The Masks We Wear

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There is no holiday like Purim. Not only is it a mitzvah to be happy, when you think about it, Purim is also the only holiday in the Jewish tradition where it is permitted, even compulsory, to drink and be silly.

Purim isn’t just for the kids, either. Back in Israel, on my kibbutz, Purim is a big deal. It is a tradition for the adults to go out with friends, to drink good beer and cheap wine, to dance, and of course, to dress up.

For me, dressing up in a costume is probably the most important component of the Purim celebration. As a child, I would eagerly count down the days until I got to dress up as my favorite superhero, cartoon character, or someone else that I could choose to be.

Today, as I try to reconstruct why dressing up was so significant for me and why this holiday is so significant for many people, I think back to a text that has influenced me greatly, “The Foundations of the Interpersonal”:

“Let us now imagine two people who sit next to each other and interact with each other — Reuven and Shimon — and now the masks that play in this interaction.

First: Here is Reuven as he wants to be seen in Shimon’s eyes, and Shimon as he wants to be seen in the eyes of Reuven;

Reuven as he really looks to Shimon, who is usually not identical with the character desired for Shimon and vice versa;

Add to this Reuven as he sees himself and Shimon as seen in his own eyes;

And finally, Reuven as his being and Shimon as his being.

Two living beings and six imaginary characters, a real ghostly crowd, often involved in the conversation of the two!If so, what place to place for the truth of the interpersonal relationship.”

This short but wonderful text by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber beautifully depicts the complex interpersonal and social world in which we live. He describes the vast number of masks we wear each day.

The first is the mask we wear every day to work and to go out of our homes. This is the mask we would like others to see.

The second mask is a bit more complex. Usually, this mask is revealed to us only after several years or by accident. This is the mask we are forced to wear without a choice. This is the mask that society chooses for us — how we appear in the eyes of others.

There is also a third mask: the mask by which we see ourselves. This cover is hard to remove. Perhaps this is the mask that is closest to our true facial features, but we still make sure to smooth our wrinkles, lift our cheeks, and improve our noses…

Underneath all these masks lies the soul. Soul to soul, there, among the “ghostly crowd” of masks, is where real conversation happens. In other words, as the dialogue between two individuals continues, and once the masks have been peeled away, only then can true conversation occur. One soul eventually becomes reflected in the other.

These masks can also be a metaphor for the ongoing conversation about Israel and diaspora Jewry.

Sometimes, we see this relationship through the mask of the TV screen — the way the outside world views this relationship. Other times, this relationship is viewed through the mask of our prejudiced views of one another (Israelis are too this, or Americans won’t do that). Finally, there’s an internal conversation going on inside all of us from which we view the relationship. Are we being true to ourselves about what we expect from each other? Are we building our relationship based on a desire for the wellbeing of both of us and a successful collective future?

Working at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington over the past six months and gaining an understanding of the diversity of ways in which people in this community engage with Israel has taught me there is a great chance that these varied angles and interactions are collectively creating the truth behind the masks.

We need to ensure that the dialogue between Israel and diaspora Jewry is maintained, and multidimensional, dynamic, and diverse opinions are supported and welcomed. As we continue to create more avenues to engage with Israel, we will peel back our masks and ultimately build a holistic, true relationship with Israel.

By Tzachi Levy

 Tzachi Levy is in his first year as the Jewish Agency senior shaliach (Israeli emissary) to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Most recently, he served as director for the Jewish Agency’s Shinshinim Shlichut program. Tzachi has a bachelor’s degree from Beit Berl College in informal education and history, and a master’s in public administration from Sapir College. As a 13th-generation Israeli, Tzachi’s strong family roots and Zionist youth movement education serve as his motivation and energy for working at Federation and in the Jewish world.