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Drag queens enliven Clark County synagogue’s celebration of ‘Jewish Halloween’

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
5 Photos
Drag queens Lylac, T'Kara Campbell Starr and Poison Waters perform during a Purim celebration Monday night at Congregation Kol Ami in Brush Prairie. The three had never performed at a synagogue before.
Drag queens Lylac, T'Kara Campbell Starr and Poison Waters perform during a Purim celebration Monday night at Congregation Kol Ami in Brush Prairie. The three had never performed at a synagogue before. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Congregation Kol Ami sparkled more than usual Monday night during its Purim celebration.

Drag queens T’Kara Campbell Starr and Lylac performed at the synagogue while Poison Waters, co-host at Darcelle XV Showplace in Portland, told stories about the holiday marking the savior of the Jewish people from Haman. It was the first time they had performed at a synagogue.

Poison Waters said she was excited but nervous about the gig.

“We do a lot of drag shows a lot of places. The combination is new,” she told the audience.

At first, the drag queens weren’t sure what to wear or say.

“And then when I got here, I was totally comfortable,” Poison Waters told The Columbian.

Also, they were offered shots of tequila when they arrived at the Brush Prairie synagogue.

Purim is by far the rowdiest Jewish holiday, explained Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker. It centers around reading the Megillah, or Book of Esther. The story’s synopsis is that the Persian king Ahasuerus selects a beautiful Jewish girl named Esther to be queen, but Esther’s cousin Mordechai tells her to hide her Jewish identity. Mordechai refuses to bow to the king’s adviser, Haman, who plots to kill all of the Jews. Esther then reveals her identity to the king and tells him about Haman’s plot. The Jewish people were saved, and their enemies killed.

It’s an adult story in many ways, Dunsker said, but it’s told in a silly way. Everyone is encouraged to wear costumes and let loose during Purim, which began Monday night and ended Tuesday night.

“The lesson is when times are scary to mock ourselves and mock our enemies — and also, the blessing of survival,” Dunsker told The Columbian.

Any time Haman’s name was said, congregants booed while spinning graggers, banging on pots and pans, and shaking other noisemakers. Normally, congregants aren’t supposed to clap in synagogue, but Purim is a lively (and loud) holiday, sometimes called “Jewish Halloween,” explained Jackie Wetchler. She lives in Beaverton, Ore., but made the drive for the Purim celebration at Kol Ami.

The Megillah is like many Jewish stories about Jews fighting their oppressors, she said.

“It’s also super cool because it’s one of the few woman-led stories,” Wetchler said.

Poison Waters learned about Purim’s stories and traditions prior to performing. During Monday’s festivities, she read stories children had written about whether Esther was really Esther’s name and about Esther trying to throw the best save-your-people-from-genocide party ever.

“Esther did some courageous things, and that’s why we remember her and read her book,” she said.

She also read a story about Haman having a bad day.

“He was mean and hateful and wore a really ugly hat — and that’s unforgivable in my eyes,” Poison Waters said. “Haman really loved some nice, flashy clothing. That’s the only thing that we have in common.”

Having drag queens perform during Purim fulfilled a long-held dream for Dunsker, who reached out to her social network for help in contacting Poison Waters.

“It’s the most exciting Purim ever,” Dunsker said.

Poison Waters joked about making the trek to Brush Prairie.

“We got here, and we were turning, and we saw Costco and I was so torn. Do I come here to see all you lovely people or do I get a hot dog at Costco? We came here,” Poison Waters said. “We’ll go to Costco on our way back. If you have friends or family working at Costco, let them know what’s about to come in there.”

Previous Purim celebrations at Kol Ami have carried different themes: ABBA, country western, “Star Wars” and Elvis. For all the silliness Purim embodies, it carries an important message for Jews.

“In the times that are hardest, that are scariest, that make us the most afraid, the best thing that we can do is laugh, not just at the world, but at ourselves and each other,” Dunsker said.

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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