March 21, 2024

A Purim collection

Pinned up by perfectionism, by fear, by feelings of unworthiness.

Smothered in glitter and lace and mother-of-pearl, designed to restrict, constrict, and censor.

Whether its belonging, approval, acceptance, admiration, the masks we wear often help us get what we’re after.

There’s safety in the façades we wear, safety and suffocation both.

Because as well as they protect us, masks also hold us back.

What happens when the cover slips?

 10 contributors share their unmasked moments.

The Hostess with the Mostess

It had been a beautiful Shabbos so far for us and our guests, and now I was preparing the food for shalosh seudos. Even though my brother-in-law had called us on Thursday morning if he could come for Shabbos with his wife, toddler and 6-week-old newborn, I had agreed and somehow managed to pull off a beautiful Shabbos on such late notice, with all the frills included. Now was the last meal to prepare, and after a whole day of watching my own kids and being a gracious hostess, I was feeling stretched thin.

So when my husband returned from Mincha and walked in to the kitchen where I was busy assembling the salad, calming down my four-year-old, trying to feed oatmeal into my baby’s mouth without it getting on her face or the floor… I was a bit frazzled to say the least. Never mind that it was almost Shkiah. So when he casually asked me how I’m doing, I (not so quietly) hissed back “I am so hectic, I haven’t had a second to myself the whole day”.

What I wanted was his help, definitely not that my sister-in-law should hear that comment. But that’s exactly what happened. She chose to walk into the kitchen at that exact moment and heard our little exchange. Whoops! Here I was, trying to impress on her that I was totally coping just fine, thank you, and had it all together, when she caught me in one of my most vulnerable moments- confessing that I was anything but managing!

My game was up. Much as I would have like to have think of me as superwoman, I had now made it clear that in reality was a plain old frazzled mom. And you know what? Once I got over the initial embarrassment, I was able to relate to my sister-in-law in a much more honest and open way. In the way of a regular frum busy mother who is always juggling lots of balls at once, along with a constant silent tefillah on her lips that all should go well. The way of a light schmooze discussing how some days worked out well, and others not as much. Once that slip up happened, we became closer than ever. I am no longer putting on a façade and can be truthful about the daily stresses and struggles that I, just like everyone else, goes through. So in the end, I gained a closer relationship with her, and it also taught me to be more candid with (myself and) others as well- there’s only what to gain from being open, especially when we are all feeling the same!  I guess it wasn’t so terrible that she overheard me after all.  

Real Talk

When I say I struggle with small talk, I mean it in the deepest, most existential, sweating-before-

the-simcha type of way.

To strangers, acquaintances, and anyone not within my immediate and tightest-knit friends-and-

family circle, here’s all I can offer: Lackluster one-liners like, “Lots of nachas,” and “You look

beautiful,” scratched-together bits of chit-chat, a desperate stab at weather contemplation,

maybe an air kiss if I’m feeling particularly extroverted. That’s it.

It’s not that I don’t care to connect. I don’t know how.

Vorts are the worst. There’s nowhere to sit and pretend-eat; everyone is circulating exultantly;

embracing, exclaiming, and otherwise exhibiting their exuberance.

Me? I’m white-knuckling my way through—on line to wish the kallah, and then her mother and

(sigh) her future mother-in-law, “Mazel tov you-got-the-beeeeeeeest-kallah/family-in-the-world,”

overstimulated and overwhelmed and feeling very much alone.

My default persona, Sunny-but-Slightly-Stilted Dina, feels so knee-jerk, it’s almost impossible

not to be her.

It’s so, so hard to peel off the façade.

So when, after a random Tuesday night shiur I very uncharacteristically attended, I broke

character to offer a ride to the clearly stranded chassidishe woman who was making frantic

phone calls, I didn’t recognize myself.

We climbed in my car. Typically, when sharing space with a stranger, I would fiddle with the

radio, stare out the windshield, or otherwise keep myself gainlessly distracted as the painfully

awkward moments ticked by.

