“Purim is not like other Jewish holidays,” Rabbi Friedman deadpans. Everyone in the congregation laughs. Instead of his usual white kippah/tallit ensemble, he is wearing a black baseball hat, a black T-shirt, and a black wig, mullet style.

 “Fer sure,” Rabbi Berkowitz agrees.

Rabbi Friedman turns and scrutinizes his junior colleague, seemingly for the first time. She is similarly attired in an unruly blonde wig, a pair of large black-rimmed glasses, and a red and white untucked flannel shirt.

After a few seconds, Rabbi Friedman cracks a smile. “Party on, Garth.”

“Party on, Wayne,” Rabbi Berkowitz responds, offering Rabbi Friedman an upraised hand. Rabbi Friedman does not hesitate. He high-fives her with a loud smack.

“Excellent!” they exclaim in unison and promptly dismount the synagogue’s platform in order to sit with the congregation.

And so it begins. Purim is indeed a party, a kind of Jewish Mardi Gras, a yearly event that gives Jews a chance to dress up, to act out, to let loose, and to have fun. But Purim also has a serious side. Not only does it help Jews deal with the difficulties of being a too often misunderstood and maligned minority, but it reveals the benefits of being a minority as well—a lesson that I, as a Latter-day Saint, very much connect with.

Persian Rhapsody

Could this be Esther?
Could this be Mordechai?
Ahashuerus.
And Haman, that wicked guy.

Singing to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a group of colorfully dressed congregants slowly takes its position on the platform. Haman, the arch persecutor of the Jews, pushes forward. He is wearing black pants, a black paper mustache, and a black pirate hat.

He’s very wise.
He’ll be our demise.
You’ll see.

Behind him, Ahashuerus, the foolish and easily influenced Persian king, sports a Hawaiian shirt, a plaid bathrobe and an oversized plastic crown. To the side is Mordechai, Esther’s sagacious uncle. He is radiant in white, accessorized with a silver scarf and a sequined top hat.  Suddenly, Esther, the legendary savior of the Jews, appears on platform, seemingly from nowhere. She is dressed simply, in street clothes with a small tiara on her head, the only hint of her true worth. She sings plaintively:

I’m just a poor Jew,
Not really royalty.

The cast then, as a unit, joins together, singing:

And now it’s Purim time.
Here we go.
Just sit back.
Watch the show.

After “Persian Rhapsody” has wound down and the cast has taken its seats in the back, Rabbi Friedman remounts the platform and explains that this year’s Purim play (or Purimshpiel as it is called in Yiddish) will consist of an abbreviated reading of the Book of Esther punctuated by several of Queen’s most famous songs rewritten and repurposed for the occasion. He then reviews how the audience should react when the main characters in the story are mentioned—yelling “Right on” for Esther, shouting “Yeah” for Mordechai, sighing “Eh” for Ahashuerus, and shaking the boxes of pasta they had brought with them in order to blot out the name of Haman.

As Rabbi Friedman explains these responses, I scan the larger than usual congregation. Several of my friends from Torah class are in attendance. Only a few are in full costume, but many have augmented their usual street clothes with clown noses, feathered masks, and silly hats. One of them hands me a string of green metallic beads to wear, thinking, I think, that I might feel out of place without at least a hint of a costume. I accept his gift out of courtesy, but there is no need for him to be concerned. As someone who grew up the only Latter-day Saint in a very cool, very secular high school far away from the intermountain west, I understand only too well how exhilarating it can feel to be surrounded by one’s religious peers in a recreational setting.

In fact, Purim reminds me of my freshman year at BYU.  No, our skits were not nearly so clever or so creative. However, there I was finally free to do uncool “Mormony” things—don a cowboy hat and square dance at Kiwanis Park, put on elf ears and eat lembas at Canyon Glen, “borrow” a tray from the Morris Center and use it to sled down Carillon Hill, and, with my fellow denizens of Deseret Towers, play “tournament” Risk late into the night—and do them all without swearing or even mentioning beer, marijuana, drugs, or sex.

Instead, we talked about the usual things—sports, music, girls—as well as unusual things, at least for me—patriarchal blessings, testimonies, missions, and marriage. And I loved it. I also loved how the style of an apostle’s talk would come up naturally in my English composition class and how the benefits of living the Word of Wisdom were explored matter-of-factly in my health class. At BYU, I no longer had to hide my religion or make excuses for my decidedly uncool behavior. It felt wonderful to let my guard down and to express myself openly, freely, completely, without worrying that something I said or did would be misunderstood or made fun of. Unlike my high school, here faith-based topics and activities were not off-limits.

