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Purim, Jewish Leaders, and the Roles We Choose - Lesson Plan for Youth

This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “Queen Esther and Bella Abzug: Costumes, leadership, and identity.”

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Introduction

People feel a lot of pressure to dress in a certain way. For young people this is especially true. You want to be popular and don’t want to be seen as “weird.” You want to fit in, but also to express your real self. You want to try out different kinds of clothes, and different styles. You may want to dress in a way that is casual and relaxed, but also attractive. You may want to create a particular image. Above all, you want to “look good.”

Accomplishing all of that at the same time is quite a challenge.

Purim is a holiday that lets us play with the idea of dress and clothing. You are encouraged to make up a new persona and disguise yourself. You can have fun pretending that you are a different person. You get to be creative. You get to put aside your worries about “looks” and just enjoy who you are or who you pretend to be.

In this lesson we will use characters in the Purim story and the biography of Bella Abzug, a 20th century activist and politician, as examples of how people have adopted a persona or costume in order to fight for what they believed in. We will also discuss our own thinking about clothing and image.

Reading the Purim Story

Read the excerpt from the megillah together. Megillah means "scroll." The Purim story is called the Megillat Esther, "The Scroll of Esther," or just megillah.

After reading, discuss:

  • What did Vashti do that got her deposed? How did King Ahasuerus use Vashti’s punishment as an example for all the wives of his kingdom?
  • Why do you think Esther decided to enter the king’s beauty contest? What might be fun about being in a beauty contest and what might be challenging? Would you ever want to enter a beauty pageant?
  • Why did Mordecai tell Esther not to reveal her Jewish identity?
  • Is Esther’s appearing before the king without being summoned in chapter 5 courageous?

Then, consider: What is the role of clothing in masking and revealing identity in the Scroll of Esther?

  • What does it mean for Mordecai to wear royal robes? Sackcloth?
  • Vashti challenged the belief that women’s value is in their looks. Have you ever challenged this belief? What costs did Vashti pay? What do you imagine are the costs to challenging this idea today? Is it ever okay to use one’s looks to get ahead?
  • When do you choose to wear outward symbols of being Jewish, like a kippah or a Star of David necklace? Is it important to you to be identified as a Jew?
  • Do you ever feel like you don’t want other people to know you are Jewish? Why not?

Bella Abzug and Her Hats

Review Bella Abzug’s biography from JWA's Women of Valor exhibit and share it with your class. You can also use the background information from this Go & Learn guide.

Together, read the story of how Bella Abzug began to wear hats.

Answer the following questions. (You may want to break into small groups for this.)

  • How did Bella’s hat and gloves change how she was seen? Can you imagine anything like this happening today? This story took place in the late 1940s.
  • Do you have any clothes that give you power the way Bella’s hat and gloves helped her? Is this similar to having a lucky pair of socks, necklace, or baseball cap?
  • How do you make decisions about what to wear? What do different types of clothing mean?
  • What are the different roles you play in your life today, and what are your costumes for each one?
  • Do clothes ever help you get into a role that you want to be in?
  • Do you feel free to choose what to wear every day, or forced into any social expectations? If you don’t dress as expected, what happens?
  • What kind of dress would reveal the true you?
  • What would you wear to fight for justice?
  • Have you ever had a similar experience to Bella, in which you had to put on a particular costume in order to be taken seriously? How did that feel?
  • Have you ever faced age discrimination? Have you ever chosen to wear “adult” clothing in order to be taken more seriously?
  • Do you need to wear a uniform or other costume for a job? Does wearing it change your persona?

Body Image Self Reflection

Write down answers to the following questions (explain that the answers will not be handed in, but that this is a chance to think about the questions).

  • What do you like about the way you look?
  • Do TV ads and other media make you feel that you do not look OK?

Invite responses from the group to this journaling activity. If anyone wants to read what they wrote down, that’s fine. If they want to share other reactions, that’s fine too. It is okay if no one wishes to speak here.

Keep in mind that talking about appearances and body image might be difficult for some of your students. Remind them, when and if appropriate, that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, styles and colors—and is found on the inside as well.

Bess Myerson: Jewish Miss America

Read this story about Bess Myerson, the only Jewish Miss America to date. Just months after the shocking revelations of the Holocaust's devastation of European Jewry, Bess Myerson was crowned the first (and still only) Jewish Miss America on September 8, 1945.

Her victory was seen by many as a symbolic statement of America's post-war rejection of the crimes and prejudices that ravaged Europe as well as a representation of the vitality of the American Jewish community. Raised in a Jewish cooperative in the Bronx, Myerson was unfamiliar with the anti-Semitism that confronted her throughout the pageant. Myerson refused to adopt the suggested less-ethnic pseudonym, Beth Merrick. “It was the most important decision I ever made,” she recalled. “It told me who I was, that I was first and foremost a Jew.”

Myerson received a scholarship award accompanying her title, but she did not receive automatic acceptance. Three of five sponsoring companies withdrew their support from her post-pageant tour, and there was little demand for Myerson on the speaker circuit frequented by past winners. When an invitation to speak at a country club was revoked because of her religion, Myerson began to distance herself from the usual pageant scene, and instead began lecturing at schools and other venues about discrimination and the consequences of prejudice, under the sponsorship of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

  • How does it make you feel to know that there was a Jewish Miss America? Are Jewish looks seen as beautiful in the United States?
  • Why wasn’t Bess invited to speak very often from her podium as Miss America? Can you imagine this kind of discrimination happening today? How did she win her title under those circumstances?
  • What do the biblical character Esther and Bess Myerson have in common and how are they different?

Choosing and Not Choosing: Dealing with Other People's Opinons

Discuss the following story from the New York Times about a contemporary teenager and his clothing. The first paragraph is by Sam’s father John Schwartz:

Sam wears a Mexican poncho to school every Friday.
Like a number of things about our middle child, the “why” of it is a mystery. When he started wearing it about two years ago, I guessed that he was perhaps reinterpreting the idea of casual Friday for high school. Or he might have just thought, “I will wear the poncho to school on Friday. See what happens.”

Here is Sam’s assessment about wearing the poncho:

Despite the amount of fun I've had with this whole experiment, I do tire of it from time to time. I didn't know what I was getting myself into at the start, and now it's escalated to the point where if I stop more than half the school will forget that the weekend is about to come up. I feel obligated. I must fulfill my duty in this strange society of learners to remind them of the good times ahead, even if they only last a few precious days. (John Schwartz, “The Poncho Bearer,” The New York Times, Jan 7, 2007.)

Sam chose to be different from everyone else by wearing a brightly colored poncho over his clothes once a week, but now he himself feels oppressed by this practice and forced to continue it, albeit against his will. This is an interesting example of how sometimes the choices we make don't feel like choices at all—they feel like obligations. Does anyone have an experience anything like Sam’s? What would happen if you showed up at school in a completely different style than you usually wear?

Conclusion

The megillah and the biographical stories of Bella Abzug and Bess Myerson, raise questions that help us examine our own identities, roles, and choices of dress. As we read about these powerful people, we can consider our current roles and how we want to present ourselves to the world. We can think about how to reveal our true selves in different ways and at different times, as we also think about the real challenges that young people face in society today.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Purim, Jewish Leaders, and the Roles We Choose - Lesson Plan for Youth." (Viewed on October 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/golearn/feb07/youth>.

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