Queen Esther & Other Jewish Heroines

Rabbi Sarah’s Purim Message

February 2013

I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of my adult life, but I was born in Salina, Kansas, the daughter of the town librarian, a member of a family which comprised half of Salina’s Jewish population at the time.  While my father taught us Torah stories as best he could in a make-shift Sunday School and we celebrated all of the Jewish holidays, ours were small celebrations, shared with close non-Jewish friends and limited in scope.  When I was eight, however, we moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where my father became the head librarian of a much bigger library system.   We joined a Conservative synagogue, and I was the only one in the family still young enough to attend Sunday school and learn to read Hebrew after school two days a week.

Naturally, in Sunday school, we also studied and celebrated the Jewish holidays. And every year whichever class I was in put on a Purim spiel which re-enacted the Purim story.  Each year I yearned to be cast in the role of Esther.  After all, what little girl would not choose Esther for her heroine?  The list of women role models in the 60’s, let alone Jewish ones, was fairly slim.  The girls of my growing up time had never seen a female news anchor on television, nor had most of us ever met a woman doctor, dentist or attorney.  In the Jewish realm, women were rarely the main characters in the Biblical dramas we studied in Sunday school.  We heard the stories of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, but they never seemed to me to be fully developed characters, and sometimes their characters seemed to be lacking, as in Rebecca’s sneakiness and Rachel stealing her father’s idols.  We had heard of Miriam, but she hadn’t been reinvented as a feminist hero–she, too, was a minor character on the big stage where all the excitement was happening to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses.  In fact, things seemed to happen to our earliest female forebears, and they were mostly defined in relationship to their sons and husbands or other male relatives. 

So, given my pre-feminist sensibilities at the time, Esther was the Jewish woman I most wanted to be.  After all, Esther was beautiful, but in a natural way, not requiring make-up or adornment.  Esther was pure of heart and mind, as symbolized by her simple, unpretentious white gown.  Esther was modest and unassuming, in no way lobbying on her own behalf to catch the king’s eye.  She was chosen to be queen for these oh so womanly attributes–but she proved to have a side to her that was not apparent to the casual observer.  No one could have predicted Esther’s moral courage and extraordinary–even foolhardy–bravery.  The understated Esther, when push came to shove, was willing to stand and be counted among the Jews and to risk her personal safety in order to intervene in the matter of Haman’s unjust decree.  As I said, what little girl wouldn’t want to play Esther?

I never got a chance to play Esther in my Sunday school Purim spiels, being cast, instead, in a series of roles generally entitled something like “handmaiden,” roles which sent my mother to the linen closet to search for a white sheet to costume me with various drapings in a handmaidenly sort of way.  I think my lines each year consisted of something on the order of “Yes, Your Majesty,” or “No, Your Majesty,” or, “Oh, you cannot go before the king unbidden, Your Majesty!”  Not exactly what I had had in mind. 

My daughter Hannah grew in a very different Jewish milieu than I did.  She attended the JCC preschool, the Jewish Day School through 8th grade, and went to Tufts University as an undergrad, which is about 40% Jewish; she has always been immersed in a very Jewish world.  When she was three, and Purim was coming, she came home and announced that the children were to wear costumes to preschool on Purim in order to celebrate the chag, and they were to dress up as someone in the Purim story for school.  Assuming that my daughter would recognize a genuine heroine when she heard about one, I asked her, “ Do you want to be Queen Esther for Purim?” as visions of actually getting some use out of a lovely white dress someone had given her that was hanging in her closet appeared before me.  “No,” Hannah replied firmly.  “I want to be the other one.”

It turned out that my daughter, in her tender years, had already seen plenty of women professionals, and she also routinely saw Jewish women participating in ritual in her school and at our synagogue as well.  Esther, for her, was fine, but a bit, well, boring.  Whom she wanted to be was Vashti !

Vashti?!  The way I’d been taught think of this disobedient wife when I was young was that she was only one tiny step up from being a fallen woman!  I was horrified to think that my young daughter was identifying with a woman of very questionable valor!  But all I could do was to ask Hannah why she wanted to be Vashti.  Practically-minded from the start, not to mention blessed with a big brother who frequently called the shots, she answered, “I don’t want to be bossed by the king.”  I also learned that she felt that Vashti had a much more interesting wardrobe.

So, wearing plastic glitter pumps, my daughter Hannah marched off to preschool (maybe wobbled is a better description) to celebrate Purim in full Barbie dream-girl regalia–long hot pink satin gold-trimmed gown with accompanying feather boa, elbow-length white gloves and glittering sequin tiara, with purple eye shadow and pink lipstick to complete her ensemble.  And I began to realize what all generations come to know–that each generation must define heroism for itself, and that these changing definitions teach all of us new ways of understanding our past and forging our future.

Shabbat Shalom v’Chag Purim Sameach,

Rabbi Sarah Newmark