Showing posts with label Purim. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Purim. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Purim Message for the PJ Library (via eJP)

Time for someone else's words - because they are worth reading and repeating. This post by Victoria L. Steinberg was in the daily posting from eJewishPhilanthropy.
(You still don't get eJP? Really?) 

PJ Library has filled a role in the Jewish community that many were not aware was needed. They have brought the joy of Jewish reading into many homes of young children.
In an effort to not offend, they have done something that I hope many will find offensive nonetheless (see below). Their misguided attempt at political correctness assumes the right of one interpretation of Jewish values trumps another. Beit Hillel won all but a handful of the 316 debates with Beit Shammai. We are not asked to "opt in" in order to read Beit Shammai's opinions - they are right there next to Beit Hillel's. 
Well said Ms. Steinberg.

Posted: 04 Mar 2014 11:00 PM PST

As a Jewish mother, I read with interest a recent blog post explaining the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s decision to make “The Purim Superhero” – a story about a boy, Nate, who has two dads – available only to PJ Library families who request it, but not to all of its subscribers.

My husband and I have two daughters under four years old. We signed up to receive PJ Library books immediately after our first daughter was born.

In our home, PJ Library books and CDs are much more than wonderful stories and songs. They create another way that our home is a Jewish home. They reflect back to our children the holidays, words and values that define our lives as Jews. They introduce visitors to those things as well, including some without previous exposure to Judaism. As Jews we are the vast minority; but the PJ Library books on our shelves integrate the imagined lives of Jewish characters with the rest of our daughters’ children’s literature.

But not every PJ Library book we receive reflects our family’s values. Some portray strictly divided gender-based roles in religious life (e.g., only men reading Torah). Those books contradict what we teach our daughters about their Jewish obligation and right to participate as full members of their Jewish community and the rest of society. Others depict Eretz Yisrael in a way that does not match our loving but concerned perspective on Israel.

Underlying almost every story are values – PJ Library books are no exception. When we receive a PJ Library book that doesn’t match our family’s values, we sometimes choose not to read it to our children, and instead pass it along to friends, bring it to shul, or donate it.

That’s why the Foundation’s rationale for not sending “The Purim Superhero” out to all subscribers – because it allegedly would offend some families – doesn’t make sense to me. Children’s stories routinely reflect value choices about important societal issues like women’s role in society or Israel’s importance to American Jews. Although I sometimes wish that the PJ Library didn’t send out certain books, I can appreciate that those books do fit its mission: disseminating age-appropriate, Jewish-themed books.

Requiring people to opt-in to receive “The Purim Superhero” inappropriately layers onto that mission a “controversy” litmus test. (I question this “controversy” – same-sex parenting is a Jewish reality, and is not controversial simply because some disapprove.) History unfortunately proves that when this litmus test is applied to books, we exclude books we later realize we needed most. At a given time, the most controversial books concern the most marginalized, unpopular viewpoint or group. Excluding them perpetuates that marginalization.

Of course, as a private entity, the Foundation is free to choose what to distribute. But that does not mean that it should exercise that power to discriminate. If it distributes “The Purim Superhero” to all subscribers, some families would (as we sometimes do) decline to read that book to their children. Speaking from experience, this is not a burden.

The alternative – not distributing the book except to those who opt-in – has a pernicious impact:
  • It sends a message to same-sex parents raising Jewish children that their own community does not accept them; their lives are offensive; and stories about them must never enter certain homes;
  • It says something disappointing about how the Foundation’s mission is implemented because a book fitting the purported criteria is yet kept from general distribution based on the particular Jews represented; and
  • It keeps from subscribers a fun story with an important message about bravery. Indeed, it contradicts that very message.

The Foundation suggests that it is trying not to offend some people’s deeply-held religious beliefs; but by holding back this book the Foundation is choosing among deeply-held Jewish beliefs. I and my Jewish community believe that it is our job, as Jews, to educate, promote inclusion, welcome all members of our community, and engage in the work of tikkun olam.

(I should note that I am not a major fan of “The Purim Superhero.” Like some other LGBT children’s books, it suggests that the protagonist’s family is “different,” and that same-sex couples’ children must struggle with and embrace “difference.” But the LGBT individuals, couples and families in my life are not “different.” They are simply a part of my Jewish community, professional life, children’s school, and family. I wish that books simply incorporated and reflected diverse families).

PJ Library certainly can’t please all readers all the time. But that cannot be its goal. Rather, its great success is that each month, it steeps our children in Jewishness, through stories celebrating our wonderful holidays, life events, and history, and songs that echo through the generations. My three-year-old can’t wait to dress up for Purim, go to shul for the megillah reading and spin a grogger – in part, because of “The Purim Superhero”. In other words, the book has done just what the Foundation hopes that its books will do.

