2 Mar 2012
The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition
Pride and prejudice … and Purim
Given our historic struggle against discrimination, as Jews we can relate to the struggle of those who suffer prejudice as a result of their sexual orientation, according to Professor David Shneer. And Purim, he says, provides the perfect opportunity to show our solidarity.
IN the northern hemisphere, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people annually commemorate and celebrate the June 1969 Stonewall Riots, in which patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York City said “no” to another police raid of a gay bar, and started a three-day pitched street battle, which some call the first open display of gay political street activism.
Since 1969, those gays, then gays and lesbians, and now LGBTI people along with their friends, family, and allies commemorate this historic event with parades, festivals, and marches.
It was convenient that those angry people, fed up with police brutality, rebelled against it in the US summer of 1969. Who wants to march in an annual commemoration parade in the middle of winter (although Americans and their Puritanical selves seem to have a fondness for frigid Christmas parades in winter).
In Australia, it proved too much to continue marching to commemorate Stonewall in the winter, so in the early 1980s, the commemoration was moved to February and March and called Mardi Gras, coinciding with the Christian carnival of celebration before the long, hard period of selfabnegation called Lent. Over the last 30 years, Mardi Gras has become, like its cousins up north, perhaps less political and certainly more commercial. (After all, when the Australian Tourism Board supports it, you know it has become commercial.)
In the United States, June has become pride month, even at the federal level, as the Obamas host a Gay Pride Party. As good Americans, Jewish communities began figuring out how to incorporate June’s gay pride month as something significant for Jews as Jews, not simply as gays who happen to be Jewish.
Since the early days of the Stonewall Riots, gay and lesbian synagogues held “Pride Shabbat” events to coincide with local parades in the metropolitan areas that had gay synagogues like New York, London, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. More than 10 years ago, Progressive synagogues began holding their own Pride Shabbats as a way of showing that they were open and welcoming of LGBTI Jews, and the trend has only increased.
In 2012, in Denver, Colorado, no bastion of American progressivism, Keshet, the national LGBTI Jewish organisation, will hold its fourth annual “Pride Seder” over Passover, with more than 150 attendees and cosponsorship from such “radical” organisations as the Anti-defamation League, the august Reform Temple Emanuel, and several Conservative synagogues. In June, it will host a community-wide Pride Shabbat event, again with co-sponsorship from most major Jewish institutions, aside from Orthodox ones, who are still reluctant to be publicly supportive of LGBTI Jewish celebrations even if they are more and more supportive of LGBTI Jews.
June is a tough sell on the Jewish calendar, but an easy sell conceptually to the Jewish community. After all, pride celebrations are primarily about political and civil rights, something that Jews are all too familiar with. In the late 18th century, the United States and the French Republic granted Jewish men citizenship, forever establishing the idea that Jews should be grateful to other citizens for the idea of their political and civil rights. In 1948, a group of countries called the United Nations granted Jews a nation-state, forever establishing the idea that Jews should be grateful to other nation-states for Israel’s creation and potential survival. Jews know something about feeling like guests in other peoples’ countries and, at their best, embrace political and civil rights for other people denied those rights, no matter the denomination of the Jew. Because Pride is generally organised around political and civil rights, it is not challenging for Jewish communities to support these celebrations.
But in Australia, Jewish communities have an opportunity to do something more profound – engage Mardi Gras on Judaism’s terms through the lens of Purim. Purim is, after all, Judaism’s Mardi Gras, its fat holiday of carnivalesque celebration. But unlike Christian Mardi Gras, a day of transgression before the real work of bodily discipline, for Jews, Purim is at its core about the holiness of transgression and, in the words of Rabbi Elliot Kukla, “the redemptive potential of masquerade”. The rabbinic adage that on Purim Jews are commanded to drink “until you do not know (ad delo yada),” is about releasing Jews from their social norms to see the infinite possibility in each person and in each experience.
Like Yom Kippur (or as the rabbis punned on it in Hebrew, yom ha-kippurim, a day like Purim), Jews suspend our daily rituals and our daily realities.
On Yom Kippur, we do this by abstaining, and on Purim we do this by revelling in worldly pleasures. Even the Rambam recognised how important Purim was to the future health of Jews and Judaism as he dreamed about the Messianic age when: “All prophetic books and the Sacred Writings will cease to be recited in public during the Messianic era except the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist just as the five books of the Torah … will never cease.”
This year, Mardi Gras and Purim fall in the same week, a clear sign to take seriously the sages’ call to break down boundaries and celebrate hidden identities. So, no matter your religious background, level of observance, or denominational affiliation, get out and celebrate this Mardi Gras. The Rambam wouldn’t have it any other way.
Professor David Shneer is director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Queer Jews. He recently visited Australia as a keynote speaker for the annual Australian Association for Jewish Studies Conference.