This year's Purim marks three years since I started my incredible journey of coming out. Until three years ago I struggled in isolation with my identity as a gay man and an Orthodox Jew. I had spent the previous two years surrounded only by people who rejected themselves as gay and was part of the "ex gay" movement."
My first time attending a Purim event with gay Jews who had reconciled their faith with their sexual orientation and were living honestly and openly was really scary for me. I'll never forget the moment I walked into the LGBT Jewish Purim event at the Jewish Community Center on New York City's Upper West Side. Many of the other attendees were Orthodox or had grown up Orthodox, just like I had. The first 10 minutes were the scariest. I was self-conscious of the way I looked and the way people looked at me. I had constant questions running through my head. "Is the way I'm walking too gay or not gay enough?" "Can people recognize how nervous I am?" "Do they see my hands shaking?" "Are others as uncomfortable as I feel right now?" I couldn't believe that most of these people were gay and weren't struggling to change themselves. They were happy with who they were, and they were gathered to celebrate the holiday of Purim, a time where joy knows no bounds. Purim is marked by traditions of dressing up as in costumes, drinking, dancing and overall merriment.
I was mesmerized by the feeling that took over me as I got more and more into the celebration.
People greeted me in Hebrew and Yiddish, wishing me "shalom aleichem" (peace be upon you) and "a freilachen Purim!" (Happy Purim). As the evening went on, I started feeling a little more comfortable with myself. Slowly, I started to experience this small but real feeling of joy and peace as I was swept up in the spirit of other self-accepting gay Jews, a community that I never knew existed. I was mesmerized that people were able to accept themselves as they were, as gay people and as Jews -- Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. That night they were one people celebrating the great miracle and joy of Purim.
Many LGBT people relate to the story of Purim on a very personal level because the story of the holiday, the very thing we celebrate, is Queen Esther risking her life by "coming out" as a Jew to save her people. I relate to this story so deeply because I felt like coming out was a risk to everything: my life, my family, my friends, my faith and my future vocation. Everything dear to me. Three years ago, Purim was the first time that accepting myself became a real and tangible possibility. I had just stopped spending what felt like endless time, energy and resources trying to reject the deepest and most basic parts of myself as a gay person. It was three years ago on Purim that I stopped being a victim to the fears of what would happen if I finally gave myself permission to be who I was, even knowing that I might risk losing everything. Although coming out was a difficult and painstaking journey, I know that, like Queen Esther, I saved my own life and saved the lives of others.
Soon after this LGBT Purim event, a small, yet promising, feeling started growing inside me, a sensation that finally made me feel like I had menuchat hanefesh (peace within my soul) and the ability to reconcile who I was both as a gay person and a Jewish person. One of the ways in which we celebrate Purim is to dress in costumes. I mark my coming out and authenticity by dressing as myself for Purim, to signify that Purim was when I started the journey of living authentically.
The community where I was raised encouraged us to learn how to read Megilat Esther (the Book of Esther) for the purpose of reading it for Jews who don't have a chance to hear it on Purim. I mastered reading the Megilah Esther at age 14 and have read it in many settings: Yeshiva, in people's homes in Israel and on the streets of Paris. Just one year after attending my first Jewish gay event, one year after taking of my "mask" as a straight man, and one year after I started living as the real me with pride and authentic happiness with who I was, I found myself reading the Megilah again. This time my voice was loud, clear and proud for my Jewish LGBT brothers and sisters. I continue to read the Megilah for the Jewish gay community and I hope the freedom that Esther and the Jewish people felt because of Esther's brave honesty will reign over everyone who feels like they don't have freedom to be who they are. I pray they will find their voice and be true to themselves because truth and freedom can and will save lives.
Follow Chaim Levin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/chaim89