The bride squinted at my red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, then looked me in the eye. “Do you really like Trump?”
To which I replied, “Are you really a bride?”
She pouted, turning her head away as her mother started laughing.
“Honey, it’s a costume, he’s kidding, it’s Purim, right?” she explained to her five year old daughter. The kindergarten bride now turned to look me again through a veil, heavy mascara and even heavier suspicion.
“It’s not a funny costume” was her final verdict as she walked away towards the bouncy house that now filled the entire synagogue sanctuary.
That was one of the more intense interactions I had this past Purim as I went around the bluest, most anti-Trump parts of Jewish New York City for the 24 hours of the holiday. I was dressed as a sort of Trump supporter — wearing a red “Make America Great Again’ hat, along with suit and a tie that sported flying pigs and a bit of scotch tape, a button with Trump on it in Hebrew, another with “AIPAC” and a third, for laughs: “Ask me about Viagra.”
I also shaved off my beard and put on orange aviator glasses. Even people who knew me had to double take before realizing I was me. Others looked at the hat and looked quickly away. Some smiled. Dramatic interactions included one older lady scolding me on the street (“shame on you, young man”), many sneers, one high-five and — the most asked question once people realized they knew me — “Did you buy the hat??” (I did, for 99 cents on ebay, and donated twice chai to Planned Parenthood right afterwords to buy at least $36 of atonement.)
But this is New York City and mostly I got that 3-second scan before moving on to the other freaks that populate our streets, Purim or not.
On Saturday night I was at the Lab/Shul Compassion Plays Party. It was our first annual Book of Ester performance festival, with my congregation who know me well — but who are also among the most liberal of liberal Jews in New York. There, to test the waters, I tried talking with an Israeli accent, then a Southern one. My attempt to get away from my usual self, or maybe to adopt a pro-Israel Trump persona freaked out a few but mostly they enjoyed a rabbi dressed up to confuse — They are used to me in drag and have seen me in far more outlandish costumes.
If anything — being a Trump supporter only echoed what I’ve been talking of for months — how do we find a way to interact with one another across divides. If it took Purim for me to walk a mile in a Trump-supporter’s shows, then so be it.
And anyway, I had a lot to drink, avoided grabbing anyone by any bodily parts, and, whenever anyone asked how I was doing, just kept saying “Great! I’m great! Again!.
By the time a few of us ended up eating at 2am I was just too tired and a bit too drunk to handle confrontation. So in the early Sunday morning hours at Katz’s deli I took the hat off.
On Sunday I went uptown to hang out with 5-year-old brides at the Upper West Side’s B’nai Jeshurun Spiel and Carnival where my kids first performed and then ran around in super heroic and tween pregnancy costumes from one carnival ride to another.
One of the BJ rabbis, dressed up as a distressed Lady Liberty with a black eye, , gave me a much needed hug. Other grown ups mostly avoided looking at me while a brave few stared, or smiled. Some winked, and I still don’t know what that meant!
Then I ventured out to Broadway with the kids — bundled up — to hand out Hershey kisses to strangers on the street, wishing them a sweet day. I wanted the kids to have another way of practicing that lovely, meaningful part of Purim beyond the masks and megilla: mishloach manot — sharing treats with one another, friends, family and strangers.
Two blocks into handing out chocolate we realized that many people were actually turning away from me and one of them, squinting at the hat, pushed away the hand holding a chocolate kiss with venom — “Not from you!” I turned the hat around and the difference was dramatic. Within 4 blocks we finished the entire bag.
And by then the kids really wanted to know why I did it and what I was going to do with the hat.
I’ve put on costumes since I was four, I told them. The plan was always to dress up as something that was really different from who I usually am and also to have fun. The Talmud teaches that on Purim you’re supposed to blur the lines between who’s good or bad, what’s right or wrong, and masks is one way to get there. For years I took on the drag persona of Hadassah Gross, an aged Hungarian widow and Holocaust Survivor with a sharp tongue. In recent years I haven’t felt her presence descending on Purim.
The idea of becoming the Other just by putting on one iconic hat to provoke such a strong reaction made a lot of sense for this year, 5777, where we’ve seen such a rupture.
What would it feel to walk a mile in shoes of those with whom I share a lot but also have such strong difference of opinion? How, on this Purim, could I mark the ancient story of minorities who lived in fear, while marking, too, the dread and confusion that are now reality for so many of us? I wanted to blur the funny with the fearful, the megila story with today, and to get away with a costume without too much make up or fuss. Check and check.
The kids got it. E really wanted to keep the hat “just to feel what it’s like.” But I took it off, relieved, and packed it up till further notice. Perhaps, I told them, on the day before the Seder, we can burn the Lulav from Succot with the unused wicks left over from Hanukkah, all the uneaten bread crumbs of regret, and add the Purim hat to the fire along with other costume items to get ready for a night of focus on freedom from all the hats we wear and all the fears that feed us.
Wouldn’t it be great to have another optional fast day following Purim, not just on the day before? Alcohol detox for those of us who need it, and a relief from all those pastries. Perhaps we could have a day of reflection on the secrets spilled in vino veritas, all the truths glimpsed through jokey provocations and questions raised beyond the daily veils of propriety. The same sages who suggested the Purim blurring also said that the day post Purim is the one to start getting ready for Passover and its meaning of freedom — for us.
Hats off, game on, fast forward to the Passover Seder.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the founder of Lab/Shul.