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The Transgressive Spirit of Purim

I’ve spent years trying to find a costume, from Kurt Cobain to my own cat, that reflects a hidden side of my personality

Siân Gibby
March 02, 2015
Tablet Magazine / Esther Werdiger
Tablet Magazine / Esther Werdiger
Tablet Magazine / Esther Werdiger
Tablet Magazine / Esther Werdiger

In 2005, the year I became a Jew, I celebrated Purim for the first time. I’d heard that the classic Purim costume for little girls was Queen Esther; but since I was a 40-year-old divorcee, I decided to put my own twist on it. I went not as Queen Esther, heroine of the Purim story, but as the other Queen Esther: my overweight, neurotic black cat. I wore black slacks and a fuzzy black sweater, drew whiskers on my cheeks, donned furry cat ears, and sewed a tail to my pants. Nobody else really got the joke, but I thought myself quite hilarious for adhering to my new religion’s convention while also making it my own. I wore the same costume to my shul’s Purimspiel the next year, and the next.

But a few years later, I took a class at my shul about the chagim, the holidays, and I came to have a new appreciation for Purim. It’s the only day in the entire year when Jews are commanded to drop the mantle of rationalism or reason. We aren’t just supposed to drink to get a pleasant buzz, but to drink to the dangerous point where we can’t tell right from wrong, Haman (evil) from Mordecai (good). Purim is infused with this erasure of duality, the blurring of lines that ordinarily form the foundation of Jewishness—including the most central separation between the holy and the profane. It is the day to slide over to the Other side, the chaotic realm that inheres to the abandonment of distinction. My rabbi said that we should consider choosing a costume that reflects a kind of hidden or fantasy side of one’s personality.

Since taking that course, I have adopted costumes every spring for the Purimspiel that have reflected my evolving sense of my own Jewishness—personal expressions of my own darker side that represent my exploration of the crepuscular, the in-between, in Judaism. In a religion with so much devotion to rigid distinctions (holiness and ordinariness; kosher and trayf, etc.) going right up to the edge and even crossing it, I have found, is not only a compelling part of my life as a Jew, it is integral to the spirit of the holiday.

My synagogue promotes creativity in this respect. My rabbis’ boundary-pushing costumes frequently go right over into shocking territory if not outright bad taste. They’ve been known to dress as German soldiers, as Romans, as CIA operatives, as popes. One year my female rabbi was a very pregnant Roman Catholic nun in full habit. The first year after I took the class, I took my rabbis’ cue and dressed up as Ashley Dupre, the hooker Eliot Spitzer was with when he got nabbed. I donned a long brunette wig and sunglasses, wore a black slip and peignoir and these crazy call-girl shoes (red satin stilettos decorated in black lace). As the piece de resistance, I pinned a giant $5,000 price tag to my ass. The long dark hair drew compliments from unexpected quarters; one male friend said, “You should wear your hair like that all the time.” I didn’t feel like I looked good, but I definitely was expressing sexuality or rather looseness, which is something I typically don’t do. As an unmarried and childless woman, I have struggled somewhat with my femininity in the Jewish cultural context (all within my head; no one has made me feel the least bit strange in this regard). I don’t think Ashley Dupre was really a fantasy for me; I was just going for the most un-Sian-like costume I could think of—the opposite of me.

The following year I decided to try drag. I got a pair of dark slacks and a white dress shirt and bowtie, a men’s hat and shoes, Mackintosh and umbrella and a pipe, and I went as M. Hulot, from one of my favorite movies, Mon Oncle. Of course nobody recognized what I was. At the end of the night, though, I happened to sit next to an older lady I didn’t know, and after the couple hours it took to get through the Megillah, she suddenly spun around in her chair and blurted out, “You look exactly like Jacques Tati in Mon Oncle!”

Ahh. Merci, Madame.

Though that particular costume had nothing dark about it, I reveled in wearing a man’s clothes. (The shoes in particular I bought in the men’s section of Target and they felt distinctly Other to me: completely flat; they had no pretention to shaping a calf muscle or boosting a butt like women’s heels do—they were the cheap dress shoes a new hire at a suburban bank might have bought himself when he finally got into that trainee program he hoped might lead to a cushy desk job in 15 years or so.) Since converting I always have worn skirts, so pants did seem transgressive even after just a few years of only dresses.

The following Purims saw me dipping more seriously into the shadows of my own desires and aspirations. I dressed as the dead-by-suicide grunge rock god Kurt Cobain. I liked the liberating sensation of being in drag (Cobain also had an almost delicate feminine quality that was a point of entry or cross-over between him and me), and I have always felt a kinship with Cobain for his lack of ease with himself. For maximum similitude I let my shoulder-length blonde hair go unwashed and uncombed for almost a week. I put on ripped and faded jeans, a vintage cardigan sweater over a striped T that had seen better days, oversized Hollywood glam ladies’ sunglasses and classic black Chucks, and I dangled a fake cigarette in my mouth.

On the long ride at night on the #2 train dressed like that, I felt vulnerable. I am pretty sure I passed as a guy who was on society’s edge, so to speak. No one made eye contact with me. I had become invisible, inconsequential, which was new for me. Most of all I felt unprotected by my typical mantle of “bookish-looking middle-aged white lady with a pleasant Midwestern demeanor.” That mask of my “real” self is a powerful one, I realized. I wonder now how much of the dressing up had to do with my adjusting to my new identity as a Jew; at a certain point I have to ask myself, am I wearing a new mask of a Jew, or still an old mask of a WASP?

The next year, I went as one of the jailed anti-Putin protest punksters from the Russian political collective Pussy Riot. I wore a short red dress, ugly green tights, army boots, and an electric blue balaclava mask. The subversive power of the band (embodied in the name itself) sent a frisson through me: Imagine what it would feel like to thumb your nose at a repressive government, in public, through music, and with the certainty of being arrested!

I feel I am getting bolder and therefore closer to the spirit of Purim with every year. So, I have stuck with this darker side of dressing for Purim. Last year, as a commentary on a horrifying book I’d just read about the history of anti-Semitism, I went as a medieval Jewess, wearing all the legally mandated “signs of Jewishness” that women in Europe had been constrained to put on when in public: one black shoe and one red shoe, a yellow hat, a yellow star, and bells to “warn” non-Jews that a Jew was coming. I worry a lot about not looking very classically Jewish: Should I try harder to represent my people in public, or is that a foolish and even un-Jewish way to think? That costume touched some of my very real anxieties.

But henceforth I am going in some form of drag. Exploring the Other gender, or the lost half of ourselves (if we subscribe to that biblical tale), is to me a good beginning point for finding and expressing the rest of ourselves, the identities that emerge from the shadows when things begin to blur.

This year I’m going as transgender film director Lana Wachowski. She’s been a hero of mine since I watched her 2012 acceptance speech for winning the visibility award from the Human Rights Campaign. When she reluctantly but graciously told of feeling odd, Other, of being misunderstood and lonely as a child, it rang serious bells with me (and might it not do so historically with many Jews, in some sense?). I didn’t experience Lana’s anguish or her suicidal thoughts, but I admire her strength and humor and aspire to her expressiveness and authoritative creativity. In my imagination, once she became herself, the Power came to her, the power that comes with one’s femininity, with one’s true voice. And that, ladies and gentlemen of Shushan, is my own fantasy, and ambition, for myself.

Siân Gibby holds the position of writer/editor at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. She is the translator of Intimate History of the Great War, by Quinto Antonelli; The God of New York, by Luigi Fontanella; and Resistance Rap, by Francesco Carlo.