I love to dress up at Purim.
We make much of masks at this holiday. Does your mask cover up the real “you,” or does it reveal who you secretly would like to be — or even who you really are?
I think about masks a lot as a person with a serious mental illness. Sometimes, when I laugh and talk with friends, I feel real, seen. Sometimes, however, I drag myself out of bed to go to shul or to give a talk, and I put on a mask. I pretend I am healthy and happy, when underneath, I am depressed and self-hating. I don’t want to burden my friends, I think, so I won’t tell them how I am. Or I need to do this professional thing, and I don’t want my illness to interfere with how my audience, how my community sees me.
I’m not sure putting on that “well, I am OK enough to be here” mask is a bad thing. Often, as they say in AA, I fake it until I make it. I feel more alive, more whole, for having pulled myself together to teach a class. I force myself to go for a walk with a friend, and the endorphins kick in, as does the friendship, and some of the fog lifts. Donning a mask can make what I was pretending into something real. There I am, underneath it all.
But. . . sometimes it doesn’t work so well. Friends can see and hear I am not doing well, even if I don’t tell. I show up for my class, and it seems to drag on for hours. I can’t tell if my subject matter is interesting or if the participants are secretly counting down the minutes until class is over. My depression — my illness — can get in the way of reality-testing. Even when someone says something nice to me, I repel it. Under my smiling mask is self-doubt, even self-hatred. “If they only knew the truth about me,” the thinking goes, “they would be . . . horrified? Disgusted? Unimpressed?” In this case, my mask prevents me from real conversations, from interacting with someone else in Martin Buber’s “I/Thou” relationship. If I don’t feel real, then how do I know if the other person is genuine?
There is, of course, a time and place for unmasking. I don’t need to tell my students, or people at a workshop I give, exactly what my mood is. I may refer to having a mental illness without burdening everyone I meet with the details of my struggles. But family and friends usually do want the real me. If I am brave enough to speak my experience, I have found that people I love want to listen. They want to know how I am, so they can support me.
Purim provides a wonderful occasion to explore my self and my masks. Much has been made of the connection between Purim and the holiest day of the year: Yom HaKippurim/יום הכפורים, as it is called in the liturgy. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is called Yom/יום/Day k’Purim/פורים/like Purim. It is a day of self-reflection and self-revelation. We sit in shul all day (or it might just seem like all day!), contemplating our actions and searching for our real, best selves. Yom Kippur is a time to take off masks and be vulnerable. It encourages us to embrace our deepest longings and to be brave enough to embody our souls. If Purim is a holiday of laughter, then Yom Kippur is a holiday of truth. Who are we under all those masks, and why do we wear them in the first place?
But. . . the masks we choose to wear also reflect our true selves. We might choose to be a superhero, revealing an inner wish to be powerful, to be able to save others and redeem the world. Families might dress up in a variety of costumes but with the same theme, from “Hop on Pop” to Harry Potter. It is a time to show our fantasies and be playful with our inmost self. Purim lets us show others what we might be, if only.
So, what do I wear for Purim? Over the past almost 30 years, I have returned again and again to my favorite costume: I don my wedding dress. I love that dress. In it, I feel pretty and romantic; I remember how much I loved my husband back then, when we married, and how much more I love him, and our life together, now. Besides, as I joke, every time I wear it, the cost per use goes down. I mean, what else should I do with that beautiful gown?
This past spring, my oldest niece was married in Tel Aviv. She chose to wear my mother’s, her grandmother’s, wedding dress. We had it cleaned and tailored, and she looked beautiful. Who is to say my child (or someone else) would not wish to wear my dress?
And in fact, my daughter tried my dress on once, several years ago. She must have been in high school at the time, and we were getting the dress out of the cedar closet in our basement, so I could wear it for Purim. Shira put the dress on for fun. It fit her perfectly. We went upstairs to show her abba, who almost passed out, he was so unprepared to see her like that, as a bride.
She did not choose to wear that dress for Purim, however. That dress is my fantasy, not hers.
It is not that I wish to go back 28 years and start again. Rather, wearing my wedding dress makes me feel the joy and love all over again.
Perhaps this mask reveals that I want to be a princess. Perhaps it is just a pretty dress. But I love it. It is a mask I take on joyfully. It is a mask that reminds me of my past and helps me embrace my family of today. It is about simchas and dancing, friendship and love, family and faith. And, just as I wear white on Yom Kippur, I trust my community to let me wear this white dress on Purim.
Rabbi Sandra Cohen is involved in mental health outreach, offering workshops and scholar-in-residence programs on creating caring communities. She also teaches Jewish texts and offers pastoral care in Denver, where she lives with her husband, Ben.