This guest post is written by Nechama L. Content note for mention of sexual coercion / assault
The holiday of Purim, beginning this evening at sundown, has always been one of my favorite holidays. Growing up in an Orthodox synagogue, I was not allowed to lead services, read publicly from the Torah, sing too loudly (or at all, if men were present), or even see what was going on while services were happening: the Ark holding the written scrolls was kept on the men’s side of the mechitzah, an opaque barrier between the men’s and women’s sides of the sanctuary, so that men would not see us and be distracted from their prayer. However, every year on Purim, women and children (pre- bar mitzvah age) were allowed to read publicly from the book of Esther, the scroll read to commemorate the events that inspired this holiday.
Even though it had to take place in a women’s-only reading, the women of my synagogue would gather together and prepare to chant the various sections the way that the men do with the Torah on all other weeks of the year. We would lead a service together and for each other, in the same way that Vashti, the queen of King Ahashverosh in the Purim narrative, held a women’s only feast prior to being commanded by her king to debase herself in front of his courtiers. It was the one day of the year in which I felt like a full participant in the Jewish life that was my entire life, though that’s a feeling that I didn’t fully realize until I left home and experienced more open communities.