Monday, April 11, 2011

Esther, The Expose

Deanna Neil, Storahtelling Maven and Company Member
Milgrom Family Bat Mitzvah Celebration
Raising the Bar Program

"And it struck me: it was up to me. Me. I'm not a politician, I'm not a diplomat, I have never had to do anything like this before in my life.  I had this pit in my stomach. I had no choice but to reveal who I really am, and maybe die for it. But what did I have to hide?"

I posed this question to the audience at the Milgrom Family Bat Mitzvah celebration in Irvine California in March, as the character of Esther from the beloved Purim story. In our premise, Esther was on a talk show with "Wolf Blitzes" describing her latest book, an expose of the Achashverosh administration. 

Showing the the different sides of ourselves can be difficult, whether a politician or a school girl. When looking at the Purim story, one has to wonder why Esther--aka Hadassah--didn't reveal her Jewish identity from the get-go. Fear? Blending in? A great prescient plot from her cousin Mordechai? Whatever the reason, mum was the word. 

We all have moments in our lives when we chose not to reveal parts of ourselves. Maybe as a Christian among a group of Jews, maybe as  Muslim in America, maybe a tech nerd hanging out with the football team. It can be a delicate moment to share what you really think, when people's reactions are uncertain. But finally, Esther was forced into a situation where she had to find the strength to show who she was and stand up for what she believed in. 

There is a lot in in the story of Purim that is hidden…and revealed. The name of God is hidden in the story. The word Megillah (literally "scroll") is related to the word "galuy," which means "revealed." The name, Esther, is related to the word "hester," which means "hidden." So the title---a true expose—is revealing of the hidden. 

Becoming at Bat Mitzvah is all about publicly declaring identity, just as Esther had to reveal her identity to the king. The Milgrom family had four, inter-generational bat-mitzvahs as a part of their celebration. It was an epic evening, but also one where each woman took to the bimah in front of her community and declared: I am a Jew. This is who I am. This was a bold declaration for the teenage girls, Elianna and Chyelle, and equally so for their mother, Alice, who was originally from China and found herself on a surprising religious journey. It was no less intimidating that the matriarchal bat-mitzvah was Jo Milgrom, a bible scholar and Jewish artist, who was married to the late Jacob Milgrom, a renowned Rabbi and biblical scholar! 

It was exciting to tell the purim story in such a detailed, descriptive way using translation and wacky characters (and a full size horse) for a mixed crowd, where many had never heard the purim story before. Indeed, the crowd embraced the honored Bat-Mitzvah ladies and their identities, as warmly as the king embraced Esther.  

I was fortunate to create the script and perform with Todd Shotz of Hebrew Helpers, who is also my co-worker with teaching B'nai Mitzvah kids in Los Angeles. As we continue to grow our Raising the Bar program in Southern California, this particular Maven--with a message about owning yourself during a coming-of-age moment--struck close to home. 

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