judged by this video), and Talents (judged by this video, only set to music). At the end of the service, the audience voted, by way of clapping, whether or not Obama should remain his Mr. America title. Apparently at least this congregation still thinks he deserves it!

As a mere mental exercise, I have been trying to think of any Christian holiday that would a) permit its congregants to dress in drag, b) allow a child child to throw a spontaneous dance party in the middle of the service, or c) encourage its religious leaders to dress up and make fun of a current political debate. I'm not coming up with much....


Miss Arianna said...

pretty much everyone but the christians get to have fun. we just feel guilty.

filiak said...

the idea of mr. c in drag will keep me laughing for the rest of the month.

Allison said...

C'mon, think of the Goldilocks costume! And the Z___ners were the 3 bears? Were you at that parade? It might have been sophomore year....

And yeah, Christians have the guilt thing covered 110%. No other religions have to even bother trying.

K said...

Correction... Catholics have the guilt thing covered 110%. :-P

agoldste said...

Yes, but the rest of the sects have at least 90% going for them. I mean look at Genesis! It starts out with humanity feeling guilty. (Okay, Judaism ascribes to this too, so we can't blame the Christians.)

I used to get Focus on the Family, and those advice columns were FULL of "don't do/try/wear X because it will be your fault if this results in someone else's immoral thoughts or actions." And Christianity is based off of first feeling badly that we're such sinners and then feeling badly that someone sacrificed his life for our well-being, even after we metaphorically stabbed him in the back and then killed him in the most horrific way possible. Perhaps we are told to feel "grateful" for this (the concept of "grace"), but if you don't, or start forgetting, or become resentful, you are then ungrateful and should therefore feel guilty....

We are trained in guilt! But then again, I haven't rigorously studied or experienced the rest of the world religions, so perhaps they're just as bad. I am pretty sure, however, that in Judaism good works are "counted" in the eyes of God. I don't know if I believe in earning your way to heaven, but at least, unlike in Christianity, you don't have to always see bad things as "oh dear what if I'm going to hell?" but then think "well I'm supposed to be doing this nice/moral/good thing; it's my duty as a Christian."

But yeah--Catholics are the worst with imposing guilt. No offense to Catholics :)