Dressing Up: A Short Story

By Mark Binder

Published March 12, 2008, issue of March 21, 2008.
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Every year the villagers of Chelm held a Purim parade and it caused trouble for months. Many people around the world consider the Chelmener to be fools, but they are not. They are, however, very specific and honest. So, when you dress them up in different costumes, they often become frightened and confused. One year the entire yeshiva class dressed as Mordechai and they very nearly got into a fistfight about which Mordechai should have the honor of riding Haman’s horse.

Rabbi Kibbitz, the wisest man in Chelm, had seriously considered canceling the parade, but as in most communities, it is easier to start a tradition than to stop one.

Instead, he declared that only children between the ages of 5 and 7 would be permitted to march. Not only did this make the parade safer, it made it cuter. (There had always been something unsettling about seeing Reb Cantor the merchant shimmying down the street dressed as Queen Vashti…) In the Cohen house, this was good news and bad news.

Rachel and Yakov Cohen had turned 5 a few weeks before the holiday, which meant that at last they were eligible.

However, their father, Benjamin Cohen, was the best (and only) tailor in Chelm, which meant that their costumes had to be more than a pinned up sheet and a false beard.

The twins’ costumes had to be magnificent. If they were anything less, Reb Cohen reasoned, it would reflect badly on his abilities as a clothier.

His wife, Sarah, had offered to make the children’s outfits, but he declined.

“How would that look if I let you do the work?” Benjamin said.

Sarah thought about that for a moment. “Are you questioning my abilities?”

“Not at all,” he reassured her. “You bake the best strudel, you keep the house clean. You are a wonderful mother. I, however, am a professional. Cutting and sewing is what I do all day long.”

Again, Sarah waited before she spoke. “You’re very good with men’s clothes,” she admitted. “But designing a dress for a queen… I don’t know if you can do that.”

Benjamin knew a challenge when he heard one. “All right,” he said. “I’ll do a fabulous dress and you do the suit. But you have to make me proud.”

“Done,” Sarah agreed. They shook hands on the bargain.

Reb Cohen slapped the table. “Now, who wants to be Mordechai?”

“I do! I do!” said Rachel, looking up from her reading.

Her father smiled at her. “Nonsense. You’re a girl.”

“Papa, it’s a costume parade. We are supposed to dress up as someone who we are not. I am not Mordechai, but I would like to be. Mordechai was kind and patient and wise. Those are good qualities, don’t you think?”

“Yes, yes,” Reb Cohen said. “But your mother and I have agreed that I will make the dress and she will make the suit. Don’t you want me to make you a beautiful dress?”

Rachel shook her head. “Not really. I have plenty of dresses already, but I don’t have a nice suit.”

Just then Yakov looked up from the drawing of a goat he was making with a stick of charcoal on the wall. (You should know that Yakov loved to draw so much that his parents had given him a portion of the wall to devote to his art. Every few months the wall was washed and repainted.)

“Papa, I’ll wear the dress,” Yakov said. “I want to be Esther.”

“But you’re a boy!” Reb Cohen sputtered.

“Esther was brave,” Yakov said. “And you always tell me I should be brave.”

“But brave as a boy, not as a girl,” said their father. “And wise as a girl, not as a man.”

The children looked at each other and then at their father. “Papa,” they said together, “it’s just a costume.”

“Besides,” Yakov said. “I don’t have any dresses.”

Benjamin Cohen winced. He looked at his wife for support, but she was covering her mouth with laughter.

So it happened that Sarah Cohen spent her days learning how to make a man’s suit for her daughter, and Benjamin Cohen spent his evenings trying to make a wedding dress for his son.

They did it in secret. Neither was willing to concede to the other that he or she was a better clothing designer.

It wasn’t until the morning of the Purim parade that their efforts were revealed.

Reb Cohen was eating his breakfast of hamentashen and eggs when there was a knock at the door.

He opened the door and looked down to see that Rabbi Yohan Abrahms had shrunk in half. The schoolteacher had been the tallest man in the village, but now he was probably the shortest. And strangest of all, he was wearing a gorgeous white and purple suit that fit perfectly his miniature size.

Reb Cohen gasped. “Rabbi Abrahms, what happened? Did you get stepped on by an elephant?”

“It is I, Mordechai,” the diminutive schoolteacher’s voice squeaked. “Do you have any hamentashen?”

At first this puzzled Reb Cohen, because Rabbi Abrahms’s first name was Yohan. Then he remembered what day it was.

“Doodle,” he said. “That is a great costume.”

Just then the beard was pulled from the young child’s face. “Papa, it’s me!”

Again the tailor gasped as his daughter hugged him and ran into the house.

“Didn’t Mama make me a wonderful suit? I sneaked out this morning to surprise you. Mama! Mama! It worked!”

Just then, Reb Cohen’s wife walked into the room wearing the dress she had worn at their wedding. Her face was veiled and she looked as lovely as she had on the blessed day they were wed. But she too had shrunk.

The poor man covered his mouth in horror, and then yanked at his hair as his son lifted the veil and said, “Papa, don’t I look beautiful?”

“Ack! Ack!” Benjamin Cohen sputtered.

Sarah Cohen stepped from the bedroom, poured him a glass of water and waited until he’d drunk it all down.

“I think,” she said, “that our contest was a tie.”

“Agreed,” Benjamin said, once he had come to his senses. “But isn’t there something wrong with our boy dressed as a girl and our girl dressed as a boy?”

Sarah shook her head. “No. If Yakov wanted to dress as Haman, and Rachel wanted to dress as Vashti, would that be wrong?”

Benjamin shrugged. “Of course not.”

“Exactly. It is just pretend. Haman is wicked and Vashti is vain, but they are only costumes. And you know that when they take off the costumes they again become Rachel and Yakov.”

Indeed, Benjamin could see that with the false beard and veil removed, his children were already fighting and arguing as usual.

“So be it,” the tailor conceded with a sigh. For that, his wife gave him a kiss on the cheek.

He was also pleasantly surprised that the day after Purim he had three orders for new white and purple suits, and his first ever commission for a wedding dress.

Mark Binder is an author, storyteller and nice guy. His collection, “A Hanukkah Present” was named as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for Family Literature. His novel, “The Brothers Schlemiel” (about a different set of twins), is being published by the Jewish Publication Society. This story is an excerpt from his serial “The Council of Wise Women.”

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