Beth El Binah prepares for Purim celebration

PURIM SPIEL  |  Members of Congregation Beth El Binah dress as their favorite characters from the Book of Esther for a Purim celebration.

Gayest of Jewish holidays combines Christmas and Halloween in retelling the story of Queen Esther

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

The Jewish holiday Purim, which celebrates Queen Esther saving the Jews in Persia, is a minor holiday, but it’s still many people’s favorite. Purim is also the gayest of Jewish holidays. Cantor Sherri Allen of Congregation Beth El in Arlington said the holiday celebrates coming out. The holiday recounts the spiel — or story  — told in the biblical book of Esther:

When beautiful Queen Vashti refused to display her beauty to King Achashverus’ guests, the king banished her and decided to find a new queen. He ordered all the country’s hottest young women to be presented to him so he could choose — sort of Cinderella meets American Idol. He chose Esther as his new queen.

Haman, the king’s advisor, is the bad guy in the story. When Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman and Haman found out that Mordechai was Jewish, Haman convinced the king to kill all the Jews.

The name Purim means “lots.” The king drew “pur” to decide that 13 Adar (which falls on March 20 this year) would be the day the Jews would be killed. The Jews wore sackcloth and ashes and fasted for three days.

Here’s where the story takes its turn that teaches a lesson in coming out to the LGBT community, according to Allen; Esther, who had become Achashverus’ favorite wife, decided to come out, telling her hubby that if he killed the Jews, he’d have to kill her too, because she was Jewish and  Mordechai was her uncle.

Well this little turn of events really made Achashverus mad, and he decided to spare the Jews and hung Haman instead.  So the story follows the traditional pattern of Jewish celebrations — they tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat.

Lots of intrigue. Lots of pathos. A coming out story and sex — implied is that the straight king wants it badly. The holiday is celebrated with parties, gift-giving and acting out the book of Esther, usually with songs — sort of Jewish Halloween, Christmas and Broadway musical all rolled into one. And yes, traditionally, Purim is the Jewish gift-giving holiday, not Chanukah.

To celebrate, everyone dresses as a favorite Purim character, although no one dresses as Haman. That is considered as religiously distasteful as dressing as Hitler. It is perfectly appropriate, however, for lots of guys to go in drag as Esther or Vashti. Every time Haman’s name is mentioned, everyone drowns it out with noisemakers, adding in a little New Year’s Eve party as well.

The “let’s eat” part of the holiday includes several foods. Hamantaschen are pastry whose German name means Haman’s hats. Each hamantasch is triangular and looks like a three-cornered hat. The tart is filled with fruit or cream cheese.

Kreplach is another Purim food. Unlike Bette Midler’s definition (people from the small Baltic country of Kreplachia), kreplach are actually dumplings — triangular dough filled with chopped meat and boiled in a chicken soup.

Some historians believe Achashverus was King Xerxes who ruled 485–465 B.C.

The exile from Jerusalem to Babylonia that is mentioned in the book of Esther took place in 597 B.C. Mordechai is referred to as having been exiled, so he would have to be more than 100 years old when the story took place.

Because of the discrepancy, many scholars believe the story of Esther was actually a historical novella, a popular writing style at the time. Written about 300 B.C., the book may have been created to explain the celebration of the holiday.

And like other biblical stories, the book of Esther has been tackled by Hollywood, but this one wasn’t a Cecil B. deMille spectacular.

Following the gay camp theme of the holiday, the 1960 film Esther and the King starred Joan Collins as Queen Esther. Perfect.

Congregation Beth El Binah celebrates Purim on Saturday, March 19 at 7 p.m. with a potluck dinner and costume party at a private residence. Everyone welcome. Contact diane@bethelbinah.org for details.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

Tel Aviv shooting victim will not be deported after calls from LGBT groups

Nir Katz

Congregation Beth El Binah in Dallas joined other LGBT Jewish groups around the United States Wednesday, Feb. 9, in calling on Israel to allow Thomas Schmidt to stay in that country. They held a phone conference organized by Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York on Feb. 8.

According to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv today, Schmidt will be allowed to stay in the country.

Schmidt is from Germany and has lived in Israel since 2004. His partner was Nir Katz who was murdered at the Tel Aviv LGBT Center on Aug. 1, 2009.

Schmidt was one of 11 injured in the attack. Katz’ parents helped Schmidt recuperate and they consider him a part of their family. He has no contact with his own family in Germany.

He was in the process of applying for permanent partnership status when Katz was killed. His residency visa had expired.

After the shooting at the LGBT Center, Congregation Beth El Binah planned a vigil with Youth First Texas and Resource Center Dallas, which was the first of many held around the world over the next few days. A rally in Tel Aviv attracted 100,000 people supporting the victims of the shooting and the LGBT community.

When Schmidt’s visa expired, Israel first denied his request to stay in the country.

Nitzan Horowitz, currently the only openly gay member of the Knesset, called on Israel to allow Schmidt to stay in the country.

Yonatan Gher, director of Jerusalem Open House, that city’s LGBT center, said that in 2009, one person committed a hate crime against the LGBT community but “today the country is committing a hate crime.”

“We call on Israel to allow the victim of the brutal attack to remain in the country,” Diane Litke, president of Congregation Beth El Binah, said yesterday.

