Celebrating Purim with the Detroit Jews for Justice
By Oberon Osiris
On Thursday, March 31st I attended the Pure Shushan: 1st Annual Detroit Jews for Justice Purim Extravaganza event hosted by the DJJ – Detroit Jews for Justice. The event was held at the Detroit Jam Handy, once a celebrated film studio in the 1930s, which has seen a rebirth as a popular and unique rental space for weddings and all kinds of events. The event was a potluck, costume party, dance and “shpiel” (Purim festivities) centered around the DJJ’s goal of building new systems for education and community building using the arts and combining social justice and political theater.
I initially received the invite through my networking with Congregation T’Chiyah, a Reconstructionist Synagogue that is active in Interfaith in Detroit. DJJ (http://www.detroitjewsforjustice.org/about) was founded by Congregation T’Chiyah, specifically for making social justice and change central to the congregation and also to the entire Metro Jewish community. I was warmly encouraged to attend by organizer Blair Nosan and to bring a “regal” dish for the potluck. A stately and or flamboyant costume per the theme of the ancient Jewish commemoration of Purim was encouraged, so I wore my long coat and slacks. Purim celebrates the story of Queen Esther of Persia who helped saves the Jewish people from the King’s royal vizier Haman who planned to kill them all for his King. The whole affair details incredible machinations on various people’s parts. Esther chooses to hide her Jewish identity and thwart Haman’s plans.
Today, the real-life story of how the people of Flint, Michigan, were subjected to high levels of lead in their water, due to the machinations of various officials, Emergency Managers, and possibly the Governor, made a very compelling “make-over” or alignment with the story of Esther.
I arrived to be greeted by a mature woman in beautiful Egyptian wear, including a raven-haired, banged wig that completed the picture. A number of folks wore outfits reminiscent of that era, but also a mix of Renaissance, Pirate and just unusual costumes were seen. I spent several minutes talking to another organizer, “Phreddy” who wore a Santa Claus costume, possibly the most out of place. I was happy to see a mix of ages, especially since the crowd and DJJ itself is mostly younger folks, twenties and thirties.
I took in the sights of the hall and its decoration for the event. The Jam Handy Building, named after Henry Jamison "Jam" Handy, the Olympic Breaststroke swimmer and producer of training films, was once a cutting edge animation and creative film studio in the long ago Detroit of the ‘30s and 40s. Some of the original animated features of the 1940s, such as Max Fleischer’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer were centered here. The building has certainly seen better times but is now in the process of renewal, thanks to the Detroit Soup group. For several years it has been used in various ways as a community “arts” space. It has a raw, carved-out look that is immediately industrial in the gritty Detroit way, and full of potential for rediscovery for any type of production.
The potluck began as folks arrived and so grew for at least an hour or so, even after the play began. Almost everything was labeled Vegan and there were fewer items with meat. Due to my own time constraints I had decided to do something novel, and hopefully regal. I had seen a display for St. Patrick’s Day, which featured the yellow Oreo cookies sprayed with an edible food dye that was gold and thus created a pot of gold “coins”, which sadly were mostly ignored. My guess is that Vegans don’t touch all those kind of ingredients found within an Oreo cookie? Still there was some great food at the tables.
Besides a grand spread of foods, mostly Mediterranean or Middle Eastern, there was a keg of beer and several bottles of either wine or something harder. I don’t drink so I didn’t pay much attention to that. I did get a plain lemon soda to sip on, throughout the evening.
This was not an Interfaith event, per se, but trumpeted key issues that are important in IF and very important to Michigan and Michigan people. The political theater of DJJ restaged the story of Esther and Haman to be specifically about the Flint Michigan Water debacle. No feelings were spared thou some names were substituted, in the parody, including that of Michigan Governor Snyder, who is now under a possible recall, as well as many civil and other lawsuits. Rather than Esther being selected to replace the evil king’s queen-wife, she infiltrates the State government, as a community activist and eventually reveals the damaging emails that revealed the corruption and illegality.
The play was well received with a number of participatory moments from the crowd. In addition to Blair, co-writer with Phreddy, as Esther, there were roles by longtime activist Monica Lewis Patrick (“We, the People of Detroit”) and several musical numbers, protest songs re-imagined from old Motown hits, by “Flowtown Review”. Hip Hop artist D.S. Sense and Harpist/Songwriter Rachel McIntosh were also featured. Some multi-media was used with a large screen replicating various email dialogues between Esther and other State officials. The visual cues helped focus the audience for its participation.
After a longish amount of credits were given to the many folks involved with Pure Shushan, local DJ ABBA began spinning songs and beats and the area was cleared for serious dancing and fun. I took that as my cue to leave but I am interested in staying in touch with Detroit Jews for Justice and support their efforts for the Flint water crisis. I thank Blair Nosan for the additional information and photos for this blog.