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Tennessee’s new anti-drag laws would make Purim celebrations illegal

Laws that seek to curtail the rights of any minority group are inevitably used against Jews

This Purim as every Purim, Jews around the world gathered in costumes and masks to recite and parody the story of Esther. The Purim spiel is very much the original Drag Story Hour, where cross-dressing as Esther, Vashti, Mordecai or Haman is a favorite part of the celebration for adults and children alike. Great rabbinic minds throughout the ages have defined this practice not as a biblical transgression but as an integral part of the holiday.

Last week, the great minds of the Tennessee legislature took steps to outlaw this Jewish cultural tradition.

A bill signed into law there makes it illegal to stage “adult cabaret” anywhere a child might encounter it. Like, for example, at any Jewish community center Purim spiel or carnival where some might choose to portray characters of a different gender and, especially, at The Vashti Ball, New York’s largest queer Purim party, which features drag and welcomes children and teens in a non-alcoholic section.

The author at the 2023 Purim Vashti Ball. Photo by Adela Loconte

Time magazine says 11 more states are poised to follow Tennessee’s lead by the end of the year. They reflect the growing right-wing movement that has staged protests, often violent, outside Drag Queen Story Hour events, fueled in part by conservative pundits including Ben Shapiro. 

I shudder to imagine what will happen next Purim in Tennessee or any of these other states when Jewish men dressed as Esther and Vashti read the megillah at a family service. Will their synagogues be raided by police? Will any adult dressed as a character different from their biological sex be arrested? Will all Purim festivities that include children be shut down by the government? 

Are we literally inviting a modern-day decree against Jews, the likes of which Haman himself tried (and failed) to do back in Shushan, Persia, in 357 B.C.E.? 

Any Jew who isn’t haunted by these questions is either not paying attention or deluding themselves with the fantasy that gentiles would never dare to use these laws against us. They have, they are and they will. 

State laws that were originally passed to allow Christian adoption agencies to deny adoptions to gay people have been used to deny adoptions to Jews. The same arguments that Yeshiva University is using to deny queer students a club on campus are being used to try to deny Jewish students at progressive colleges the right to have Jewish clubs that support Israel. 

Laws in other countries that prevent parents from approving body modification for trans children are inspiring the growing movement to outlaw circumcision of male children. 

Laws that seek to curtail queer rights (or the rights of any minority group) inevitably are used against the Jews. So it is and so it has always been. The question is: Why aren’t Jewish leaders able to see this threat before it’s too late? Where is the blind spot that allows so many right-wing Jews and talking heads like Ben Shapiro to fail to see just how easy it is to turn their advocated policies right back against them? 

Jewish queer youth at the 2023 Purim Vashti Ball. Photo by Adela Loconte

Somewhere along the line, the culture wars have infiltrated Jewish circles. It may be more accurate to describe some sects of Jews as practicing Fox News Judaism rather than Orthodox. For it is not about stricter adherence to Jewish law, but closer alignment with the talking points of the political and cultural right.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the preoccupation with queer people and queer culture. Shapiro recently published an article accusing Modern Orthodoxy of moral failure because many of their synagogues have become more welcoming to LGBTQ+ people. 

The religious laws themselves seem to disappear under a cloud of political heat. The fact is that gay men with accepting families are less, not more, likely to exhibit sexual compulsivity. And while only male anal sex is specifically proscribed in the Bible, this prohibition is exploited as a cudgel to shape much broader policies pertaining to queer youth, women, asexuals, trans and nonbinary folk for whom this sexual behavior is either not applicable or completely irrelevant. Figures like Shapiro promote the libel that queer people “groom” children, sexualizing LGBTQ+ youth themselves by framing their identity solely in terms of their sexual behavior. 

Courtesy of Jewish Queer Youth

This is the same warped thinking that informs the legislation in Tennessee and other states and the movement against Drag Queen Story Hour in general. The idea that children seeing adults cross-dressing, on Purim or any other time, is going to lead to illicit sexual behavior is ludicrous and insulting. 

Even more absurd is Shapiro’s fabricated notion that it is LGBTQ+ identity that Judaism forbids. Any Yeshiva graduate knows that Jewish law intentionally leaves identity to the individual: We are free to name our children anything we choose, and to change our own names at will. There are no Jewish laws about what names to call the community one comes from, or the name of a synagogue, school or youth group. The world of identity is not something subject to Jewish law, because it, in essence, has no criteria or limiting factors. 

The fact that queer identity (or last names for that matter) do not exist in Jewish law does not mean that Judaism rejects or outlaws them. On the contrary, it means that it makes no sense to forbid identities in halacha. Jewish law only applies to things with objective criteria and limiting factors. Identity is completely subjective, personal, and infinite. 

The only halachically relevant aspect to some queer lives are the specifics of their private sexual behavior; behaviors that they are not sharing with anyone by having pride in queer identity — or, certainly, cross-dressing on Purim. 

Occam’s razor tells us that it is far more likely that opposition to a queer students club at YU or to Drag Queen Story Hour have less to do with Jewish law, and more to do with personal discomfort, insecurity, and yes, prejudice toward people not like ourselves. Is it any wonder that indulging one’s prejudices only emboldens others to enact theirs? 

We know both from research and from history that one of the most prevalent and pernicious prejudices that people have is against Jews. In fact, this is basically the story of Purim.

Courtesy of Jewish Queer Youth

Jews have been dressing in drag as they retell this story to their children for generations. Drag is a tool like anything else; it can be used for good and for bad. It is particularly hypocritical for people to feign outrage at a drag queen in a low-cut dress or revealing top while feeling nostalgic for children’s superheroes scantily costumed in actual fetish gear. 

Drag is, essentially, a subversive form of performance commentary, not a means to arouse the flesh. Queer people have cultivated and perfected drag into an art form that brings joy to millions. It is one of the oldest forms of Jewish entertainment, even mentioned in the Talmud as a way that wedding guests would bring happiness to the bride and groom. 

On Purim, drag takes on special significance, because it manifests the megillah’s theme of ve-nehaphech hu — turning things on their head. Up is down, bad is good — and woman is man. It’s why calling a party “The Vashti Ball” is in line with the spirit of the day. 

Costumed megillah readings and Purim spiels, including last night’s Vashti Ball, are precursors to the modern-day Drag Queen Story Hour. One might even say Purim celebrations were the original Drag Queen Story Hour. 

It is because of our Jewish values, not despite them, that we include children and teens in this tradition. Bans on Drag Queen Story Hours are attacks on Purim itself. 

But if the Purim story teaches us anything, it’s that Jews know how to fight back.

To contact the author, email [email protected] 

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