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Purim, Not Prejudice

A multiracial sanhedrin discusses the holiday and its costume challenges

February 28, 2018

About two weeks ago, as I trawled through the interwebs, I came across a flyer posted in a Jewish Facebook group advertising a Purim party. At the bottom of the flyer were the posters from the “Cultures Not Costumes” campaign from Halloween 2011, urging mindfulness in veering away from choosing costumes that marginalize or stereotype ethnicities. Now, granted, I’d’ve been more ecstatic if it was instead a proliferation of my own McDowell’s/ELITalks-esque “Purim Not Prejudice” campaign, but I was far more glad to see it being addressed, and not be me, and in an Orthodox setting.

Not everyone else was. The conversation descended in exactly the sort of infuriating way you might guess. Instead of rehashing the fight, it occurred to me that readers might be interested in seeing some relevant ideas expressed—by the people who are most expert to express them. To that end, I assembled a multiracial, multiethnic, multidenominational pseudo-Sanhedrin of Jews of Color, here to discuss Purim and its costume challenges. I’m reasonably sure this collection of personages, heavily involved in Jewish spaces as non-profit founders, community leaders, writers, speakers, educators, and activists are more than capable of expressing what portrayals of their individual cultures are offensive—and why. So let’s get to it:

1-Hey guys, and thanks for doing this. So, first off, what are your feelings around Purim? Like, do you enjoy it? Dread it?

Ro Johnson (44, Black/African (although Africa isn’t a country)-American, Conservative): Mishloach manot, hamentashen, drinking, colorful and creative costumes, organized noise—I love Purim because…FUN!

Courtney Parker-West (31, indigenous Meskwaki Native American/German-Jewish/Black, “just” Jewish): I enjoy it generally. There have been far more enjoyable celebrations of Purim than there have been negative experiences associated with it, so I suppose I’m lucky in that regard. It could be the company I keep: I don’t typically surround myself with people who would spend time defending minstrelsy.

Yishai Kendakur (29, Indian-American, Progressive Jewish): I love Purim. Not necessarily because of the dressing up or the feasting or drinking, but because of the call to experience unbridled joy as a part of one’s spiritual practice and to bring joy to others that are struggling. I also deeply appreciate the emphasis on shifting one’s perspective. We can get so stuck in our ways of seeing the world, or how we see our Judaism, that the call of Purim to shift and reverse our thinking is both challenging and necessary. The Purim story’s aspect of volitional spiritual revival also strikes a chord for me; even as we may disperse or check out from or drift away from our attachment to the divine, we can always choose to reconnect with Hashem with strength and conviction.

Jared Jackson (34, Multi-Heritage Jew, Ambiguously Brown (sometimes), “Just” Jewish): I LOVE Purim, and I dread Purim at the same time. For the very short time my family spent in a synagogue during my childhood, Purim was one of my fondest memories. As an adult sometimes, however, I just wait for the other shoe to drop, but fully hope that it doesn’t. Or, in some cases, it’s bad before I get a chance to walk in the door. It’s one (horrible) thing to have a Purim carnival and have the random person come in a sombrero or “Rasta” gear; it is quite another thing for the entire theme to be an appropriation of a culture and caricature of the people who descend from that culture.

Joel Sanchez (54, Mexican-American, Conservative): I do dread it. Mainly because of my experiences with racism and racist costumes. I don’t want to face that, and I’d rather not go if I’m going to face it. If I’m going to experience it, then I’d rather avoid it and not even go. l don’t like dressing up, in general. I was an actor for many many years, and I dressed up and portrayed numerous people who were not me for a long time, and I’ve never felt the impulse to do that outside of my career as an actor.

Aliza Hausman (37, Dominican-American, Modern Orthodox): I don’t dread the holiday itself as much as I dread interactions with white Jews who I have to give serious side-eye or make comments to because they are actively participating in cultural appropriation because they think it’s amusing or appreciative. I really dread being on Jewish social media groups just before Purim because I know that I will see a barrage of comments from people wanting to wear our cultures as costumes with no thought to the Jews in the groups who represent those cultures daily.

2-Do you feel dressing up as [insert appropriation or stereotyping of your culture here is offensive or not? Why/Why not?

Yishai: Dressing up in [saris/bindis or] another culture’s traditional garb [in general] is very tricky business. I have rarely seen it done in a respectful manner. So many people dress up as another culture in a manner that mocks or pokes fun, that it is hard to give anyone the benefit of the doubt that they are doing it from a respectful place. I think one thing to consider is that dressing up as a person’s identity (that they can’t remove) is generally in poor taste, while dressing up as a particular role or character is usually more appropriate.