Regardless of one’s views on same-sex parenting, it cannot be questioned that there are many Nates out there in the world. I hope that the Foundation will consider whether, if Nate were a real little boy, he would be welcome in all of their homes. He’d certainly be welcome in mine.

Please join me in urging the Foundation to be brave and bold (like Esther) and send “The Purim Superhero” to all of its readers. Chag Sameach! 

Victoria L. Steinberg is an attorney practicing business litigation and employment law at Collora LLP in Boston, Massachusetts. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and two daughters, who are helping her choose a Purim costume. But like Nate, she might keep it a surprise until the chag.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

(Purim) Power Suits

This is from today's magazine online.A really interesting and current take on Purim. If you do not know the Hunger Games, you are not where 12-14 year-olds are. The books are a horribly bleak and nasty, but wonderfully written dystopian vision that involves children fighting to the death.Power Suits

Dressing up is a crucial element of the Purim celebration—as well as a powerful piece of the Hunger Games trilogy of young-adult novels

Once upon a time, a young girl from an oppressed minority was summoned to the capital. The nation watched as she competed against her peers, and won. She could have done the thing that was expected of her and lived happily ever after. But instead she risked everything—not just her newly won riches and standing, but her life—to stand up for her people. And these people, with her as their heroine and figurehead, rose up violently. We would like to say that then they all lived happily ever after, but the text doesn’t quite permit us that luxury. Still, the war was epic, and the story became beloved, the bitterness of the ending often skipped over. Its legend is considered myth, fairy tale, or fantasy, even though the supernatural is notably absent.

Sound familiar? This is the story of the Book of Esther—and of the Hunger Games, a trilogy of young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins with an eagerly anticipated movie adaptation [1] coming out March 23. The Hunger Games and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay are set in the future totalitarian nation of Panem, in what used to be America, where America’s reality-television obsession and the growing gap between rich and poor have been taken to their dystopian extreme. Every year a boy and a girl from each of Panem’s 12 districts are sent to compete in the Hunger Games, a broadcast reality TV show in which 24 children fight to the death until only one survives. The annual show is both entertainment and commemoration of the crushing defeat by the Capitol [2]—a city for the nation’s rich and powerful—of an uprising of the districts, decades before.

The trilogy’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from District 12, a poor coal-mining district, and her background—half-orphaned and impoverished—is both asset and defect in the competition; on the one hand, she lacks the physical size and training of children from the wealthier districts, and on the other, she is tough and resourceful.

In the Book of Esther, the Jews of Persia are to be put to death, a plan devised by the evil Haman, a minister to the king. But Queen Esther foils Haman’s plan, revealing to the king that she is Jewish. The Jews triumph, and the gallows, built by Haman to hang the Jews, are instead used to hang Haman and his sons, among others. Every year on the 14th of Adar, the holiday of Purim celebrates this victory. The Book of Esther is read aloud twice, in a spoof of the king’s proclamations, on which the story hinges, and of the reverence of the usual Torah and Haftorah reading, and the story is reenacted with drunken celebration, masks, costumes, and pageants. Purim isn’t the only holiday in which we remember a story by reenacting—on Passover, we are taught that each of us has been taken out of Egypt—but it is the only one in which costume and disguise are central to the observance.

And at the heart of the story is Esther becoming Queen Esther. She is introduced as a beautiful young woman, but her edge over the other maidens seems to come after she enters the harem “… to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women. And the maiden pleased him, and she obtained kindness of him; and he speedily gave her her ointments.” It’s no small thing; the cosmetic regimen lasts “twelve months—for so were the days of their anointing accomplished, to wit, six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odors, and with other ointments of the women,” before Esther is presented to the king. She wins the king’s favor with her beauty, and she does not reveal that she and her family are Jewish.

I’ve found myself drawn to this part of the story for a while. For the past several years, I’ve been part of making an elaborate annual Purim show in New York, and part of what interests me is the glimpse of spectacle and artifice in the story itself; that the Esther who is sent before the king is a character whom Hegai has been working on for months and months, just as I might work on a costume for the Esther in our show.

The stylists are recurring characters in the televised Games, and the opening ceremonies, which include a parade, televised training, and finally beauty pageant-esque interviews with these children who are about to have to kill each other, are part of the cruel entertainment. So, our first instinct, shared with Katniss, about Cinna and the makeover, is that it’s a vapid sugarcoating of the violence of the Games. Yet Cinna quickly emerges as a rare character: a loving, caring, respectful, competent adult in a dystopic YA novel [4]. The costumes he devises are startling in their beauty and innovation—they often feature fire in one form or another—and are carefully designed to elicit certain strategic reactions from the audience. In the second and third books, these costumes become overtly political, but even in the first book, we are starting to see that these costumes are not just a sort of disguise or passing, in which a poor girl looks like a princess, but the seeds of opposition. At these moments in which the Capitol seems to be in total control of the images it broadcasts and the lives it cuts short, Cinna’s costumes actually give Katniss a measure of power, turning her fear into confidence and transforming her in the eyes of the nation into a dignified figure to be reckoned with.

