This morning I had a light bulb moment (in the dark, too!) — Purim is in honor of a woman! I hadn’t noticed that before. As a child, Purim celebration centered round dressing up in a costume. At school in Israel we’d have a carnival where each classroom hosted a different booth. There would be mazes, scary houses where you’d need to crawl under blankets and ropes, and simpler fishing or bag toss booths. My mother and her best friend made our costumes together: a mushroom one year, witch in sixth grade. My sister, I remember, was queen of candy one year and my brother an egg that didn’t want to be an egg (based on a beloved Israeli picture book).
When I grew up, I read the story of Purim in the Book of Esther, a scroll which is considered part of the Scriptures. As I reached the end, I was shocked. I hadn’t realized that the celebration of Purim was in honor of the salvation of the Jews and the massacre of their enemies.
I should have known. I mean, thinking about it rationally, Jewish Holidays tend to celebrate either an agricultural event or a victory in battle. Hanukkah, the holiday of lights, commemorates Jewish victory over the Greeks. Passover celebrates a victory over the Egyptians. And both have their share of blood and gore. But somehow for Purim, a holiday of dressing up, celebrating, getting drunk (yes, it’s actually recommended in the scroll to get drunk) to be tied to this massacre of enemies! It seems so inappropriate.
But this morning I thought about Esther. An orphan, she is taken out of her uncle Mordechai’s house and chosen of all the girls in the kingdom to marry Ahashverosh, King of Persia and Media. A true Cinderella story. Except the story does not end there. An evil councillor to the king, Haman, is angry that Mordechai will not bow before him and decrees that all Jews will be killed. Mordechai, fortunately, has Esther well-placed within the king’s house and requests her help. Esther risks her life to approach the king without him asking for her, and is rewarded with his favor. She asks for the king’s help saving her people, and he agrees.
So Purim is a feminist holiday, celebrating a strong, smart and brave woman! Yes, I always loved Bar Kochva, the leader of the only successful Jewish revolt against Rome. I admired the Maccabis, Yehuda, Shimon, Yehonatan. And none is more awe-inspiring than Moses as he strikes the water of the Red Sea with his staff and the sea opens before him, letting the Jews through from slavery to freedom. But none of these holidays is led by a woman. Really, even on Purim Mordechai breathes down Esther’s back, claiming the glory. But it’s Esther, a young girl in a strange and unfamiliar palace where she clearly does not belong, who turns the tide and saves her people.
If you’re interested, I found this Haaretz article on Purim as a feminist holiday. It’s in English.