Monday, March 1, 2010

My Time as a Chicken

By Susan Esther Barnes

Yesterday was Purim, a Jewish holiday which calls for us to give gifts to friends and the poor, to eat a festive meal, and to listen to the public reading of the Book of Esther, in which Queen Esther risks her life to save all the Jews in Persia.

It has also become a celebration in which we dress up in costume and celebrate our deliverance from the evil Haman by acting as silly as possible. This explains how I found myself standing in front of the synagogue in a chicken outfit, carrying a sign that read, “Studies show matzo balls taste better in beef broth.”

Before long, I became fascinated by the reactions people had to my presence. Some responded to the existence of a person holding a sign by refusing to look at it, as if I were staging some kind of strike or protest and they didn’t want to get involved.

Some people immediately figured out who I was, and said, “Is that Susan?” to which I nodded, “Yes,” while clucking agreeably. Others seemed to have no clue, even though they have seen me stand in the same place every Friday night, and even though I pointed to the “Purim Greeter” badge I wore in place of my usual “Shabbat Greeter” badge. Thus, people who normally would greet me with a hearty smile and/or hug kept a respectful distance from me.

Children, in general, were intrigued. Several of them wanted to pet me, which I encouraged by holding out my arm (wing) and clucking soothingly. One poor little girl was scared and cried, until I took off the chicken head to show her there was a real person inside the costume. One trio of girls insisted I tell them who I was, although I’m sure my name meant nothing to them, since I don’t have kids of my own and I’m sure they assumed I must have been the mother of one of their friends. Many people with cameras took my picture.

The message on the sign I carried was a bit subtle. It requires one to put together knowledge that matzo balls are commonly cooked in chicken broth with the concept that it’s a chicken pushing the beef broth idea, presumably in order to save itself and its kin from the cooking pot. Some people got it right away. Some got it after a few seconds, but a small minority didn’t seem to put it all together. I enjoyed hearing parents reading the sign to their kids and making sure the kids got the humor. A vegetarian woman suggested matzo balls actually taste better in vegetable broth, with which my chicken persona readily agreed.

I had one mildly embarrassing moment today when I found out that one woman who I had leaned over to watch a cell phone video had no idea who I was. I had just assumed she knew, because she had seen pictures of me in the same costume from last Halloween and she did say, “Hello,” when I walked up. She seemed much more reserved with me than usual, and now I know why. How odd and unsettling to have an anonymous chicken leaning over you like that!

It was particularly interesting that almost nobody spoke with me, including those who knew who I was. This is, I suspect, largely due to my insistence of clucking rather than speaking, except for a few times when I felt compelled to use English. I wonder, though, how much of it was due to people not being able to see my facial expressions, not being sure whether or not I was someone they knew, or the general lack of social norms regarding how someone should act around a person in a chicken suit.

At any rate, it was liberating to be able to just wander around on my own, observing others’ reactions to my costume. It makes me want to consider an equally concealing outfit for next year.

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