Esther & Vashti: Women to Remember
Purim has always been one of my favorite holidays, because it celebrates the story of Esther, one of the few women in the Torah who is widely remembered.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Esther, here’s synopsis: Esther, a Jew, is kidnapped from her family to join a grand beauty pageant for the Persian King. The King was looking for a new wife, because the former Queen, Vashti, had refused his orders to come before his male courtiers in order to be viewed as a prized treasure – as a sexual object. With Vashti exiled, Esther is chosen as the King’s new bride, and lives in the women’s quarters of the palace. When Haman, the King’s advisor, brokers a deal to have all the Jews killed, Esther’s cousin Mordechai gets a message to her. Mordechai asks her to go before the King in order to plead with him to spare her people. Although appearing before the King unbidden could result in death, Esther does so not once, but three times, and secures the King’s promise to save her people.
Traditionally Vashti is viewed as a disobedient woman. (One children’s video portrays her as getting kicked out of the kingdom for refusing to make the king a sandwich!) Sometimes she is seen as being power hungry and vain (as in Rebecca Kohn’s otherwise fascinating adaptation, The Gilded Chamber.) But many female Jewish scholars are writing new and more accurate midrash for Vashti. Susan Schnur (as quoted here) asks:
When, though, I wonder, will women finally create a morally defensible re-write of these chapters? Why aren't we insisting that our synagogue communities cheer and stomp their feet at the mention of Vashti's name? She is a foremother in the best sense of the word – assertive, appropriate, courageous
In order to honor both the women features in the Purim story, many celebrants are now incorporating flags with images of Esther and Vashti into their communal celebrations. Now, when the story is read, Haman is booed and drowned out with noisemakers, Mordecai is cheered and lauded, and both Vashti and Esther are named with shouts and the waving of banners. Tamera Cohen reminds us:
…the Purim flag offers us an opportunity to do more than balance our attention to men's names with attention to women's names; it does more than allow us an opportunity for some feminist fun. When we wave our flags at the mention of Vashti and Esther's names we begin to shift the focus of Purim. No longer do we need to accept that the opposition of "blessed Mordecai" and "cursed Haman" encompasses the story of Purim or the story of Jewish experience. By focusing on Vashti and Esther, as well as Haman and Mordecai, we open up the possibility of telling a more complete and complex Purim story, a story that includes the experiences of women and a story that honors the possibility of potential alliances between Jews and non-Jews.
In most of the Torah and in Bible, women play a central, but unsung role in the building-block stories of Jewish and Christian history. Esther is an exception to that trend, and is one of the only books named after a female figure. It’s exciting to see both Esther and Vashti garner the remembrance they deserve in the re-telling of this tale.
For more information on Purim:
Yet another intriguing version of the story is offered as graphic novel here, by JT Waldman.
For Purim treats and tips, Penny Eisenberg offers a recipe for Hamantashen; triangle shaped fruit-filled cookies also known as “Haman’s Hat,’ or “Haman’s Purse. And if you want to try your hand at the whole feast, I can recommend Celebrate the Jewish Feasts by Martha Zimmerman which offers tips for Purim novices. And you'll find recipes to melt a foodie’s heart in by Jeff Smith.
Now, go out and drink enough that you don’t know the difference between, “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman”…or better yet, drink a round of toasts to Queens Vashti and Esther!