Instead, I asked her name and what she thought of the class.

The conversation that followed was marvelous.

We discussed the topic of the shiur, then moved on to sharing what we each do for work, and

eventually, the many and multifaceted challenges of being a breadwinning mother.

In an almost effortless flow, we schmoozed, laughed, and opened our hearts.

By then, we had made our way aaaaaaall the way down the Nine and were idling in front of her


Finally noticing the time and remembering our responsibilities, we wound the conversation


She gathered her things, this woman who was no longer a stranger.

I watched her walk back into her own world, so outwardly different from me but very much the


I waved before I pulled off into the night, toward the waiting dishes and unread emails and

laundry undone.

I wondered if I’d ever see her again.—dina steinberg

Strength in Vulnerability

As a freelance writer, I was fed up with the feast and famine cycle and was desperate for a steady job while still dabbling in writing. 

After some trial and error, I found something that sounded like it might suit my 53-year-old rather rusty brain. 

The position required a lot of memorizing and computer skills which really weren’t my forte, but despite my shortcomings, I (and the boss) struggled along.

I felt very conscious of the age difference of my 20-year-old coworkers who took to the work like ducks to water while I was sure every day would be my last.

I didn’t dare open my mouth about anything and apologized profusely each time I made a mistake. Every week we had a meeting which made me feel even worse. On the huge computer screen, with its detailed graph, would be my name with the lowest performance. 

On the day I was about to throw in the towel, I walked into work feeling extra down and incompetent. Out of left field, my boss swiveled her chair around from her desk and said, “Was it you who wrote the interview in The Circle this week? It was fantastic.” I was so shocked that I blurted out, “At least you can see I’m not so stupid—I can do something well!”

She looked at me like I was crazy. “Of course I know you’re capable, what’s the problem?”

She reassured me that I was doing just fine as a new trainee.

This revelation was the start to my expressing my feelings and the start of my moving forward in the company.

It was a lesson for life. Keeping things bottled up isn’t always the best thing. There is great strength in vulnerability, as it takes courage to push through the fear and share one’s true self with others. —chana flam

 When Masks Melt Away

In the spaces between softly whispered words, the silence is deafening. I try to hide

behind the white smoothness of paper pressed against my cheeks, but the black letters pierce my

heart. The cover of my Machzor is rich-scented leather, the embossed letters proclaiming my

name. But He doesn’t need the name. He knows who I am, and on this day, so do I.

The busy noise of life is hushed, and the swiftly scurrying thoughts have melted away

into this one blinding moment of clarity. I stand, together and yet so alone on this day that is like

Purim – when the masks melt away – and yet so unlike Purim – for we see ourselves in serious

contemplation, not openhearted joy.

There is profound fear in not having anything to hide behind, every dark crevice exposed

to the blinding light of day. But there is also the trembling plea to my Father, who knows and

loves me despite my limitations.

I deserve nothing, yet I ask for everything.

Clutching my Machzor, the tears come as I throw my innermost self over the precipice of


I know that He will not let me fall.

In the Shadows

Sometimes I creep into his room at night, just to watch him sleep. I ignore the garish posters he’s

insisted on plastering onto his walls, and inch closer, careful not to trip over the unidentified

objects strewn all over the floor. Leaning against the bed, I inch down the dark blue coverlet and

gaze at his face.

The sullen curl to his mouth is gone, leaving a soft smile in its wake. Amidst a wild shock of

tousled brown hair, I can still see his peyos, even though they are smaller than they used to be.

The bitterness in his eyes is hidden, and the silver radiance of the moon reveals a childlike

innocence beneath the teenage mask. The hands, so often clenched during the day, are relaxed

and open.

In the soft hush of his breathing, there is only tranquility. Here, in the gentleness of the night, the

purity still shines.

