This week I started rehearsals for “The Merchant of Venice.” For those of you who don’t know the play, it features a villainous Jew who demands payment of an unpaid loan through a pound of flesh. Despite some pretty blatant anti-Semitic language, the play is still widely done, largely because in Shakespeare’s brilliance, he manages to make us empathize with the villain by exploring the very real idea that an individual will turn to hatred when he’s made to feel like an outsider. At first glance, this play may appear anti-Semitic, but when played to the right tune, it sings the timeless lesson that whether it be a kid from Ohio with a gun or a Jew from Italy, ostracizing people drives them to violence and revenge.
Along with a slew of different ways that this play addresses contemporary issues, it got me thinking about modern religious conflict in America, which seems to center around the Christian Right, the Muslims, and the atheist liberals. It occurred to me that I haven’t heard much at all about the Jewish involvement or viewpoint in these matters. In fact, I haven’t heard much about Jews in America at all lately (though they are vocal enough in the Middle East, of course). Other than the occasional mention of a holiday dinner or a bad J date someone went on, I have no idea what their cultural traditions have become.
That’s why when I got an invitation to go to a Purim party, I was genuinely interested to see how the younger generation of Jews celebrate their traditions. The invitation mentioned costumes, so I knew at the very least I’d be having a good time. Purim, from what I understand, is a holiday celebrating the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia by a harem girl named Esther. First off, the fact that the Jews are celebrating what boils down to a female concubine is pretty awesome – hooray for appreciating women’s power! We need that more than ever.
The party itself did not disappoint. They weren’t lying when they said costumes, either. Wigs, hats, vests, saris, period clothing, cross dressing, and masks all made an appearance. Me with my nose ring and hipster clothes felt vanilla for the first time since moving to D.C. Along with the crazy costumes, there was a band and a stripper pole, which somehow both managed to squeeze into the tiny dining room. One of the girls, in a feathered hair piece, did what I can only guess was a fairly expert pole dance, including hanging upside down with her legs above her head. Soon after, I met a random Muppet by the name of Shireese – here’s her FB page if you’re interested: http://www.facebook.com/shireesethemuppet
Once everyone was good and drunk, the hostess gathered everyone for a narration of the Purim story, complete with live action background players in costume. Though everyone was a little too drunk to tell the story with clarity, I found it totally refreshing that they took the time to explain it to us and remind themselves of the meaning of the holiday and why it was being celebrated. Thinking back to Christmas, one does not usually act out the story of Jesus at a party – usually my family sits around and watches Tim Allen’s Santa Claus movie. Where’s the history and value in that?
When I looked up a bit more information about Purim, I found that the tradition of the holiday is indeed to eat, drink, dress up in costume, and be merry. I don’t know how the elder generation would feel about the stripper pole, but I’ve got to say, I was pretty impressed with the attitude of the celebration: joy and fun, but still remembering the history and meaning of the holiday. What’s more, I felt included in the holiday, I felt welcome. This is so different than many of the religious or church events I’ve been to in the past, where I’ve been made to feel like an outsider. This was straight back to the lesson of “The Merchant of Venice”: Include people, and violence is replaced by generosity and friendship. Seems the Jewish people of America have taken Shylock’s lesson to heart. I wish the rest of America would.