Opening in song with the teen song leaders

CBH "A Country Purim" Shpiel 2010

CBH Purim Shpiel 2010 "A Country Purim"

Purim Carnival 2010 "Pie the Rabbi"

CBH Purim 2010

Some people are really good at envisioning and creating costumes. I have always considered that to be one of my deficits. That’s why I was so pleased with myself back in 1998 when I came up with the idea of dressing as my opposite: a Barbie doll. The idea came out of a conversation with a congregant on the theme of Purim being about opposites: Haman, the evil villain; and Mordechai, the righteous hero. The intermingled pain and joy of the book of Esther, as read and celebrated on Purim, led to the rabbinic dictum to celebrate until we “don’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai.”

It was pretty easy to come up with a slightly outrageous and funny Barbie costume – especially since I made it “Ice Skating Barbie”. I can’t skate but I can stand for all of the Purim celebration in ice skates. It was my best ever, and being my first Purim at Congregation Beth Hatikvah, it set a high bar for the future. People talked about it for years, and I finally took a deep breath and did it again, assembling a new Barbie costume two years ago. It was fascinating to watch people’s reactions to the realization that the woman under the blond wig and frou-frou dress and high heels was their rabbi. Some laughed nervously, some laughed hilariously, and some shook their heads speechlessly.

That was also the year that I agreed to our synagogue teens’ request to allow myself to be the subject of a game at the Purim Carnival they were planning: I would submit to “Pie the Rabbi.” Donning a rain poncho and shower cap, I sat in a chair and welcomed the children who wanted to toss plates of whipped cream at my face. Knowing they were raising lots of money for tzedakah (for a designated charity) as they sold tickets for this, I encouraged all the kids to take advantage of the opportunity. I reveled in watching their faces as they walked into the classroom that was lined with plastic sheeting to protect the walls from the goopy, sugary mess. Some kids and plenty of adults peeked in and couldn’t enter; it was felt too uncomfortable to watch me being pelted. Some stood in the doorway with frozen looks of amusement, others laughed out loud and entered just to watch. Others lined up for their turn. Some of the kids were so amused they bought tickets over and over again, and some competition for the best shot emerged among some enthusiasts. We all laughed and there were lots of congratulations to me for being a good sport.

This year, our amazingly talented Purim shpiel (play) director asked me to agree to be part of the shpiel, dressing as Dolly Parton. I took a deep breath – this pushed my comfort zone. She reminded me that I had been Barbie, so this was not much of a jump. But it felt like a new, boundary-pushing level of outrageous, so I declined. But then I learned that three other members of the synagogue leadership team had agreed to wear Dolly costumes and dance in the shpiel. “Ok,” I said, I’d do it – but I would not wear a super-sized bra with stuffing like the others.

I told my kids (who are in college) about my “Dolly after reduction surgery” (tongue in cheek) costume. My son said, “What’s the point?” I realized that this touched on themes of opposites and the boundaries of role. I’m told everyone loved our “Dolly” dance during the shpiel, and I had lots of fun with it. But it did leave me thinking about the unique challenges of the rabbinic role.

This year was also the third year of “Pie the Rabbi.” I noticed an interesting trend – a smaller number of kids bought a larger number of tickets and went at me with their “pie” plates with great enthusiasm. When a couple congregants who had not previously witnessed this came to the room, they were clearly distressed. “There is just nothing good about this!” I heard one of them complain. I wondered if she was right. Another parent tried to convince her that even though I am the rabbi I am really just a person, so what’s the problem? The argument tugged at me. Was I really “doing good” or was I debasing my role more than I’d like? When one little boy tried to get my attention, calling out to me “Amy…” (not “rabbi”) I felt that a corner had been turned. When I had to remind the children that I am their rabbi, I came to feel that this went a bit too far. I think we need a fresh idea.

The rabbis of the Talmud were real people who had skills and jobs aside from their teaching. They lived with and among their people and yet developed personae as honored and respected leaders. The concept of “k’vod harav” – the honor due a rabbi, became a Jewish value. It isn’t just Jewish; honored spiritual leaders hold unique roles in most religious traditions. As “vessels of holiness” (a Jewish concept of spiritual leadership), boundaries are necessary. Purim gives us a chance to play with the boundaries. But afterwards we should reflect on what we’ve learned.

As I looked at the pictures we took this Purim, I laughed at the “Dolly” shots, but reveled mostly in the lovely picture of a line of teenagers standing with me leading the prayers at the opening of the evening. That is where the meaning took shape, and where my role felt most meaningful. Sure, I’ll be silly and dramatic next Purim, and it’ll be great fun. But my real joy is in serving as spiritual leader, a great privilege, and a role which I know many of us still hold dear.


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