It’s the harsh light of day that brings a blurring of our sight…Arguments, anger, a confusion that

lashes out without thought. It’s hard to push down the hot surge of anguish after yet another

round of stinging words. There are so many tears and I sometimes wonder if the pain will ever

pass. Have I lost my child? Is he slipping too far away for me to follow?

But every night, when I watch him sleep, I see the reality.

And in the darkness, I am comforted.


She waited, the years passing. Was it swift or slow, this inexorable march of Time? Swift,

watching others marrying, building families, reaching milestones…Slow, with tedious dates and

long dry spells in between, working on a career that was satisfying, but no replacement for a

home and a family.

What was it like, to find the first strands of grey, uncovered by a sheitel? To see the slight crow’s

feet spreading from eyes accustomed to smiling – at least in public? Doting on other’s children,

the perpetual aunt, but never the mother?

Strong. Everyone said she was so strong. So positive. I only saw the smoothness of a well made-

up face, and brave eyes that always looked steadfastly ahead. There was no time for regret, only

for moving forward towards the future.

And today I am here.

Her waiting has come to an end, and the music is carrying the black wave of men towards the

pure whiteness of the Kallah’s chair. She sits, regal, her beautiful smile and brave eyes finally

welcoming the future of her dreams.

The wave breaks, and out of the mass of men steps the chassan, with shy, eager steps. The heavy

silk deck tichel is in his hands, and he is placing it over her upturned face.

Maybe only I see it – but as the silk cloth descends, the smile disappears, and I see another face

emerge. All the despair of waiting finally gushes forth in a torrent of silent, cleansing tears…and

I see the moment when pain mingles with joy – the blending of challenges and gifts, of hardships

and glory…and somehow this is the most dazzling sight of all.


You know those people who seem to thrive on conflict? The ones who love a good argument, enjoy

getting heated up as they defend their position?

I’m not one of those. Conflict has always seemed like a big, scary monster to me, and I’d flee from it at

almost any cost. Better to swallow the discomfort than get into a whole thing, no? Call me a pushover if

you will; I saw it as making an informed choice.

Until one day, I’d had enough.

My downstairs neighbor Malky and I are great friends, the 12-year age gap between us notwithstanding.

Our close proximity and relationship meant she often called me when she was in a pinch, like when she

was stuck at an appointment and her son needed to be picked up from playgroup or she had run out of

milk and couldn’t get out to the grocery. She often turned to me for advice as well, like which ENT to bring

her two-year-old to or what’s the best way to toilet-train her totally-disinterested toddler. I didn’t mind,

really; she was sweet, and I enjoyed her company as we watched our little ones outside on nice days.

As my son’s bar mitzvah loomed, my life got busier, but so did my neighbor’s. I had to turn down some of

her requests, and she seemed to understand. On one especially busy day just before the bar mitzvah, my

nine-year-old came down with a bad case of the flu and I was struggling to juggle everyone’s needs

without letting too many of balls fall. Exhausted, I veered from my usual role of helpful older neighbor and

asked Malky if she could step in and have my three-year-old over for the afternoon.

She said it wouldn’t work for her and proceeded to complain that I had been ignoring her calls and only

remembered her when I needed help. She was right in a way—I had been really busy and hadn’t

answered every call—but hello? Did she realize how hectic things were for me? Was she the one only in

this relationship with needs?

I was floored—and angry.

So I opened my mouth and shared my own frustrations, telling her that she had to realize that I had a life

too, and I was starting to feel taken advantage of. It was a moment of truth—and it smelled of

conflict—but I didn’t care. It was time to put things out there, and if I sounded angry and hurt, well, I was,

and she had to know it.

The response was a torrent of insults that are not fit to print. She accused me of selfishness and

dishonesty. I hadn’t even known she was capable of such ungratefulness and aggressiveness.