Another Jew I Will Crush

After reading how Ahashuerus had summarily dismissed Queen Vashti and selected Esther, a secret Jew, as her replacement, the congregation turns its attention to Haman and his plot to exterminate all the Jews in Persia. As the music starts up again, Haman goosesteps awkwardly around the platform, stumbling occasionally, and impotently threatening us with a flyswatter when we laugh. Behind him, the cast begins singing a modified version of “Another One Bites the Dust.”

Haman’s walking down the street
with his pointy hat giving a show
Commanding y’all to kiss his feet
And kow-tow way down low!

Haman is hilarious. Everyone in the congregation applauds loudly and vigorously shakes their pasta boxes—including me. At BYU, I too would occasionally make fun of my high school “enemies,” mimicking their slurred speech when they were drunk or commenting upon the way their continual swearing showed how limited their vocabulary was. I was not being fair, of course. Many of my peers were extremely articulate and mostly responsible with their drinking. Still, it felt good to turn the tables through humor and make fun of those I who had persecuted me.  Back on the platform, Haman stomps his feet and sings:

Another Jew I will crush
Another Jew I will crush
First Mordecai down, then I’ll own the town
Another Jew I will crush!
Hey, I’m gonna get you too!
Another Jew I will crush

I say “persecuted,” but what I had experienced in high school was nothing like what my Jewish friends—and especially their ancestors—have endured. I mean, two older guys once threatened to force me to smoke a cigarette when I was a freshman, and someone else later on wrote “narc” beside my name on a poster I had made. However, I am not sure that any of them knew why I did not smoke or do drugs. I, like Esther, was extremely adept at hiding my religion. If someone asked me to play tennis on Sunday, I would respond that I had somewhere else that I needed to go that day (which was technically true), or, if they invited me to a party, I would say that I was not feeling well (which, when I thought about what typically happened at these parties, was also true).  

As far as most people were concerned, I was just another secular kid—a little odd, perhaps, and quiet, but not radically different from anyone else in my high school.  Nonetheless, I felt different, and, since I knew very little about the Church at that time and had absolutely no confidence in my ability to answer questions about it, I trembled to think what would happen if I ever let that difference be known. Still, I, again like Esther, could not “hold my peace” forever (Esther 4:14).

As I was applying to BYU during my senior year, I learned of a special program there that I very much wanted to get into. Unfortunately, it required three teacher recommendations. This fact alone almost caused me to give up on applying to this program. However, I did not. Instead, I mustered what little courage I possessed at that time and “bravely” slipped my requests into three teachers’ mail boxes late one Friday afternoon just before I ran off to catch my bus home. I then agonized all weekend as to what these teachers might say to me after they learned of my intention to attend a religious college.

However, much to my surprise when I arrived at school on Monday, no banner “Brad Is a Stupid Mormon” was draped over the entrance, and no announcement was made over the intercom disparaging my “foolish” belief in angels, golden plates, and modern prophets. Instead, everything seemed remarkably normal—so normal, in fact, that by mid-morning I had forgotten all about the recommendations and had gone about my usual high school routine.

However, that afternoon, as I was reading in a carrel in the library, I suddenly felt a shiver go down my spine. I looked up to see my English teacher’s eyes, huge behind thick glasses, staring down at me. Only his head and folded arms were visible over the carrel’s side. With his thin-lipped frown and pale, almost bloodless, skin, he looked like a medieval gargoyle. He did not move. He did not blink. And I, not knowing what else to do, just stared back at him.

Finally, after what seemed like several minutes, Mr. Mahan spoke. “Why? Why that university?” His disappointment was palpable, as was his disgust. Not knowing what to say. I started to mumble something about the pretty mountains that surrounded BYU and its nice grounds, but he cut me off. “All right,” he sighed, “All right.” Mr. Mahan pushed himself off my carrel and then, turning away from me, raised them high above his head, in what looked like a final gesture of surrender. “All right,” he said again, “if that is what you want.” And then he was gone.

I did not watch Mr. Mahan walk away. Instead, I looked down at my book and pretended to read. I was afraid to get up or even to move. I felt so exposed, so different, so utterly alone. I was sure everyone in the library was looking at me and, like Mr. Mahan, condemning me.  

First Mordecai down, then I’ll own the town
Another Jew I will crush!

We Will Mock You

After the song ends, Rabbi Friedman has several people from the audience take turns reading aloud how Esther courageously approaches her royal husband, reveals her Jewishness, and finally foils Haman’s murderous plot.  Consequently, everyone in the congregation is celebrating—clapping and stomping their feet—as the cast sings:

Haman you’re a cruel man, bad man,
Just you wait and see, you’ll be hated by the world some day.
We’ll shape sweets like your hat.
How about that?
History will show you’re a bigoted rat.
We will, we will, mock you.
We will, we will, mock you.