Today, Israel changed its position and will allow Schmidt to stay in the country.

Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other countries. Most opposite-sex couples do not get married in the country. Since only Orthodox rabbis are allowed to perform weddings in Israel, and most Israelis are not Orthodox, they marry elsewhere and their marriages are recognized.

—  David Taffet

Anti-violence group plans ‘Phelps-a-thon’ during Westboro Baptist Church’s visit to Tucson

Phelps clan in Dallas

The Phelps clan is headed to Tucson.

In response, the Arizona Legislature passed and the governor signed legislation banning protests within 300 feet of a funeral. In some show of compassion (maybe in fear for their lives), the clan decided not to protest the funeral of Christina Green, the 9-year-old who was murdered. However, they still plan to picket the funeral of U.S. District Judge John McCarthy Roll.

When the clan visited Dallas to picket downtown at the Holocaust Museum and Congregation Beth El Binah at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, a fundraiser was held called “When Hell Freezes Over.” The goal was to replace the $3,000 ice maker at the community center. They raised move than $11,000.

The Wingspan Anti-Violence Project will be doing the same thing this week. They are holding a Phelps-a-thon.

Although we wish them luck, the circumstances are completely different. The group came to Dallas for no reason whatsoever and everyone who participated made a joke of the appearance. There was plenty of time to prepare stupid signs and costumes to welcome their afternoon of hate.

In Arizona, people are mourning. They are dealing with loss and healing. No one is in the mood for a jolly old time to mock the haters. The focus is on funerals and people in hospitals. Reaction to Phelps is a mere afterthought. But the gesture is appropriate. Let their visit to promote hatred after a violent incident raise money to decrease violence.

—  David Taffet

Congregation Or Chadash, LGBT synagogue in Chicago, was among targets of Yemeni terror plot

Congregation Or ChadashOr Chadash, Chicago’s predominantly LGBT synagogue, was among those targeted by the Yemeni bombing plot that was uncovered this weekend.

Bombs were wrapped in packages addressed to two Chicago synagogues but were discovered before they were placed on planes headed for the U.S. Explosive material was packed inside toner cartridges.

Or Chadash is one of seven predominantly LGBT synagogues in the U.S. that are members of the Union of Reform Judaism. Dallas’ Congregation Beth El Binah is one of the others. Whenever temples are targeted, LGBT synagogues are warned that they could be “two for the price of one” targets.

Locally, Beth El Binah officials contacted staff at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center where the synagogue meets. They told them they don’t receive unexpected packages at the Center and that if a package arrives for the temple, to call police immediately.

Congregation Beth El Binah President Diane Litke joked that Beth El Binah gets its printer supplies from Office Depot, not Yemen. But she said more seriously that she can’t imagine anyone who works at any synagogue opening an unexpected package from overseas, adding that all synagogues are aware of security concerns.

—  David Taffet

LGBT community loses an ally

Rabbi Jake

When I hear about religious people being put on trial, as in the case of Rev. Jane Spahr, or religious schools rejecting children because their parents are gay or lesbian, it makes the death last week of Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky so much sadder because we need religious allies.

Rabbi Jake was the director of the Southwest Council of the Union for Reform Judaism. His office was in Dallas and he was always on the side of the LGBT community.

Rabbi Jake helped Congregation Beth El Binah become a member of the Union for Reform Judaism. His only change in the temple’s bylaws was wording of a sentence that called the group a gay and lesbian synagogue. He said synagogues don’t have a sexual orientation and other synagogues weren’t straight synagogues.

But at the time other synagogues weren’t welcoming the LGBT community. His goal was to have a synagogue with outreach to the LGBT community in every city in his district.

In San Antonio, that meant a new small temple. Beth El Binah now has a torah on long-term loan to that synagogue. In Houston, it meant connecting LGBT leaders from that city and Dallas. There, the larger synagogues established programs to welcome the LGBT community. In New Orleans and Austin, it meant bringing speakers from Beth El Binah to help open their temples to LGBT members where they are now important parts of their synagogues.

When the AIDS crisis hit Congregation Beth El Binah hard in the early 90s, Rabbi Jake spent quite a bit of time visiting members in hospitals and at home. In June, Rabbi Jake was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. He died on Aug. 23 and is survived by his wife, Ellen, and son Daniel.

—  David Taffet

Westboro Baptist Church Memorial Ice Maker arrives at Resource Center Dallas

The Westboro Baptist Church Memorial Ice Maker

Resource Center Dallas’ new ice maker arrived on Tuesday afternoon. The machine was purchased with the funds raised from the “Hell Freezes Over” fundraising counterprotest of the Westboro Baptist Church’s appearance at RCD on July 9.

“Once again, a big thanks to everybody who donated and showed support! Resource Center Dallas would also like to thank Caven Enterprises, Cathedral of Hope, Buffalo Wild Wings on Lemmon Ave. and Kroger on Cedar Springs Rd. for allowing us to get ice after our old machine broke,” said RCD spokesman Rafael McDonnell. “Also, special thanks to Congregation Beth El Binah for their long-standing support of the Center. We will hold a formal dedication of the machine either late next week or the week of August 9.”

The fundraising total from “Hell Freezes Over” has neared $11,000. McDonnell joked that he would welcome a return visit from the Phelps cult, but asked them to time it for the next fiscal year.

—  David Taffet