Got Me Thinking…

how life can teach us about life

I am your Father: How Finding a Purim Costume Got Me Thinking About Darkness and Light

on March 17, 2014

The week before Purim, I had no costume. While I could have raided my own closet for crazy clothes, something in me wanted my first New York Purim to include a new, real, honest-to-Hashem costume. When I was a kid, it was easier. My family always went as a unit: Winnie the Pooh, M&Ms, Wizard of Oz, and other fun groups of characters. The most memorable year was when we masqueraded as the Skywalker family. I was Leia (complete with real hair and blaster,) my brother was Luke, my mother was Queen Amidala, and my father was Darth Vader. My father was not a very intimidating man- short, round, balding, with a little Rabbi-beard and Rabbi-glasses. But when he walked into the carnival with the black cape, the breastplate, and the full helmet, all the little kids ran away screaming. “It’s me! It’s Rabbi!” he tried to shout through the head-piece, but to no avail. But I couldn’t stop laughing. Rabbi Light, the Lord of the Dark Side? How  funny…

I’ve been thinking a lot about Star Wars recently. My father was a huge Star Wars fan, and so is my brother. I am too, but I’m an “emotional fan.” It’s the same with me and baseball. (Go Cubbies!) Ask me who is on the starting lineup, I have no idea. Ask me what happens in which movies, I don’t remember. But seeing that large red and blue C, hearing the first strains of that opening music, those are the things that make me smile with happy memories of childhood. Those are the things that connect me to my father since he passed away five years ago. With the new movies in production, Star Wars is again in the news. And every time I see Darth Vader, I think of my dad. But the connection goes deeper than nostalgia.

When I was a kid, I thought that the world was divided into two categories: good and evil, light and dark. People were either good or bad, and couldn’t be both. Bad guys always lost, and heroes swooped in to save the day. This dichotomy colored my entire world growing up. I had very high expectations for the people around me, and of myself. My biggest fear was “not being a good person.” This was positive in many ways- I was a good kid, followed rules, looked out for others and was very giving. But it also meant I got taken advantage of, pushed around, and was hard on myself. Whenever someone got mad at me, or I even thought they were mad at me, I cried. I was not upset because that person yelled at me or hurt me, but because I thought, “they must think I’m a bad person.” As I got older, this belief took a toll on my relationships with my friends. They began hooking up, trying new things like smoking pot, and I couldn’t resolve my views on morality with my friend’s behavior. How can they smoke and have sex, and also be good? It even kept me from getting an extra bus ride on my year in Israel. (All I had to do was say I was 17. I looked 14. But I caved when the driver asked me my age. I couldn’t ever lie, even for a bus pass!) But the real blow came when I was 16, and realized that even my father, my Light, had a dark side.

While I won’t go into all of details here, let’s just say that my father did many things he wasn’t proud of, involving money, the synagogue, and other women. Little by little, as more information was revealed to me, my image of the perfect man was shattered. I began to question everything. That time that we were walking to shul and he was telling me about his mussar (ethics) class, about the mussar bracelet he wore which he would snap every time he thought of doing something wrong;  All his sermons, his advice and directions to me, the mirage of the perfect family. It all came tumbling around me, and yet… I still loved him. He still loved me, and my brother. That would never change. My father got a new job, tried to do t’shuva (repentance) in his own way, including many months in prison. He saw us every once and a while and lived for those moments. And the question kept running around in my mind: is my father a good person? Is he a bad person? Or is he a good person who does bad things?

Someone once said, (and if you know the original source, please tell me,) that a good person is someone who tries to be a better person, who makes mistakes and learns from them, who asks forgiveness and moves on. This is something I am still working on learning. It’s only been recently that I’ve accepted the fact that I will make mistakes, that not everyone will like me, that I can’t get hung up on the little things, that sometimes people yell because they’ve had a rough day. This is a journey that began with my father, and I feel that although he is no longer on this earth, that he is taking it with me. Through my work, my learning, even being at school at JTS where he was ordained, I try to bring my father’s Light side into the world: his warmth, his joy, his silliness and passion. And by wrestling with my own demons, accepting the forgiveness of others and my own mistakes, I try to learn from his dark side. Because darkness and light exist side by side in this world. In the morning service we pray “Blessed are you God, ruler of the world, who creates light and makes darkness, who makes peace and creates everything.” There is no God of good and God of bad in Judaism. There is just God. And on the first day of creation, God separated light from dark. For a brief moment on this earth, after tohu v’vohu (chaos) and v’yhi or (let there be light,) all there was in the universe was light, darkness, and God.

This theme has been on my mind for a while now. A few weeks ago, my graduate school class went on a field trip to see Art Spiegelman’s exhibit Co-Mix at the Jewish Museum. I love his book Maus, which like the Cubs and Star Wars, reminds me of my childhood. I discovered Maus in my father’s office when I was just learning how to read, and fell in love. I read both volumes cover to cover almost every Shabbat, got my own copy for my Bat Mitzvah, and kept reading. Seeing the original manuscripts laid out on the walls was like seeing my favorite band backstage. I was in awe. And I realized that as much as Maus is about the Holocaust, it’s really about a son’s relationship to his father, one told only through black, white, and shadow. After the tour we got to make our own comics. Here’s mine:

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So with dark and light, black and white, and memories of my father swirling around in my head, I searched for a Purim costume. Once I saw it, I knew it was perfect and necessary. ThinkGeek.com sells a Darth Vader dress. I bought matching red lightsaber earrings, made a headband with the helmet on it, and put on some dark-looking makeup. This was more than a Purim costume. It was something I had to do for myself, as a way to memorialize my father, my struggle, and my own dark side. My friend Maddie just happened to have an R2-D2 dress, so we were all set. And that night, as we listened to a story full of twists, turns, and masks, I thought about how sometimes a costume helps you figure out who you really are. On Purim, I was Lady Vader. Today, I am full of hamentaschen, all Light, with plenty of dark and shadow, and no matter what happens next, I know the force is strong with me.

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3 responses to “I am your Father: How Finding a Purim Costume Got Me Thinking About Darkness and Light

  1. Gary Cleff says:

    Good morning Eliana! What a beautiful tribute to the human spirit and to the beautiful light that you shine on the world! You go girl!

  2. Judy says:

    What a touching and beautiful story – it brought tears to my eyes. I remember your dad so well. He was truly a light; he glowed with so much passion and joy for life. I also have struggled with seeing things in black and white, which is another metaphor for rigidity and extremes. There is a lot of gray areas and you touched upon that. Great writing, Eliana. 🙂

  3. I continue to be impressed with the depth of your emotions and intellect and your willingness to share it so we can understand and learn from it. You are a blessing to your mother and father and many others. .

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