Courtney: Yes [dressing up in feathered headdress/grass skirt/fringe], it’s offensive. One dresses up in costume that is a caricature of religious and traditional regalia without any context for the tradition or context of the clothing—it’s disrespectful, even if it is in service of a holiday tradition that the perpetrators of this obnoxious behavior value. There is little knowledge or regard to how these behaviors fit in a larger history of minstrelsy and violence. Historically the representation of Indigenous Americans has been that of the “noble savage” or the bloodthirsty, violent warrior. Media and Hollywood depictions that support this have reinforced the justification that Indigenous people shouldn’t be trusted, that we are exotic, and/or that we are extinct. The donning of actual redface and/or “war paint” is minstrelsy—and the function of minstrelsy has always been to mock and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

Jared: I do find some of the “gear” [Afro wigs/grills/blackface/”ghetto” style] offensive. But let me be clear: It’s not just the clothes but the stereotyped mannerisms and attitude that come along with the costume. Although I do get people asking me to “speak black” and ask me all of the offensive questions etc. on a regular basis (i.e. expecting a fistbump by throwing your fist out and saying “You know what this means, bro,” during Yom Kippur services), it is guaranteed that I’ll be greeted by someone who wants to portray a “ghetto black person” or other POC and want me to join in the “fun.” It’s not fun. It’s the same as if some non-Jewish POC dressed up in a witch nose, black suit, with sharp teeth, and money coming out of their pockets saying, “I really feel Jewish today so I’m going to look the part.”

Aliza: My culture is not a costume. I wish people would remember that Jews of color from those cultures exist. If they’re not dressing up in traditional garb on Purim, why are you? How would you feel about non-Jews dressing up as shtetl Jews on Halloween?

Joel: When I see people dress up in huge sombreros which are kind of a parody of the real thing, and sarate (which is the shawl, the multicolored blanket wrapped over the shoulder), and the big mustache and maybe the gun, that is a total stereotype of what it is to be Mexican. That is an image that been perpetrated by the American media for many many years. It’s racist, it’s ridiculous, and it’s offensive to me.

Ro: Regarding Blackface—DON’T DO IT! UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCE IS IT OK! Historically, blackface was used to present negative imagery and perpetuate dangerous misinformation about black people in America. Misinformation that when believed to be true lead people to justify the lynchings of scores of black men and the sexual assaults of just as black many women. If I know you and see you in Blackface—don’t bother speaking to me again.

3-“I think its honoring/being respectful of the culture.” What are your feelings on that argument?

Jared: If you’re being respectful, is this the best representation you could find given the amount of knowledge we are able to access nowadays? How are you being respectful to the JOC in front of you? What steps are you taking—taking the lead from POC and JOC—to march with us toward liberation? Think about the impact you want to have with the children around you, and their parents. Is this a part of your personal culture that you want passed down?

Allaya Fleischer (You know better than to ask/Modern Orthodox/Chinese): Purim is a silly holiday, and it was designed to be this way. It’s the only time, at least in Orthodoxy, when men are allowed to dress up as women, people are allowed to some extent to get drunk (and probably encouraged to do so in some cases), and to [generally] be irreverent all-around. [So] any time I hear [“being respectful”] as an excuse for a cultural dress on Purim, I know IMMEDIATELY it’s bullshit, because, WHO on Purim, in their rowdy, drunken stupor, is going to be receptive to a sociology lesson? It’s like wearing your nicest evening gown to a Superbowl party. Like, for real? How did anyone ever think this was a good idea?

Courtney: I call bullshit too. When someone who dresses as some caricature that is supposed to be Native American or an homage to “Native American Culture” (which is vast, diverse, and not a monolith), they are demonstrating to me that they know absolutely nothing about my culture. If you don’t know anything about my people’s history, songs, food, language, traditions, or way of life, how could you possibly honor it? I have asked people who defend the use of mascots and headdresses as a fashion statement: Tell me what you know about this particular tribe or general Indigenous American history. It’s embarrassing how little they know. To claim that these costumes are honoring anything is absurd. It’s the equivalent of someone drawing a Magen David incorrectly and ending up with a seven- or eight-point star as opposed to six, but shrugging and saying, “Close enough, I’m just honoring Jewish history” while also donning a stereotypically large, crooked nose and a faux “Auschwitz tattoo.” And if someone wants to say, “Don’t take it so seriously, it’s just Purim,” then that means Holocaust jokes are okay because it’s just a joke, and declaring Jews are the murderers of Jesus is okay because that’s just part of the Easter story. We know better than this.

