An “Extraordinary” Purim with Shira Kline and Jon Adam Ross
Having survived a blizzardy drive down dark, unfamiliar roads last Wednesday evening, I shook the cold and snowflakes from my coat and walked into a warm room at the Newton JCC. I had no sooner been handed a name tag that read “Cleopatra” when a tall, handsome man in a top hat and tails called out “Cleo! So glad you could make it!” He walked over and shook my hand. “I’m Heather,” he said “Welcome to the League of Extraordinary Women.”
In my job as JWA’s Education Program Manager, I’m no stranger to watching students imagine themselves as different women from Jewish American history. But what I experienced last week at Purim Primary 2012 was quite extraordinary. In an event hosted by the JCCs of Greater Boston and co-sponsored by JWA, Mayyim Hayyim, and Hadassah, 50 women from the Boston area came together to share a night of learning, debate, and yes, fun. The event centered around an original, interactive performance piece written by Shira Kline and Jon Adam Ross called Divas, Queens, and YOU!
Unlike other Purim spiels (skits) where performers reenact the Purim story for an audience, Kline and Ross invited each woman into the performance by giving us characters from the likes of Barbara Walters and Miriam to Rosa Parks and Bella Abzug. Our mission for the evening was two-fold. First, learn about one another (in character, of course) and determine what qualities we shared that qualified us as “extraordinary women.” Second, we were to decide whether Vashti (the woman that preceded Esther as Queen of Shushan) was worthy of entrance to our elite group.
After reciting the pledge of the League, we broke into caucus tables and brainstormed what we felt were the most important traits for an inductee to have. “Intelligent,” said one woman, playing Barbara Walters. “Yes,” said another, Miriam, “but intelligent isn’t enough. She also has to know how to use her intelligence for the benefit of others.” Nods of agreement circled the table. Upon rejoining the larger group, we decided that any woman welcomed into the League should also be a good communicator, compassionate, open-minded, determined, and courageous with a global perspective. Suddenly, one woman, perhaps Oprah or Golda Meir, let out an exasperated sigh. “It’s amazing how many things you have to be when you’re a woman,” she said. And that’s when our game really started to become real.
Then and there, 50 women with varying degrees of familiarity with one another began to really sink into the question “What makes someone extraordinary?” Is it her willingness to speak out and making herself known, like Bella Abzug, or her ability to sit quietly in the face of chaos and wrongdoing, like Rosa Parks? Should she reject oppressive systems like Vashti did when she refused to dance for the King and his cronies, or should she work within the system to persuade people to come to her side, as Esther did in order to save the Jews of Persia? One woman suggested that, at the end of the day, the most extraordinary thing we can do is “know who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.”
In the end, after much debate, we took a vote—though I won’t tell you the outcome—and I left feeling impressed and proud of what we had accomplished in our imaginary League of Extraordinary women. As I carefully wove the car through giant flakes of snow, the words of our debate echoed in my head, an imperative to know who I am, where I come from, and where I am going. As a child, Purim was about dressing up, eating hamentaschen, and winning prizes at the Purim carnival. In my college years, the holiday served what seemed to me to be opposite purposes—a chance to learn and a chance to party.
In the wake of Kline and Ross’ program, Purim took on another meaning as a celebration of the extraordinary women in our history who provide myriad examples of how to stir up trouble and make positive change in the world. Moreover, the annual observance of Purim provides each of us with the opportunity to check back in and ask: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? How will I be extraordinary this year and how will I find what is extraordinary in others? Purim is a reminder to uncover new stories and celebrate the unique contributions that each of us has made to the rich history that we share.
Can you think of an extraordinary, inspiring woman? Share her story on JWA’s Jewish Women Inspire tumblr project.
Click here for a slideshow of photos from the Purim Primary event.