I grew up in a small town with an even smaller Jewish community. I was the kid standing in front of my whole elementary classroom explaining what Hanukkah was. I learned to tell people I was vegetarian when I didn’t want to say “kosher.” I loved my Judaism with all my heart, but I figured out that sometimes it was better, or at least easier, not to make it the most obvious part of who I was.
Now, as an adult, I have worked in the Jewish community for more than a decade, and my Judaism is written all over who I am. It’s on my resume, my business cards, my Facebook page; it’s central to both my personal and professional identities.
So I was caught off guard a few weeks ago when, in my daughter’s (non-Jewish) preschool, I saw a chart hanging on the wall where each kid had been asked to define “healthy food.” In the midst of answers about green things and fruit, next to my daughter’s name, she had answered, “kosher.”
I could not believe how exposed I felt. After years of being a professional Jew and standing with ease in front of huge groups talking about Jewish community, seeing such a blatantly Jewish identifier next to my daughter’s name in a non-Jewish setting was remarkably jarring. On the one hand, it meant that Jewish words and cues are completely normalized into her existence. On the other hand, it meant that they’re still not totally normalized into mine.
This past weekend, my husband and I and our two preschool kids went to a Purim party for young families. The kids had been excited about their costumes all week, and they couldn’t wait to put them on and wear them in the car to the party.
We found a perfect parking spot right next to the party, which was also right in front of a popular brunch spot with a line around the corner of people waiting outside (in the snow!) to be seated. We could not have been more conspicuous as we unloaded a little pumpkin and a little giraffe into the crowd of would-be diners. Comments ranged from, “How cute!” to, “Look at them!” to “Happy Halloween!”
When my daughter said to me, with confusion, “But it’s not Halloween,” my instinct was just to ignore the strangers and move on. But what are we celebrating, anyway? Queen Esther, revealing her true identity in order to save the Jewish people. What message would I be sending if, on the way to a Purim party, I pretended to be something other than who we are?
So I said to the strangers, “Actually, it’s Purim.” And I said to my daughter, “Now they know.” We went to the party, where dozens of other urban kids and their families had a totally normalized experience of being Jewish with other Jews. On the way back to the car, we had the same experience with the brunch crowd, but having just heard the story of Esther, and with our balloons and hamantaschen in hand, there was no pretending we weren’t celebrating something special.
This is so obviously who we are, on Purim and every other day, too. Wearing costumes makes us more conspicuous, which is exactly the lesson to take away from Purim: Esther pretended to be someone else, a non-Jew, in order to, ultimately, be more fully herself as a Jew. My kids had to get dressed up as a giraffe and a pumpkin for me to realize that there’s no use pretending to be anything other than who we are, and, more importantly, that my little pumpkin and giraffe have known that all along.