One of Eric Jaffe’s first experiences with drag was a Purim celebration at their synagogue.
“It was just an old man dressed up as Esther,” said Jaffe, who has performed in drag in Philadelphia for five years. “There was one year my dad dressed up. Purim seemed to be our time to dress however we wanted. It was the first time I thought, ‘Oh, there are men in dresses.’”
According to My Jewish Learning, over-the-top performances have been a part of the Purim tradition throughout history. Donning masks and costumes — including drag — is a reference to Esther being a queen in disguise, as well as God’s behind-the-scenes role in the story. Purim spiels, satirical short plays and sketches are also common.
Even the reading of the Megillah is theatrical. Audience members participate by cheering, booing and waving noisemakers at the mention of Haman’s name. Purim celebrations encourage participants to be as loud and joyful as possible, while blurring traditional social boundaries and rules of etiquette.
These traditions, along with the popularity of shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” have made incorporating drag into Purim celebrations increasingly popular.
For kids, drag queen storytelling events provide an opportunity to connect to Purim themes through dressing up.
“It’s really fun for them because they get to see people in glittery, sparkly, over-the-top outfits,” said Rachelle Lee Schneider, who organized Drag Queen Story Time at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on March 1. “Kids don’t have the same societal expectations as adults, and it’s a great way to start conversations about diversity.”
The star of the event was Ian Morrison, who performs as queen Brittany Lynn. Morrison’s career as an activist and performer has earned him the title First Lady of the Gayborhood and led the City of Philadelphia to declare March 15th Brittany Lynn Day.
“Esther was chosen to be queen from a pageant, which is drag right there,” he said. “And we get the costumes from the fact that she had to be in disguise.”
Morrison, who has performed in storytime events throughout Philadelphia, is passionate about providing visibility for queer youth. “I grew up in the ’80s when there was no queer media, which was very isolating. I don’t want kids to go through that same experience of isolation. When I do these storytimes and I look into the crowd, I can see which kids this resonates with.”
Morrison reads books that focus on acceptance and anti-bullying themes like Jill Twiss’ “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo” and Daniel Haack’s “The Prince and the Knight.” He even wrote his own book, “The Adventures of Miss Kitty Popcorn & Cheese,” to raise funds for storytime programs.
Dressing up and performing isn’t just for kids. Last year, Tribe12, Repair the World and the Jewish Graduate Student Network collaborated to host The Whole Me(gay)llah, a drag-themed Purim celebration for young adults.
This year, the organizations are hosting the queer, feminist celebration Party Like a Queen at the Penn Museum on March 12. The evening will include a scavenger hunt, access to museum exhibits and a costume contest, among other activities.
Purim’s emphasis on celebration and identity resonates with members of the LGBTQ+ community, who can be all too familiar with the pressure to conceal one’s true identity.
“I went to school for theater, and I was told that if I was going to work in theater I would have to pass as a straight person,” Jaffe said. “To pass, I would have to conceal my queerness, which I thought was absolutely ridiculous.”
Now, Jaffe’s queer and Jewish identities feature prominently in their work.
“There was always a very specific kind of ridiculous Jewish humor in my house. There was never a fart joke that was out of line,” they said. “My approach to drag is very comedy based. I do a lot of my own writing and I just started my own theater group, Jaffe St. Queer. I’ve done a couple of Purim shows, I have several Chanukah numbers and a production that tells the story of Passover.”
Jaffe would like to see more drag events at synagogues throughout the year.
“I worked with Germantown Jewish Centre for their Pride event last year and it was the first time a synagogue has invited me to participate in an event,” they said. “It was great to talk to Jewish kids and be their first experience with drag.”
Morrison also wants greater visibility for the queer Jewish community.
“In my drag performances for adults, I’m the most Jewish bar mitzvah mother you can think of,” he said. “People should know you can follow your faith and still be gay.”