It is ever curious to me when the headlines, the ancient times and my little life all seem to be twisted threads in a bizarre tapestry. I have just returned from a two-week blitz of travel which took me to worlds far from my own. It is a news junky’s challenge to be away from the routine, even computer-less for days at a time, reduced to overheard clips caught in the netherworld of connecting flights and trains.
Moving from the home of my first gracious hostess, who is actually named Esther, to my next warmly welcoming hostess, I arrived at my last stop in NYC to find the street where I was to stay strewn with barriers for the impending arrival of President Obama’s entourage en route to a local destination, Lincoln Center a likely choice. Eavesdropping on a discussion at the crosstown bus stop the following day, I heard a local describe the vast numbers of vehicles in the motorcade, necessary to move the single most powerful man in the world down the street. I never did find out where he went.
The Lincoln Square Synagogue Shabbat sermon made note, as I suspect many others did, of the Story of Purim, which starts tonight in Jerusalem (others celebrated on Wednesday night and Thursday), and the timing of the visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres, en route to meetings with President Obama in Washington, where the AIPAC conference centered on the high level tensions in Israel and elsewhere due to the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the geographic location of the original Purim story.
The evening before, garlic asparagas, steak and fresh berries were accompanied by a lively discussion focused on the diplomatic and military options, as well as concern for the remaining Jews still living in Iran. Were they able to leave or not? Were they impoverished and had no choices? Were they leading cushy lives they did not want to jeopardize? Were they like many Jews in Germany in the ’30s who refused to see the writing on the wall? Were they more like hostages to the Islamic realm and the whims of an evil leader?
Then home again. A visit to the doctor to repair the back stress from suitcase lifting and 12 hours in Economy Class each way brought me to the young X-ray technician with an unfamiliar accent in Hebrew. By now I am fairly good at guessing the origin of British, Australian, South African, South American, French, Russian and certainly American immigrants (winners of the Worst Accent in Hebrew Award, myself included), but I couldn’t pinpoint this one. She said she was from Paras, or Iran. Relocating to Israel just a year earlier, she traveled as a tourist abroad and never went back; she learned fluent Hebrew, and now supports herself, unlike back home where her parents provided for her.
So, what was her take on the situation of the Iranian Jews? She claimed, for the most part, that people are able to leave but choose to stay in their familiar world and their lives as they know them, familial and professional connections being too hard to contemplate breaking with and starting anew.
And what does this have to do with art? The Purim story seems once again to be all too relevant to the lives of the Jewish people. An ancient Haman and a present-day tyrant share much more than geography, with too many common traits to ignore. As we celebrate the survival of the Jews in ancient times from perceived certain destruction, parallels to current times will be in the thoughts of many. This subject has been well explored in art. Rembrandt painted the scene of Esther preparing herself to meet the powerful King, now in the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa. Rembrandt and his workshop painting the above scene of the unexpected twist in the the story, where Haman, is at the mercy of Queen Esther. Pieter Lastman, a teacher of the young Rembrandt, painted the scene of the Triumph of Mordechai.
In our time, observant Jews annually recount the story, one with more drama than any tela-novella. These photographs were taken in the women’s section of a Sephardic synagogue in Paris’s sixteenth district last year where I was a visitor during the reading of the Megillah.
I find it particularly interesting to focus on women reading the Purim story, where, after all, the protaganist is a woman whose courage helped turn the fate of her people.
The question I get most often when I am travelling is: “How can you live in Israel?” coupled with “Aren’t you Scared?” or “You are so Brave.” Well, truthfully, I don’t think today’s world puts anyone out of harm’s way. We are all vulnerable. New Yorkers still live in NY after 9-11. Home is home. We are not scared, we are not brave; we just live our lives. We remember. We live. And we celebrate.