#PurimNotPrejudice: It’s about you, me, and every single Jew in our diverse community

purimnotprejudice6Hi, I’m MaNishtana.

You might know me from my blogs, book (Thoughts From A Unicorn), videos, website or any other newspaper or magazine appearance I’ve made over the past five years.  I don’t say this to portray myself as a big deal.  I say this to in fact to prove the opposite: Despite all the above you probably DON’T know who I am.  Because I’m not particularly a big deal. I’m just a guy who sees something and says something.

It is with this approach on social issues in Judaism that I recently founded The Shivtei Jeshurun Society for the Advancement of Jewish Racial & Ethnic Diversity, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting awareness of and equality for Jews of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.  The organization’s first public project was the #PurimNotPrejudice campaign, a pledge to consider the costume choices we made this Purim and every Purim from this  year forward, and to not cross the line into offending other cultures, such as dressing in stereotypical or derogatory garb representing a people.  Or—as is most personally resonant with me—dressing in blackface.

Jews tend to forget, or not even consider the fact, that Judaism is not a “Whites Only” sort of boys’ club, and that some costume choices run the risk not only of offending other cultures, but also of offending other Jews.  Which is ironic, as the Purim story is telling of the salvation of the Jewish communities which existed in Ahaseurus’ provinces from India to Ethiopia, not, for example, from Germany to Poland.  We found our campaign to be a noble goal to stem the corruption of religious observance with racially offensive themes.

However, apparently some people saw #PurimNotPrejudice not as the educational awareness tool it was meant to be, but instead as a campaign to point the finger, shame, and embarrass those who may have dressed in offensive ways in the past.  Let’s be clear: That’s not what this campaign was about.

There was an incident last year involving a leaked picture of a politician and a sensitive costume choice, and subsequent statements of racial insensitivity by Jewish public figures actually sparked the conversations and discussions that led to the eventual creation of the Shivtei Jeshurun Society, with the purpose to educate not only Jewish communities, but non-Jewish ethnic communities as well, to the racial and ethnic diversity which exists in Judaism.  This mission was at the heart of the #PurimNotPrejudice campaign.

This past Wednesday, the SJS received a voicemail questioning whether the #PurimNotPrejudice campaign was “a Purim spiel or a real organization”.  Since the SJS is always open to respectful dialogue, I myself returned the call, and was greeted with a barrage of questions and comments regarding the nature of blackface, instances when blackface is offensive, if there are specific ways that make-up has to be applied in order for it to count as blackface, and so on.

This is it.  This is what our organization has been created to do—take an opportunity to unravel an interaction like this and get to the bottom of the issue, to take this interaction from one-on-one settings to a national conversation.

#PurimNotPrejudice was not about any one person or any one event, or any one Purim costume or any one community.  #PurimNotPrejudice was about Purim, and about the Jewish community as a whole, in its entirety, with all its diverse faces and experiences.

This campaign was about using sensitivity to observe a holiday which largely exists because of the results of a lack of sensitivity.

After all, the Jews went to Ahaseurus’ party where the serving vessels were ransacked from the destroyed First Temple, yet couldn’t understand why G-d might take offense that they partook of the feast.  Ahaseurus ordered his wife Vashti to appear naked before his guests, but didn’t get why she might be offended.  Haman wore an idol around his neck and got furious when Mordechai didn’t bow to him, instead of seeing how his choice of clothing might be religiously insensitive to someone who doesn’t bow to idols.

So to celebrate such a holiday through the use of costumes that disregard the feelings of others—and especially to shrug criticism off with careless “It’s just fun” kind of statements—is counter-intuitive.

Now, the SJS understands that some people might genuinely be unaware of how their costume might offend or impact people.  And so #PurimNotPrejudice was here not to shame them or embarrass them, but to take the opportunity to inform them.  After all, a Shylock costume wouldn’t fly and a Nazi costume would be absolutely out of the question at a Halloween party, right?

We hope you enjoyed the Chag, and that you continue to support our future campaigns!

MaNishtana is the Executive Director of The Shivtei Jeshurun Society for the Advancement of Jewish Racial & Ethnic Diversity.

You can see the pledge here and view the campaign FAQs here.