On Monday my hometown JCC was evacuated due to a bomb threat. On Thursday, my community gathered at the JCC for an interfaith candlelight vigil against hate. In between, I spent Wednesday night at shul, rehearsing a theatrical piece for our Purim Spiel. I’m having a blast revisiting my previous life as a theater kid while we re-enact the story of Purim through parodies of popular Broadway shows.
Last year I was “Esther Doolittle” in our parody of “My Fair Lady.” I found the experience surprisingly conflicting, as standing in Esther’s shoes made me look at the Purim story I thought I knew in a whole new light. I was used to hating Haman, but, because I was actually walking through the story in Esther’s shoes, I found myself villainizing Mordechai. How dare he push the girl in his care to marry the king when she clearly didn’t want to!?!? Who knew what kind of abusive relationship she might be walking into? My feminist hackles were definitely raised.
I am learning even more this year, when I don the three-cornered hat as “Miss Haman-igan” in our “Little Orphan Estie” parody of “Annie.” While playing the villain is definitely fun, this has also been a meaningful experience. Last year, you see, we were putting on our play in an environment where we felt relatively safe. We could look back on the past and proudly know that our people defeated those who wanted to destroy them time and time again. We could tell Haman, Pharaoh, Hitler, and all other enemies from the past that we are still here, and we get revenge in the best way possible—by channeling our inner Mel Brooks and making everyone laugh at you.
This year, the world is a seemingly different place. I’m playing Haman in the presence of real-life Hamans. These people may have always been here, but have recently become more visible in my community. In addition to our JCC being threatened, swastikas have been painted at local schools and our community park was vandalized this week with anti-Semitic and racist graffiti. There are certainly people today, who want those who are different from themselves brought down. And embodying this character has given me some insight into that mindset.
As I play Haman, I go through a wide range of emotions. I’m ambitious, always searching for ways to increase my authority and influence. I’m proud to be included in the king’s inner circle, and thrilled when the queen picks me alone to join her and the king for a banquet. I’m furious and humiliated when I have to lead Mordechai through the streets, proclaiming “this is what happens to a man the king wishes to honor.” Finally, I’m terrified when I learn that the queen is one of those Jews that I’ve been plotting against, and that my brilliant plans are about to backfire in the worst possible way.
I realized that, even while experiencing this wide range of emotions, one thought guides Haman throughout— the idea that it’s me vs. them. That Mordechai’s success automatically means my failure. That I can’t succeed without bringing Mordechai and his people down. There’s no room for two on top, only me or them, and dammit, who cares what I have to do to make this happen, it’s going to be me.
I wish I could communicate with the real-life Hamans in my community and elsewhere that this is not true. The success of one person does not automatically mean the failure of another. I would much rather live in a world where we can work together so that everyone succeeds— a world of “all of us” rather than “me or them.”
Playing Haman in today’s environment is scary. It’s scary because the idea of someone in power using their authority to turn the public against a certain group of people no longer seems far-fetched. It’s scary because I see examples of hate in my community, and we’re acting out a story of this hate taken to its most extreme ends. And it’s scary because I know that there are people in my community who feel as Haman does, and I don’t know how to change their minds.
However, playing Haman in today’s environment is still empowering. It’s empowering because we won. We are here today to act out this story. We are here today to contribute to society. We are writers, doctors, artists, lawyers, teachers, social workers, students, parents, and friends. We are here, and we are not going anywhere.
At Purim we teach our children that haters don’t win, and that the “me or them” mentality of Haman will get us nowhere–and that lesson can help us create a world where we encourage each other’s success and treat one another with kindness.