Ro: I always get an uneasy feeling when I see this. It always feels like it’s being done in jest and not in honor of or in celebration of the image being projected. Have you been finding ways to honor/respect this culture throughout the remainder of the year? Have you appreciated and/or incorporated these aspects of the culture you admire so much throughout your everyday life? If the likeness and experience is being used solely for your entertainment and not for your education then you cannot be honoring it—and that is disrespectful.

Aliza: I think very few white Jews realize that there are other Jews out there on Purim for whom whatever culture they’ve decided to dress as is their actual culture. They don’t seem to be aware that there are Asian, African-American, Native American or Latinx Jews exist. People make fun of me for speaking Spanish. I’ve been told by monolingual English-speaking Jews that only Hebrew is important and asked why my son speaks Spanish. People ask if I’m Mexican because that’s the only culture they think exists as far as Latinx cultures. At an anti-racism speech I gave at a Hillel, a student made a joke he thought was uproarious calling Latinx children “baby maids.” At a playdate with my son, someone casually asked if I was an anchor baby after spending most of the playdate interrogating me about my racial and ethnic background. When I tell people MY GRANDPARENTS are from the Dominican Republic and my parents were raised here in America, I am asked if we came over legally.

4-Have you ever experienced celebrating Purim, just going about minding your own business, whether in synagogue or at a party or giving out mishloach manot, and then—*boom*—there’s someone wearing your culture as a costume?

Jared: I have, and I felt sad; sad for the fact that this person in particular always complained about how people dress up as stereotypical Ashkenazim during the Shoah for offensive college parties, yet he couldn’t see how dressing as a black slave was offensive.

Barnaby Yeh (32, Unabashedly Taiwanese, Classical-Traditional Jewish): I once saw one guy dress up in a fairly standard plain Chinese outfit, which he got while studying abroad in China. Since he was a genuine appreciator of Chinese culture and spoke Mandarin, I thought it was fine. I take it that most non-Asian people who wear Chinese costumes today are not doing a Mickey Rooney-style yellowface ching-chong-ding-dong stereotype. That being said, know what you’re wearing. If it’s the great Bruce Lee, do it as a genuine tribute to his life, and for goodness sake, don’t yellowface. Ninja or samurai? Well first of all, good job on making that armor. Second, you better know the lore behind those archetypes and their role in Japanese history, and for goodness sake, don’t yellowface!

Yishai: I generally feel put off when I see folks who aren’t Indian dressing up in traditionally Indian clothes.

Aliza: I remember going to someone’s house right before Purim and they said they were going to dress up as “Chinese people” and weren’t sure what to do with their eyes. My husband and my brother-in-law gave me a look like “There she blows!” and I really wanted to give someone a chancletazo. Whenever I see Latinx costumes, it’s people dressing up as cholos or castoffs from a mariachi band and speaking like Speedy Gonzales.

Ro: If I did see someone in an Afro wig, grills, etc. I must have buried the moment deep the moment deep inside my subconscious in order to get through the evening.

Joel: I was surfing Facebook about seven or eight years ago on Purim. There was a rabbi of this Modern Orthodox shul, relatively young, maybe his 30s, and he was dressed in the stereotypical costume I just described—the sombrero, the mustache, the sarate—and there were two congregants beside him dressed the same way. And I wrote to him and said, “Rabbi, this is offensive. As a Mexican-American Jew, this is why this is offensive…” His response was basically, “Oh, sorry you were offended. We were just having fun.” And I had a back and forth with him, trying to explain to him, I sent him articles, about what the bandito stereotype was, and how it’s used to dehumanize, demean, and ridicule Mexicans. He pushed back with the “Yeah, thanks for sending me the article, it wasn’t my intention. Sorry you were offended, we were just having fun.” So it would’ve been bad enough if anybody, like a congregant, had dressed up like this. But for a rabbi to have dressed up like this, and just be totally ignorant of what it meant, really made me feel angry.

5-There’s going to be some pushback around “intention” and the grey area between “respect” and “mockery.” What’s your response to that? Do you feel that there’s an inoffensive way for others to dress up as your culture?

Jared: Try dressing up as one of our scholars, artists, civil rights activists, fictional characters, leaders without blackface/brownface or the hair. Moreover, come prepared with knowledge of that person and their contributions to the world. Tell us how much you admire them instead of acting in a manner that besmirches their memories. Treat those who share the culture and legacy of that hero with respect long before you don a representation. Because, having Cliff-Notes-knowledge of anyone or anything that represents a culture or ethnicity has never been good enough. You need to walk in a way that moves towards equity. If you do all of that and you still end up offending a POC, don’t get defensive. Rather, listen to what they have to say and let it sink in. Remember to validate their concerns and see it from their POV as best possible.

