WAYLAND, Mass. (Feb. 23)
The invitation to the Purim party is explicit: “Preferable: Come in costume. Acceptable: Masquerade in a mask. Minimally admissible: Bring a bonnet.”
Does one grumble and groan, and finally leave the house in street clothes? Does one rush to pull together a clever and exciting costume, an expression of some inner urge? Does one dutifully — and uncomfortably — don a hat belonging to a parent, child or spouse?
What is it about costumes? Why are they fun for some and next to impossible for others? And why does this issue arise at Purim? Masks and masquerading on Purim probably began in the late 15th century. In Italy, the Jews imitated the carnival practices of Christians during Lent. From there, the custom spread.
Like other Purim customs, wearing masks and costumes was, and is, one more way to celebrate, one more way to have fun, one more way to be joyful.
Like Purimspiels — parodies, singing and dancing — dressing up is meant to increase the festivity of the day.
On this one day, Jews try to take the weight of the world off their shoulders and make merry. And so the destruction of Haman and the reign of a Jewish queen are celebrated.
The survival of the Jews is rejoiced.
Previously, many adults had freely celebrated Purim. Some still do. But many find it easier to give Purim to the children.
Think about it. How many Purim parties have you seen where most of the kids wear costumes, and most of the adults do not?
Children are generally open about who they are. They say what they think. “You smell.” “I hate Aunt Martha.” “I don’t like this sandwich.”
Children do what they want to do. Climb trees. Make messes. Run around naked.
They also like to experiment. Wear costumes. Pretend to be other people. Act like them. It helps children find out what fits.
As children mature, they learn how to behave properly in society. They learn that it is not always OK to say what they think. It is not always OK to do what one wants to do.
And, sadly, we often learn that it is not OK to be who we are.
As we grow older, more and more, we hide our feelings. More and more, we put on emotional masks:
Let me pretend that I like my teacher, so I’ll get a good grade. Let me pretend that I like my boss, so I can keep my job and get a raise. Let me pretend that I am heterosexual, so I don’t have to face who I really am, so I don’t have to let down my loved ones. Let me pretend that I still love my wife, so I can keep our family together.
Often, emotional masks go so deep that their wearer is unaware of their presence. He or she may believe that what is actually a mask is, in fact, reality.
Some truly special people rarely wear masks. They are themselves, all the time. Because they know and are themselves, they are powerful people, able to be loving and productive, creative and giving.
Others labor all their lives to find out who they are. Learning who we are may be an ongoing struggle, as we get to know ourselves better and better with the years.
What is the connection between emotional masks and the masks of Purim?
The more we put on emotional masks, the harder it becomes to wear a real mask. In order to feel free to pretend to be someone we are not, we need to first know who we are. Then, it is easy. Then, we know we will not lose touch with ourselves.
There are people for whom putting on a mask at Purim is freeing. Behind that unreal face, they can say and do things they may feel unable to say and do all the rest of the year.
For others, donning a mask is too real. When one is in a process of trying to take off masks, putting one on can be excruciating. It feels like a backward step, like an impossible task.
And for someone who never wears an emotional mask, putting on a physical mask may simply be too foreign an act.
Then there are those who put on masks as a way to hide even further. Inside their disguises, they can be rough and tough, or big and brave, and they don’t have to feel fearful or insecure. These people may go overboard with the game, and even hurt others.
This is all very well and nice. But what about that invitation?
What can you do? If you are game, here is a suggestion:
Create a story about yourself, and climb inside it. In this story, you are real. You are your true self.
Perhaps you chose some aspect of yourself that is difficult to express in your “real” life. Perhaps you are a feminist — Queen Vashti. Perhaps you are slowly emerging from a cocoon — a butterfly. Perhaps you are in search of a better life for Jews — Mordechai. Perhaps you are wise and knowledgeable — a learned scholar. Your options are limited only by your imagination.
Inside your costume, you are hidden. You are safe. Now, allow the free expression of this part of yourself, this vulnerable bit of you, unknown to most. It is, after all, a fitting way to celebrate Purim, for Purim is about survival, and there is vulnerability in survival. Purim is about being joyous and happy, and there is unbounded joy and happiness in finding full expression of who you are.
Most of all, Purim is about celebration. And so, come to the party! Come in costume, and let us celebrate together who we are, as Jews and as individuals.