On Purim

This year’s Purim celebrations have been a weird mix of the familiar and the completely new in an NYC environment. Abi and I attended a megillah-reading at a shul whose services we’ve been trying out – they are run by Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, NYC’s first LGBTQ+ synagogue. Their festivities yesterday were interesting in how I felt so at home, and how it all felt incredibly foreign simultaneously.

Reminders of home:

– A community of love and support, but whose events feel scattered and a little awkward. That strange nagging thought – which I’ve fought my entire Jewish-and-aware life – that Progressive Jews are just making it up and that it’s barely legit. I felt like it needed some Yiddishkeit. Still, a good environment of people doing what they do with sincerity.image1

– Making Hamantaschen! Not actually a tradition from home, but I did make S’morentaschen last year… Graham cracker pastry filled with marshamallow fluff and melted chocolate. 😀

This was a fun change, seeing as traditional South African hamantaschen have either poppyseeds or cheese in them. This year’s baking adventures felt very American – their toppings are basically S’morentaschen from the start! Ours were Nutella, Cookie Butter (basically peanut butter but made out of cookie dough) and mango jelly (aka jam). Very different, but still hella tasty!

New celebrations:

– A themed megillah-reading is something we’ve done back home – the Harry Potter theme, the musical theme, and others which I forget because I was inevitably herding kids at the time of the reading… This year’s theme was The Desperate Housepets of Manhattan. (Seriously.) And parts of the reading were done in different languages, which was a nice touch that kept people interested.

– Animal-themed EVERYTHING. Kids’ games and costumes (which were great!) and even Oseh Shalom to the tune of “How Much is That Doggy in the Window” and Adon Olam to “Old McDonald.”

– Absolutely no skaam from the kids. Calling them up for a parade usually requires tugging and coaxes from parents, but they all bounded up to the bimah to show off their costumes and dance around the shul.

– Absolutely no skaam from the adults! Talking throughout, but some intent listening and genuine appreciation for foreign language readers. There was also some mid-service drinking in the tradition of Purim drunkenness… Also, nearly all of them were dressed up – face-painted and all! A nice change from the (mostly) too-cool-for-school grown-ups back home. Plus, during the cantor’s chanting at a specifically tricky part, a call from the congregation along the lines of, “Sang it, girl!”

– A specifically LGBTQ+ space. The ability to let go of some of the tension (no matter how slight) felt in other spaces.

– Another specifically-LGBTQ+ feature: the presence of communal memory. CBST is moving to a new site for worship next month, and this prompted some reminiscing from the rabbi, who mentioned those who had contributed to the community in the past – by illustrating the megillah pages, by donating soft chairs, by volunteering in some way. The fact that I found most interesting – and heart-wrenching – was that they are no longer part of the community not because of old age, but because of the struggle to live as HIV-positive. Their friends sat in the room and shared memories of the shul’s journey and its builders, speaking into being this incredible community feeling, continued on the shoulders of its founders. It was such a simple, yet powerful way of remembering those no longer physically part of the community but whose presence is still so clearly felt by everyone.

Next week is CBST’s move to its new premises, and they will be moving the Torahs to the new sanctuary’s ark by walking up the few blocks to get there, right through Chelsea on the streets of NYC. Abi and I are planning on joining them, and I am so looking forward to being part of this community’s journey.

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