Yishai: I don’t know that it can actually be done inoffensively, given the racial climate and dynamics that exist. There definitely are different ways to approach the question, though. In theory, if someone is dressing up as a particular Indian person that has something distinctive about their appearance that isn’t just “Indian person,” it could be possible. But in practice, I don’t know that it’s really worth the risk of being problematic. If you do choose to do so, I would stay away from trying to represent or exaggerate any racialized features.

Courtney: I would just avoid it. There are so many other things to do and be and engage with on Purim, why go there? I know people who are really into cosplay; they pay deep and focused attention to every detail of their costumes. Pokemon characters get more respect and authentic representation than our leaders and people. The great things my elders and ancestors have done were not in service of someone’s good Purim time.

I remember Dov Hikind said in his “apology” statement for dressing in blackface that “it never crossed my mind for a second that I was doing something wrong. It was as innocent as something can be.” It is only white people who get to don blackface, redface, and yellowface for a night all while benefiting from white advantage.

Aliza: Honestly, I don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I’m so mixed but I’ve never wanted to dress up as someone else’s culture. I’ve always had friends from so many different cultures and I’ve appreciated the homemade meals and learning about them but never wanted to dress up in them. As a mixed Dominican who is often white passing, I wouldn’t even try to dress one of my cultures that I don’t match phenotypically on sight so there’s never a misunderstanding. It’s never really crossed my mind. I am such a fan of superheroes, book, movie and TV characters and historical personalities that there’s so much else to choose from that’s not offensive unless they prefer Doctor 11 to Doctor 12 from Doctor Who.

Joel: If you wear a costume, no don’t do that. If you wear the clothing—the actual clothing—shirt, pants, any other thing of somebody of Mexico, or if there’s something artisanal or very specific that makes it specifically Mexican, and it’s in use by Mexican people on a daily basis? Yeah, go for it! That’s great! You’re showing respect, you’re demonstrating you really like that part of the culture. If you’re wearing it to show the beauty of it, the artisanal craft from this specific part of Mexico, that’s absolutely fine. That’s you wearing and showing and displaying something of beauty.

Ro: There’s an imbalance of power in this world and it’s accompanied by a host of beauty standards and social/cultural norms that have been established and perpetuated by those with power to the physical and psychological detriment of those without it. Until the likeness you’re presenting is embraced and respected by society at large, your depiction/representation will always be offensive. If it isn’t your intent to offend, do the work. Learn the history and FULLY understand the community you wish to depict. If you take the time to go through this process, I’m fairly certain you will no longer want this as a costume for your personal amusement.

Barnaby: In my analysis, “Exotic Oriental” costumes don’t bear the same stigma as costumes of Black/African and Latin stereotypes (or European stereotypes for that matter), because many of them are associated with prestige and honor in their cultures of origin. Also, they weren’t being used as a cudgel against us. Now, there ARE stereotypes that do act in that capacity: the 19th-century coolie and the wartime Japanese caricature, for instance. Tl;dr be culturally literate, use good judgment, and DON’T YELLOWFACE!

Allaya: I 200 percent agree… No yellow face! As far as costumes go, I think it’s okay to be someone specific, but certainly don’t go through the extent of doing transformative makeup that, let’s face it, looks weird and is really offensive.

Yoshi: I’m Chinese Ashkenazi and my wife is Hungarian Ashkenazi and honestly the biggest Purim question for us right now is do we dress our 6-month old up as a wonton or a kreplach?

Allaya: I say wonton, if you and your wife can dress up as chopsticks!

Yoshi: That’s the perfect metaphor for parenting, especially when she starts fully moving around on her own. You’re just two chopsticks trying to keep ahold of a slippery wonton!

MaNishtana: Y’all are hilarious. It’s almost like you’re real people and not a yellowface caricature.

Yoshi: Say what now?

6-Alright, for all the tl;dr people out there, in one sentence: What do you want the “mainstream” American Jewish community to come away from this interview with?

Yishai: A costume should involve more than someone’s ethnicity—no one wants to feel that who they are is the butt of a joke.

Courtney: It seems to me that there are more people concerned with being called racist and defending how NOT prejudiced they are than simply avoiding overtly racist behavior in the first place; that’s concerning, especially when it comes from a people who have experienced marginalization, discrimination, and trauma.

Jared: You can learn about and respect a culture without “trying it on,” and still have an amazing time at Purim.

Aliza: While you dress up as Latinx for “a day,” I am a Latina ALL THE TIME and you learn literally nothing about my culture by doing so—or more importantly, [you don’t] learn what it means to be a Latinx person in the US who suffers daily because of racism and ethnic prejudice, but you do continue to perpetuate the idea that we are exotic and different when we are just as American—and just as Jewish—as you are.

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.

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