So I put the mask back on. I would lick my wounds in private, maybe try to be dan l’kaf zechus, see things

from her perspective, do a cheshbon hanefesh. Maybe in a week or two, when we were both calmer, we’d

be able to discuss it rationally. Or maybe not. Maybe the issue was a lot deeper than I’d realized and

Malky wasn’t an address for this time of discussion.

And maybe being real is not always the most effective route. –Tova Blau

Under the Floorboards

I’m the kind of person who likes the world to think she has it all together. And I do a pretty good job fooling most of the world, most of the time. With one exception: my downstairs tenant.

All masks are off when it comes to the one person who gets to hear all the drama, all the time. The bloody wars between my school-age boys; the daily meltdowns and tantrums from my, how should I say this delicately, passionate preteen. The times when I raise my voice in frustration or yell at my rambunctious toddler, “Dovi! Stop it this second!”

My husband reassures me that it’s ok, the worst is she’ll never do a shidduch with us, but I am embarrassed to look her in the eye; I avoid her at all costs.

I guess you could say it’s good for my ego…. but I’m not so sure. I like my mask on right where it belongs.


Ambience. Glitter. Pure joy.

The hall is full of family, friends, acquaintances. She is a glowing, perfect Kallah.

Dancing is in full swing and I congratulate myself on my carefully careless appearance.

After all, why wouldn’t I be radiating happiness at the wedding of my cousin?

I am dancing and chattering and mingling, all with that beam of sunshine stretched across my face like an unbreakable, perfect, stone.

This is the wedding. The wedding of my cousin, who I know and love and care for. And I am so happy for her that she is moving on, getting married.

I really am.

A tap on my shoulder startles me, and I whirl around to face my aunt.

I stretch my lips even wider, “Hi Auntie!”

“Sheva!” she throws her arms around me. “You look gorgeous!”

She is silent for a moment, studying me; intensity in the set of her jaw, in the moisture of her eyes. Then she continues, slowly, cautiously. “You get a Mazel tov too tonight, don’t you?”

My throat is suddenly tight. Something heavy, like a wall of stone, has landed on my chest. I can’t breathe.

Then the mask evaporates along with all the oxygen in the room, and there are tears streaming from my eyes as I escape the room, praying that no one would notice.

Yes, it is my birthday. I am twenty- three and my eighteen-year-old cousin is getting married tonight.

Thank you, auntie, for your kind wishes.

If only masks were made of stronger stuff…

Young at Heart

The sky is a vivid, almost impossible shade of blue, and gentle, frothing waves crash against the ferry harbor.

It’s vacation. Oh glorious, summer vacation.

Here we are, my friends and I, waiting to cross the narrow channel from one island cape to another.

“Ho, here it comes!” my friend calls out.

“Aye, aye! Shall we clamber aboard?” I rejoin with a grin, sweeping up our miscellaneous belongings, and skipping along with the rippling wind towards the waiting ramp.

To our surprise and bewilderment, the deckhand makes way for us without any mention of payment.

We raise eyebrows at each other in question; what to do?

There’s time to decide though, and for the moment we simply inhale the salt in the delicious sea air and take ridiculous pictures and dance across the width of the ferry in tandem with the waves.

Upon disembarking we make a unanimous decision, approaching the worker who’s manning the sales.

One of my friends, the tallest amongst us, appoints herself spokeswoman.

“Can we pay for our ride?” she asks.

“Are you an adult?” he asks, eyes forming a questioning ‘oh?’

She nods, and proceeds to pay.

“Uh… can we pay too?” I ask, when he moves right on to the next person in line.

“Children go free,” is the gruff response.

Struggling to contain our laughter, we attempt to explain that no, we are definitely not under sixteen, we are in fact, twenty-three years old.

Masks off, age revealed…

His face?


We reassure him in gracious tones, as he falls over in apology for insulting us, that yes it has happened before, and no doubt will happen again too, and we are entirely not offended.

He is not even half convinced, and off we prance, doubled in laughter, our youthful masks intact.