When fashion blogger Michael von Braithwaite writes [5], “You probably won’t want to dress like a dystopian hero every day, but if you’re feeling down and out, slip on your Katniss look and stare down every person you pass on the sidewalk,” he is being cheeky, but also at some level recapitulating what seems to me to be Cinna’s lesson: that clothes can work on us from the outside in, giving us confidence and letting us feel what it is like to be the character we’re dressed up as. And the series of extraordinary costumes in the Hunger Games trilogy seems to me to give the lie to two assumptions about femininity and power. The first is that the power of feminine beauty is predicated on male attention and desirability. The second is that a girl’s political power is as a symbol of vulnerability and innocence.

That is, when girls lie down in front of tanks in the West Bank [6], or when this country is galvanized watching the NYPD pepper-spray girls at Occupy Wall Street [7], we see the barbarism of the state in stark contrast. These assumptions that the Hunger Games books upend are the very ones that underpin the story of Esther: Esther is powerful only insofar as she finds favor in the king’s sight (“If I have found favor in thy sight, O king,” she beseeches him, “let my life be given me at my petition”). And, to make her plea to stop the massacre of Persia’s Jews, she does present herself as a personal, feminine symbol of her people’s victimization (“we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed”). Thankfully, some 2,400 years later, and given an additional 1,100 pages or so, a somewhat more nuanced heroine is possible. The Hunger Games books suggest that beauty can, in itself, be a form of resistance and self-possession, and, especially as the trilogy’s ideology becomes more complex in the third book, Katniss is a heroic public figure not because she is blameless, but because she is tough, brave, and well-dressed.

Regardless of the exact nature of the roles of their respective heroines, though, what Purim and the Hunger Games share is an understanding of the value of dressing up. If the Hunger Games trilogy teaches us about the power of costume, Purim teaches us to push at the lines between utopia, dystopia, and reality. When we listen to this story of Esther becoming queen, of the fate of the Jews catapulting from demise and triumph, and when we dress up as kings and queens, we are tracing out the extremes of power in a society, mocking authority, and, for a moment, feeling what it might be like to be the kings and queens we’ll never be. Purim makes me want to believe that our fantasy lives and our outfits matter, that inner transformation is both part of and preparation for larger struggles, that political work can start with the heart and the sewing machine.
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Sunday, February 28, 2010

All Together Now!

When I was a kid, the Purim carnival was all about the Men’s Club – or so it seemed to me. They coordinated everything, food, games, moonbounce, tickets, prizes – it was their show. I was a kid, and my only concern was winning a goldfish. (Keeping it alive later was a lower priority and probability!)

Jump forward about 35 years. This afternoon was the Purim carnival at our temple. For a variety of reasons, I played a larger role that ever before, as did the members of the Religious School Committee. It was amazing!

Now its amazing-ness had nothing to do with anything I did. I tried very hard to follow the well-designed plan of our Family Educator, who has done it for years. And her foresight made everything work. What was amazing was what my changed perspective allowed me to see, and what I am certain was always there.

It’s about the numbers. A committee of 8 people planned the carnival, made the calls and made things happen. 14 people baked cakes for the cake walk. 20 people showed up early to join the maintenance staff in setting up. 12 adults and 82 kids (grades 4 – 12) came and ran the booths. The brotherhood brought a dozen to prepare and serve the food. Another dozen stayed to clean up. And during it all, they schmoozed. Some were already friendly with one another. Others were acquainted or met one another for the first time.

It was a thrill to watch! This is not the most intellectual, spiritual or educational event in our calendar. I was excited to see the connections being made, renewed and deepened. It occurred to me that with all of our wikis focusing on Hebrew, conferences on educational technology and blogs bemoaning the failure of institution X to reach goal Y, that we sometimes overlook the most important value of all – community. And that value is modeled and lived in many places, including in the kitchen as the “Pressure Cookers” of the Brotherhood get ready to feed several hundred people!

This all seems very kamuvan – obvious – but we often take it for granted. Look at the 28 Ideas, 28 Ideas blog. No, really, go there. It is really cool and interesting. More importantly for my point, most of the ideas there are creative explorations of how can better connect the Jewish people. In other words, it is about community. 21st century, hyper-connected and tech savvy, but community nonetheless. So let's keep our eye on the prize!

They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat – together!

And now on to Pesach!

This is cross-posted with Davar Acher - On The Other Hand, the blog of the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows of the Lookstein Institute for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan. Please visit!