Today, in Jewish synagogues all over the world, thousands of little girls will parade around in princess dresses or sparkling harem pants and declare themselves to be Queen Esther, a great beauty who married a King and saved her people. But far fewer will play Queen Vashti, who refused to answer to the King’s beck and call.
While Esther’s star shines brightly, Vashti disappears quickly from the Purim story. Until recently, I was firm in my belief in the great heroism of Esther. As with other Jewish holidays, such as Pesach (Passover), the key to observing Purim lies in hearing the story again and again. Often it is retold in a Purim shpiel, a humorous play (at my synagogue, we sing goofy songs, like “Hey Jew” to the tune of “Hey Jude”).
The Old Testament Book of Esther (often called the Megillah, or scroll), is set in Shushan, the capital of Persia (today’s Iran). King Ahasuerus orders his queen, Vashti, to come dance before his banquet guests. When she refuses, he sends her away, and holds a pageant to choose a new queen. Encouraged by her uncle Mordechai to enter, Esther wins the contest, but does not reveal that she is Jewish. I remember my 11 year-old neighbor Henry playing the King at our temple’s Purim schpiel, singing:
I need a queen, a nice new queen
To sit beside me on the throne
And if she’s very nice indeed I’ll give her half the things I own.
I’ve looked at maids, so many maids,
With black or red or golden hair,
But this one pouts, and this one shouts
And so for none of these I care.
But you are nice, so very nice,
Sweet Esther will you be my bride?
So here’s the throne, and half I own,
And a hundred and twenty lands beside.
Later the king’s evil advisor, Haman –whenever you hear his name you have to boo, hiss, and shake your grogger (noisemaker) to drown out the sound of his name—decides to kill all the Jews in the Persian empire. He casts purim (lots) to decide when, and he convinces the king to go along with his plan on the 13th of Adar (in the Hebrew calendar). Mordechai alerts Esther, who, at great risk to herself, reveals her true identity to the King and convinces him to save the Jews. Haman then faces the fate he planned for the Jews—death.
Yet again, the Jews escape extinction, but this time, not because of God, but because of the courage of a woman, representing all of humanity’s capacity to save itself. Both women and men are obligated to listen to the story retold each year; it is a time for Jews to eat, drink and be merry, to wear costumes and turn things upside down (one year my Rabbi came dressed in his wife’s clothes and she in his). Jews also are commanded to share mishloach manot, gifts of food (called in Yiddish shalachmanos) with their friends, and to give matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor, so they too can celebrate. The traditional food is hamantaschen, three-cornered cookies that recall Haman’s three-cornered hat.
I always admired Esther’s guts, and I was proud that a woman had risked her life to save the Jewish people. Never, ever, did I want to be costumed as Queen Vashti. It’s not because she was disobedient (I was down with that), but I was taught to see her as selfish, self-absorbed and cranky–like the pouty blondes I’d watch in black and white movies on TV in the 1950s. Now as an adult, I’m just starting to discover years of debate over who is the real heroine of the Purim story.
There are those who find Esther too submissive to the men around her, using womanly wiles, beauty and subterfuge to intercede with the king, but lacking any real power. Yes, she saves her people, but only after being instructed to do so by the domineering Mordechai. And once the Jews are safe, she asks the king for a day on which the Jews can kill their enemies– a far from happy conclusion.
Vashti, on the other hand, is what one writer calls “our model of the strong woman who won’t take any garbage from those around her.” She refuses to display her body merely for the pleasure of the tipsy King and his pals, but she loses her royal status and is made to disappear from the story for her efforts. Positive readings of Vashti don’t mesh well with the rabbis’ interpretation of the Book of Esther. According to Rashi, the great medieval commentator, Vashti was a wicked person, who humiliated her Jewish maids by making them serve her without clothes on and work on the Sabbath.
On the surface, then, she’s a poor choice for hero worship. But contemporary critics question the motives of such judgments: Are they misogynist criticisms of an “uppity” woman? Or distrust of the non-Jew? So, who to emulate, Esther or Vashti?
Jewish educator Tamara Cohen writes,
It is time for us to make room in our myths and in our communities for more than one model of leadership. It is time for us to learn from both Esther and Vashti … to celebrate women’s power and to question the ways we have wielded it over others.
At many Purim schpiels this year, kids will wave an “Esther/Vashti Purim Flag” whenever one of the women’s names is mentioned, to counteract the booing of Haman and the cheering of Mordecai and to place women at the heart of the story. In some places, women will hold Vashti banquets. For many, as writer Abby Wisse Schachter declares, Purim “has been transmogrified into a feminist holiday.”
While Purim has always been a carnival time in which nothing is sacred, its serious side has taken root. For instance, a few years ago, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism issued a social action guide to the holiday emphasizing three themes: poverty and hunger (connected to the tradition of sharing of gifts of food), women’s rights, and persecution and human rights:
Just as we hope to eliminate the severe economic disparity in our society, we must also eradicate other inequalities, such as those based on gender or ethnicity….We must work towards a day on which women are no longer susceptible to abuse and discrimination.
And that’s a fight in which both Esthers and Vashtis must take part.
As a parting note, here’s Broadway composer Elizabeth Swados’ lyrical take on Queen Vashti:
My father could drink as much as you,
And still he’d never do such a thing.
Oh King, have pity on yourself, you disgrace!
A father could hold five times what you drink,
And still he’d never think of this,
You insist on being stubborn and cruel, you fool!
Oh, husband think what you do to the honor of the crown!
For one, crazed moment you’d drag me down!
My father could out drink you ten to one,
And still he’d never do what you’ve done,
Humiliate his Queen, to divert and entertain,
You’re a pig, you’re insane! No, no, I will not do as you say!
No, no I will not compromise myself in any way!
No, no I will not change myself into a rich man’s toy!
Go find yourself some other game, you spoiled little boy!
Painting of Esther and Mordechai by Aert de Gelder, 1675, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain
*The whole megillah is slang for a long, drawn-out story.