The adaptation of “We Will Rock You,” like the other adaptations, is clever and compelling. However, I manage only a few claps and just one stomp. I am still thinking about Mr. Mahan.

Mr. Mahan was no Haman. Yes, it hurt that the same inspiring teacher who had introduced me to the wonders of Walden and had, through it, given me the faith to follow my “different drummer” could not hear the same “music” that I heard. However, unlike the oppressors of my Jewish friends, he had not intended to hurt me.  In his own way, Mr. Mahan was just trying to help, as was apparent in the very generous recommendation he subsequently wrote for me.  

As a bookish gay man who grew up in the fifties, Mr. Mahan knew very well what it was like to feel different, and, as a result, he was always looking out for those of us who did not fit in—the new kids, the awkward kids, the shy kids, the loners, the people others occasionally made fun of or ostracized. He would then tailor his class assignments and discussions in such a way as to build us up and to help us see our worth.

In other words, Mr. Mahan’s experience as a minority had given him, in a sense, an extra sense, an enhanced ability to see people that the majority often overlooked and undervalued, as well as with the motivation to help those people by presenting them with an expanded view of themselves, a vision really, where their differences were appreciated and even esteemed.  Certainly, Mr. Mahan’s differences had “cursed” him with much pain, but, to his credit, he took that pain and used it to bless others.

We are the Chosen

After a musical interlude, the cast forms an uneven line at the back of the platform and joins hands. To the tune of “We Are the Champions” they sing:

They blamed the Jews, time after time
We’ve done more of the sentence, and done less of the crimes
And bad mistakes, we’ve made a few
Like 40 years in the desert of Sinai before we came through
Moses made us walk on and on and on and on.

As the music swells, several members of the congregation join in on the chorus, but not my friends. One starts to but looks over at me and stops.

We are the chosen, my friends
And we’ll keep surviving till the end
We are the chosen: Kleins, Steins, and Rosens
No time for kvetching, cause we are the chosen
of the world.

No one explains to me why my friends are not singing, but I can guess. During our study sessions, we once discussed “chosenness,” and nearly all of the people present were uncomfortable with the term and would point out its, and their, flaws. Certainly, they were proud to be Jews and pleased with what their people had accomplished over the centuries. However, it is one thing to assert the value of one’s heritage and quite another to suggest its superiority.  To them, being Jewish was more of a call to serve, humbly and quietly, than an indication of divine favoritism or social preeminence.

In other words, Purim had done its job. Through humor, creativity, and unbridled silliness, it had provided many of those present with a kind of catharsis—a chance to verbally strike back at those who had inflicted pain upon them and in the process put that pain in perspective and spur them on to use it to relieve the pain of others, much as Mr. Mahan did.

At this point in the purimshpiel, there is no mention of how the Jews, according to the Book of Esther, “smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword” and destroyed “those that hated them” (Esther 9:5). Instead, a synagogue board member mounts the platform to thank everyone for attending and to explain where the boxes of pasta they had been using as noisemakers should be placed so that they could go to the poor, as the book of Esther requires (Esther 9:22). Another member of the board reminds the congregation of other, more substantial efforts the synagogue is sponsoring to benefit the poor in the area and to promote legislation protecting oppressed minorities and other marginalized groups. She then invites those present to contribute to these efforts. Many come forward to talk with her and to enlist.

Hamentaschen

After all is said and sung, we move into the social hall, to meet and to mingle. There we are welcomed by several tables full of apricot, date, and raspberry hamentashen, triangle-shaped cookies supposedly in the shape of Haman’s tricorn hat. There is even a gluten-free option. I take one of each.  After a few moments, the cast emerges from the sanctuary.  They are greeted with cheers and loud applause. Many people move forward to congratulate them.  I too applaud their efforts but hang back unsure if I, as someone not of this congregation, should approach them.  However, several members of the cast, accompanied by members of my Torah class, seek me out and thank me for coming—and not just to their purimshpiel but to the other Jewish services I have attended. I, in turn, thank them for allowing me to come to these services and explain, briefly, how they have enhanced my understanding not only of Judaism but of my own faith well.

My friends nod knowingly, pat me on the back, and tell me about other Latter-day Saint friends they have known and respected. One even suggests that we have a joint Jewish-Latter-day Saint Torah session sometime. The mood is upbeat and light, but, as we chat, trading jokes and humorous experiences, I can see that they have internalized the more serious lessons of Purim and, with them, I eat my cookies slowly, almost sacramentally, as we resolve together not only to resist the Hamans of the world but also to never become Hamans ourselves. Bigotry is never the answer to bigotry just as persecution should never be the response to persecution. As our mutual minority experiences have taught us, only brotherly kindness, sisterly compassion, and friendly respect can break the cycle and turn sorrow into joy and “mourning into a good day” (Esther 9:22). Happy Purim!