It was back in the ‘70s. I was living in Tel Aviv and it was my first experience of Purim in Israel, so I went into town to see the celebrations. There was plenty going on, and the raucous throng of merrymakers, many in costume and wearing masks, was overwhelming. In minutes, I was sprayed with a water pistol and clonked on the head by a squeaky plastic hammer. All good fun, I told myself, glancing around warily.
Then I noticed a shortish man on his own hanging shyly on the edge of a crowd of revelers, wearing a mask that puffed up his face and stretched his features into something like a character in a horror movie.
As I walked around, taking in the atmosphere and dodging the hammers, I spied him once or twice more – and it dawned on me with a jolt that this face was no mask, but the way he actually looked.
I’ve never forgotten that man, who might have been suffering from a disorder called Treacher Collins syndrome that afflicts people of generally normal intelligence and affects development of the bones and facial tissue. His presence at the Purim festivities seemed poignantly to embody a central twin theme of the Purim story: disguise vs disclosure.
I wondered: Was Purim, for him, a uniquely happy day on which he could stroll through the streets, mingling with others of weird and wonderful appearance, secure in the knowledge that he would attract no more than a passing glance? Or was his timid hovering on the fringes of the carnival a mute appeal, saying, in effect: “No, this is what I really look like. But it doesn’t define all of me. Will you look beyond my ‘mask’ and see the person underneath?”
Those who are able to take their masks off after Purim and pack them away are only partly right in believing they have returned to their real selves. They may have reassumed their “normal,” everyday personae, but it is humanly true that the unadorned self, with all its warts and weaknesses, feels far too fragile for exposure to the outside world and stays hidden after the Purim costume parties are over.
So while the pirate, policeman, pelican and priest go back in the closet for another year, many other kinds of masks – brashness, bravado, vulgarity, jocularity, aggressiveness, meekness, self-righteousness, over-politeness, indifference – are donned in their stead to cover up what people are afraid to reveal about themselves: their anger, sadness, insecurity, loneliness, depression and a host of other painful feelings and vulnerabilities.
A certain masking of the inner self is inevitable, even necessary, as we make our way through life encountering a great variety of people, some to our liking, others not; but the vitally important thing is to stay aware and keep firm hold of “who we really are.”
For when the mask becomes the man (or woman), and the real self is lost, spinning helplessly somewhere deep in the psyche, then the psychologists and psychiatrists must step in to try and help fish it back up again.
I grew up in Britain and felt at home there until I came to Israel, where I now feel both more at home and, very occasionally, less at home. It is an irony that here I am thought of as very British – probably on account of my accent – while in Britain I used to be told there was “something foreign” about me.
Israelis are characteristically forthright and tend to come straight out with whatever is on their minds – which for those accustomed to British manners is at first a shock and later an acquired taste. A local salesman, come to my home to advise on a new living room suite, looked around at my furniture and remarked: “If I was furnishing my living room, this is the last thing I would choose!” Honest, or boorish? You decide. But on a trip back to London just a few years after my aliya, I remember being invited to afternoon tea by some acquaintances of our family and coming away after the delicate sandwiches and fine cakes feeling disconcerted by a sense that everything they had said – or commented on what I had said – had been filtered across an invisible barrier; that, polite and friendly as they had been, their remarks reflected little of what they had actually thought.
Now this may have been more a matter of style than substance, but perhaps for the first time – distance having lent not so much enchantment as objectivity – I became sensitized to the famous British polite reserve, which the Kwintessential website defines as a “general disinclination to show emotion, feelings or to act in any way that could be viewed as slightly off-centre.” Neutrality and diplomacy, the site points out, are deemed necessary components of any courteous communication, framed in “language [that] is heavily tempered and gestures [that] are restrained.”
All very decorous; but it helped me understand why after some years in the no-holds-barred – yet for that very reason often refreshing – environment of my old-new country I felt as if my British hosts and their other guests had been conversing with me from behind a collection of rather stiff, polite and smiling masks.
A surprising outcome of masking true feelings was reported in Britain’s Telegraph last year: New research revealed that excessive British politeness could be costing businesses millions of pounds a year as a result of customers being undercharged, or not charged at all for extra work, and employees turning up late, taking too long over lunch, or even submitting bogus expenses claims which managers felt “awkward” about challenging.
Another 2015 Telegraph
report, in contrast, had the publisher Debrett’s, longtime guardian of the nation’s etiquette, declaring that the digital revolution was killing traditional British manners, leaving a generation of young people barely able to communicate properly.
Debrett’s noted with disfavor a practice known as known as “phubbing” – phone snubbing – in which people check emails or reply to text messages while ignoring the friends in front of them.
Isn’t the ubiquitous smartphone a sort of cyber-mask rapidly taking precedence over simple, face-to-face interaction?
Pundits everywhere are bewildered by the “Trump Phenomenon,” in which businessman and TV reality star Donald Trump has bewitched huge swaths of the American electorate in what looks like an unstoppable track to becoming Republican nominee for American president. They simply can’t understand the loyalty and sweeping acclaim accorded a man who, to quote David Brooks in The New York Times last week, “insults the office Abraham Lincoln once occupied by running for it with less preparation than most of us would undertake to buy a sofa.”
Trump’s fitness, or lack of it, to lead America is not the business of this column. What does feel relevant is the clear impression that a large part of what has earned Trump his myriad supporters is a conviction that their man “tells it like it is,” throwing off the mask of political correctness they feel plagues so much of political life. In Trump’s blunt speaking – never mind how uncouth or uninformed – they hear the opposite of elitism and feel they are getting the plain, unvarnished truth others are reluctant to reveal.
Has Trump unmasked his rivals, or has he donned a mask of his own that has yet to become apparent? We’ll find out.