Anthony Johnson is a poet, a writer, a Catholic, a vegetarian and the supervisor of a Community-Based Acute Treatment program for children. He lives in Roslindale with his partner Oren and their two cats, Esh and Hex.
My First Purim
Originally published February 26, 2010. Republished March 11, 2011.
It was my first year out of college and I was roommates with my best friend and secret crush, Oren. We were living in a shomer Shabbat apartment with two Orthodox Jews. Oren is also Jewish, the child of an Israeli father and a mother from New York City, but less observant. I, of course, was the token Catholic in the house. We all joked around about our room being the treyf ("unkosher") room since it contained me, my guinea pig and Oren's and my stash of non-kosher alcohol.
That first year out of college was full of huge changes for me. I struggled to adjust to a new city, a bad breakup and my first "real" job in social services—all while living in what at times felt like a foreign land. My house was full of new and complicated regulations, linguistic expressions that made no sense to me and friends who all shared some common religious and ethnic experiences that I did not. There were times—like the Great Christmas Tree Battle of '07—when I thought I would have to move out because there was no space for me and my "oppressive" religion in our Jewish apartment. But there were also moments where we prayed, lit candles and ate dinner together and I felt that I was part of a caring religious community—something rare and precious for me as a queer man. My friends joked that I was turning Jewish and my family joked (somewhat nervously) about whether I had converted yet.
Meanwhile, Oren was going through his own adjustments. His first year out of college involved the same location and job upheaval as me, but more important, he was also coming to the realization that he was bisexual. After fretting over it for several months, he finally came out (in a very convoluted way that involved a pie chart).
I was ecstatic.
This was my big chance to convince him to date me. I was so excited about the possibility of dating Oren that I didn't even think about religion. Actually, that's not true. I had already decided that I would never be able to marry a Jew—I was just determined not to let that stop me from seizing the moment and asking Oren out. So I did. And he refused. He didn't just refuse; he wrote me a whole long list of reasons that we would make a horrible couple, with religion on the top of the list. So I wrote him a list of rebuttals, and we started "officially" dating the next day.
In the months that followed, I watched the cycle of the Jewish year pass and Oren and I moved into our own apartment. I met his parents and spent Passover at their house and he came home with me for Christmas. We did our best to navigate the holidays together, to adjust to our different religious practices and to find ways to be spiritual together. Despite all of this, I was still unconvinced. I loved Oren, but I just couldn't picture our future together. We both wanted children and I simply couldn't imagine raising them in an interfaith household. I had a vague dread that our children (and Oren, for that matter) would be punished because Oren wasn't Christian, and I continued to feel somewhat alienated by his religion, with its unfamiliar customs, traditions, language and ethnicity. And then came Purim.
Purim celebrates the story of Esther, who saved the Jewish people from extermination at the hands of the evil Haman. The holiday is celebrated with a reading and re-enactment of the story of Esther, followed by drinking and general revelry. It's Oren's favorite holiday because you get to dress in a costume, make noise in synagogue, eat hamantaschen and generally make merry. On this particular year, he planned to go to the Workmen's Circle Gender Liberation Purim Shpiel. Not one to miss an opportunity to go out in drag, I decided to tag along in a hot pink and black tutu, pink high-tops, black tank top and glittery black feather mask.
I was nervous walking in, because I expected to encounter a lot of Hebrew and Yiddish phrases I didn't understand, songs I didn't know, prayers I couldn't speak and the same old slightly alienated feeling I got at every Jewish event I attended. I was in for a surprise.
When we walked in, we were immediately and warmly greeted. Everyone was in costume, there were lots of other queers and people were complimenting me on my outfit. It felt more like Pride or Carnival than a religious event. Everyone talked and ate for awhile until someone gave the signal and people started to sit on chairs and the floor around the "stage"—a homemade platform with a large mural behind it. The shpiel (story) commenced, and I can say without a doubt that it was the campiest religious reading I had ever heard. But as I laughed at the jokes and yelled at Haman, I realized something—I was fitting in. The folks in that room were as passionate as I was about reconciling their religion with their sexuality. I was at a Jewish event, but I was surrounded by other queers and we were having a blast.
I still didn't know how Oren and I would raise a family in two religions, but I realized I was ready to give it a try. Our religions might be different, but God is the same, and the folks in that room didn't care that I wasn't Jewish—they were excited that I wanted to join them in honoring God by celebrating one of His holidays. I still have moments where I worry about salvation, but they happen less frequently now. If God decides to condemn the Jews, he's probably condemning the queers right along with them. And a God like that is not someone I can devote myself to. Besides, I've developed a taste for hamantaschen.
Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Yiddish term for that which is not kosher (in accordance with Jewish dietary law). Common treyf foods include shellfish and pig products (ham, bacon, etc.). Also, food or meals that combine dairy and meat products are treyf.