Purim is a Jewish holiday celebrated in the spring. Known for its costumes and triangle-shaped cookies (Hamantaschens), Purim recounts the story of Queen Esther saving the Jewish people from annihilation.
But for many LGBTI Jews, the story of Purim is so much more. It can be seen as an analogy for coming out.
The story of Purim
Esther, a young Jewish girl, became Queen of Persia after the king chose her in a beauty contest. Esther was an orphan who lived with her cousin, Mordechai. Not long after Esther becomes queen, the evil grand vizier Haman became offended when Mordechai refused to bow to him. With this, he decides to punish not only Mordechai, but all the Jewish people. He informs King Ahasuerus that the Jews do not obey him. He suggests it would be in the King’s best interest to get rid of them.
In defiance, Esther fasts for three days. She then requests that King Ahasuerus organize a banquet and invite Haman to it. At the banquet, with Haman in attendance, the King asks Esther what she desires.
‘If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life — this is my petition. And spare my people — this is my request. For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated,’ Esther responds (Esther 7:3).
The King is outraged that anyone would threaten his queen. He asks who is to blame, and she says Haman. The King orders Haman to be executed and gives Esther the power to overturn his orders. She issues an edict allowing all Jewish people the right to freely assemble and protect themselves from harm, which they did.
Queen Esther is celebrated for her bravery in letting it be known she was Jewish despite mounting hatred against the Jewish people.
The holiday is known as Purim because Haman cast the pur (meaning ‘lot’) on the Jews. But he ultimately failed to destroy them. Now, we celebrate in costumes and by eating Hamantaschens, designed after the funny looking triangle hat Haman wore.
LGBTI Jews & Purim
In modern eras, LGBTI Jews see something of themselves within Esther and the story of Purim. It’s no wonder why many LGBTI communities host parties. For instance, the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan is hosting its own 12th annual LGBTI Purim Ball.
Many LGBTI Jews see the story of Purim as an allegory for coming out. In the story, Esther ‘came out’ as a Jew in Persia. She was brave in this, despite knowing many powerful people like Haman had it out for her people.
‘Coming out also led me to see a new dimension in the Purim story,’ writes Amram Altzman for Jewcy. ‘It was not only Esther’s fear of taking responsibility that scared her. It was the peeling away of the false identity she had created to conceal her Judaism.’
‘As a child, I had read rabbinic stories of how Esther would light Shabbat candles and practice Judaism in secret, with only Mordechai and a few of her maids aware of her real identity. After hiding for so long, she feared the response to her true self. Would she be rejected by her husband, the king, who had approved Haman’s plan to exterminate her people? What if she couldn’t save her people? And what if the king decided that she, despite being queen, would not be spared?’
‘Like I did when I was coming out, Esther shed her false identity in stages. Initially she does not mention her Jewishness, only that a nation is about to be exterminated. Later, she reveals her affiliation with Mordechai and the greater Jewish community. Ahasuerus becomes angered not at the fact that the Jews are in danger, but that a single minority is in danger. In executing Haman, Ahasuerus sent the message that intolerance of any kind was unacceptable in his kingdom, which was known for its diversity (the beginning of the megillah tells us that the Persian empire included no fewer than 127 distinct nations). Megillat Esther is story about—and a call for—social justice, as much as it is about shedding the false identities we create so as to not be rejected.’
‘Being queer and being Jewish aren’t the same. But Esther’s courageous decision to reveal a part of her identity, despite the fact that it may not be well-received, is something many LGBTQ people can relate to,’ echoes Josh Goodman for Huffington Post.
‘Esther not only states that she is Jewish, but also behests the King to spare the Jewish people. Her fight for her people is not all too different from fighting for LGBTQ rights today. There may not be a credible plan to wipe out all LGBTQ people (at least, not in the Western World), but there are plenty of people who are working to keep our rights limited. Passively hoping that rights come our way is less likely to be effective than actively making our case for why we deserve equal rights and fair treatment.’
LGBTI inclusion in Purim
Goodman and Altzman aren’t the only ones who see connections between the story of Purim and the plight of LGBTI people. An LGBTI-inclusive children’s book called The Purim Superhero was released a few years ago. In the book, the protagonist comes from a Jewish family with two dads.
‘Purim is an event which brings people together, symbolizes the concept of ve’nahafoch hu [things turned on their head], ad deloyada [not being able to distinguish between opposite notions], the idea of gender fluidity and transforming our understanding of things and putting them into a different perspective. These are all themes that connected to LGBTQ experience and identity,’ Sarah Weil, executive director of the Women’s Gathering community of LGBTQ women, told the Jerusalem Post in 2016.
This year, Purim falls on Wednesday, 20 March.