Each day this week, the Scroll will be featuring a post from a writer at JN Magazine—short for “Jewnited Nations”—a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.” Each post has been commissioned and edited by MaNishtana, the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, a Tablet contributor and editor-at-large at JN Magazine.
In my former life, Halloween was my favorite holiday. I loved everything about it, the costumes, the fear that ran through me as I imagined all of the otherwordly creatures stalking me in the shroud of the night, the decorations, the stories, and, of course, the candy.
The lure of rural trick-or-treating still tugs at me, especially driving around upstate New York in the fall. As I became more religious I was disappointed to turn my back on the traditions of my childhood. How could I say goodbye to that wonderful identity transforming, candy grubbing holiday?
The costumes were my favorite part. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears (literally and figuratively) went into developing authentic and interesting costumes, so I was overjoyed when my mentor told me that some Jews dress up on Purim. Confession time: for everyone that says Purim isn’t Jewish Halloween—it sure looked like it to me and I loved it.
For my first Purim, I created a stunning peacock costume. At the risk of sounding arrogant, it was one memorable costume. A close friend gifted me a custom embroidered challah cover with a peacock on it as a wedding gift many years later.
I was so proud of that costume. Strutting from house to house giving mishloach manot, I wished my friends a Chag Purim sameach.
But my Jewish pride in Purim and enthusiasm about the costumes was quickly crushed. When I arrived at shul for the megillah reading, I saw one of the children dressed in blackface. My jaw dropped. I was stunned. I was… appalled. Here was a child who I’d known to be nothing but respectful and sensitive. And yet he was doing one of the most disrespectful things a white person could do.
I asked him to tell me about his costume. “I’m a schvartze,” he proudly proclaimed. “A cop stopped me and asked me what I was supposed to be. He was mad so I told him a ‘bandit.’” I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t a parent at the time, and I didn’t know how to tell him that his costume was offensive. Another adult in the room laughed at the “cleverness” of the little boy. I cringed and my stomach knotted.
In the secular world, cultural appropriation is frowned upon. Every Halloween there are PSAs all over Facebook saying, “a culture not a costume.” I would like to bring this message to the Jewish world.
The boy might not have known better, but the parents certainly should have stopped this from happening. It’s not just children either; a prominent Jewish political leader was photographed wearing black face on Purim in 2013. It caused a few ripples but was quickly forgotten. I believe that’s a result of the rampant racism I’ve witnessed firsthand in the frum world.
Don’t believe me? Walk into any Purim megastore and you’ll see the shelves lined with costumes called “China girl” or “amigo.” These racist costumes, while not designed and developed only by Jews, are purchased by us each year for Purim. When one purchases a costume that is a cheap knockoff of cultural garb, the message sent is one of disrespect, undervalue, and disposability.
Someone I know dressed up in traditional Bengali Sari for Purim. Everyone oohed and aahed at the coral pink color and intricate beadwork and embroidery of her outfit. She was so proud that she had purchased it at a “real store” on Coney Island Avenue. I felt strange and uncomfortable complimenting her costume. So I didn’t. How was I supposed to feel? How would I feel if someone went into Hartstein’s to buy a kapote to wear for Halloween? How would I feel if someone spray painted their hair orange and put on green sweatpants to dress up as as “Irish”? How would I feel if someone took a part of my culture that I’m proud of, used it for their own purposes, profited from it, and then tossed it aside? It doesn’t matter how authentic or inauthentic the clothing is—if it belongs to someone’s culture, it’s not a costume.
I once attempted to talk to a friend about this, and her response was, “It’s fun to dress up like the goyim.” I no longer speak to this person.
Even if you fail to see the racist nature of these types of costumes, I’d like you to imagine for a moment a world in which there are black Jews, Asian Jews, Hispanic Jews, Jews from every country and culture. Oh wait, you don’t need to imagine it. That is the world we live in. And what better time to remember this than Purim? After all, the Megillah says that there were Jewish communities from India to Ethiopia.
What message are we sending to Jews of color when we purchase and dress up in these costumes or put on blackface? We’re sending a message that their skin tone and other parts of their culture are valuable only as a disguise for our entertainment. We owe our fellow Jews and fellow humans better. We owe ourselves better.
This Purim, when you dress yourself or your children, remind yourself that if it’s a culture, it’s not a costume. Find an alternative that doesn’t tread on someone else’s identity. Better yet, wear the traditional clothing of your own heritage and represent diversity across the Jewish world. Tag your culturally respectful photos on social media with the hashtag #PurimNotPrejudice and link to the Shivtei Jeshurun Society’s website to help raise awareness of Jewish Ethnic and Racial Diversity.
Chag Purim sameach!
In addition to writing for JN Magazine, Tzipi also works as a birth and postpartum doula. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter.