Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

Iran: A Modern Purim Tale

Years ago, I wrote a musical based on the classic Biblical story of Esther. I thought this could be a perfect family musical and could even be a perfect fit as an animated film. So I set pen to paper (finger to keyboard) and wrote the script, music, and lyrics for a new, very Disneyesque, musical entitled MISS PERSIA. The Book of Esther has such an incredibly relevant story with such far-reaching potential. In an ancient kingdom where women and Jews alike were second-class citizens, a Jewish woman rises up to challenge the status quo and proves herself the heroine of the story. It’s a story of courage, selflessness, identity, and, perhaps above all, equality. How universal!

Now as Purim is around the corner, I’ve been looking at my musical once again and wondering, ‘How far have we come since the era in which the Book of Esther is set?’

Women and Jews in the Original Story

About 2300 years ago. Persia. The kingdom is actually an empire with far-reaching influence across many lands. It is a time when women are treated as subordinate to men. It is a time when Jews are subject to the whims of the authorities.

When Queen Vashti refuses King Achashverosh’s command, he is infuriated and his ministers are outraged. It’s not just a question of someone disobeying the king; it’s the fact that a woman would dare disobey her husband! The ministers are convinced that this will set a terrible example for all women in Persia: women may learn that they can do as they wish! How outlandish!

And so it is decided that Vashti will be deposed and that the appropriate example will be set for all women throughout the kingdom.

…then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike.

(Esther 1:20)

As for Jews, well, when Esther is conscripted to enter the contest which will determine who will become queen, she is told by her uncle Mordecai to keep her identity a secret. One would assume that her Jewish roots, were they to be known by the authorities, would be a liability.

Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it.

(Esther 2:10)

In my musical, MISS PERSIA, I imagine what Esther would have experienced when she was crowned Queen of Persia. The lessons of Queen Vashti would surely have been impressed upon her. She would have been instructed on “a woman’s place”. And so I wrote an ironically light-hearted tune called What Her Man Wants explaining in no uncertain terms what her role is to be.

And the Jewish people’s low standing in this ancient Persian empire is further evidenced by the fact that the king agrees to commit genocide against all members of the Mosaic faith within the kingdom. And why? Because the king’s viceroy, Haman, seeks to punish an entire race for the perceived wrongdoing of one individual, Mordecai.

Women and Jews in Iran Today

Fast-forward over 2000 years. Today, the land historically known as Persia, now commonly known as Iran and officially known as the Islamic Republic of Iran, offers limited rights to women and a precarious environment to its Jews.

While women have more rights than they did in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, they still have many restrictions. Women, in the Islamic-based Iranian Constitution, are not seen as individuals per se but as “family”, “mothers”, and “wives”. Women are not permitted to be present in soccer stadiums. In 2014, new rulings were announced stating that women would no longer be allowed to work coffee shops and traditional Iranian restaurants. The rate of unemployment for women is more than double that of men: 19.8% for women and 8.6% for men. Honour killings often go unreported and perpetrators often escape punishment. In terms of testimony in the legal system, Sharia law gives men twice the value of women. In some cases, women are not permitted to provide any testimony whatsoever. According to the UN’s Gender Inequality Index, published in 2013, Iran ranks 107th out of 148 countries.

On the eve of International Women’s Day, Sunday, March 8, we see an Iran in which women are less than equal to men.

Now what about Jews? While our co-religionists can practice their faith in modern-day Iran, one has to ask how perfect the situation must be if 85% of the Jewish community has fled the country (mostly to Israel and a fair number to the States). How comfortable can the Jews of Iran feel under a regime that, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and French Kosher market terrorist attacks, recently hosted an international Holocaust denial cartoon contest? And this wasn’t the first such contest. They’ve held similar ones since 2005. How accepted could Iranian Jews have felt between 2005 and 2013 with Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as its president? With regime-endorsed anti-Semitism, the Jews of Iran must surely be described as second-class citizens.

Bibi, Congress, and the Future

On Tuesday, March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address the US Congress. The issue of Iran is sure to be at the forefront of Bibi’s speech. I will not chime in on whether or not he should even address Congress. There are Americans who are for it and Americans who are against it. There are Israelis, friends of Netanyahu’s, who are for it and some who are against it. Being neither American nor Israeli, I feel that it is not my place to offer an opinion. It is beside the point.

What resonates with me is that we are on the eve of an Iran with nuclear weapons. What resonates with me is that this regime sponsors Hezbollah and Hamas. What resonates with me is that this government has stated its intention of reversing the Zionist enterprise, of eliminating Israel.

If this is rhetoric, it’s powerful rhetoric. It’s frightening. To those who wish Israel harm, it’s inspiring. As far as rhetoric goes, it certainly is not peaceful.

If it is not rhetoric, then we should be alarmed – very alarmed. It seems that neither Israel nor the US believe it is merely rhetoric. No, the current governments in both countries don’t appear to agree about the course of action but both do appear to take Iran seriously.

On Purim, we recount the story of Esther. We recall a period of time when a kingdom with far-reaching influence, Ancient Persia, did not accord its women and its Jews with full equality and then sought to annihilate its Jewish population. The Jews were spared not through overt divine intervention but through the actions of human beings. The miracle happened thanks to the vision of Mordecai the Jew, the courage, and moral strength of the Jewess Queen Esther, and the love and understanding of the Persian King Achashverosh.

Today, we see in the place of Ancient Persia another country with far-reaching influence, Iran, which does not accord its women and Jews with full equality and seeks the means with which to annihilate the Jewish state, Israel.

Two stories over two thousand years apart with a few key similarities. We know how the first one ends. How will this one?


About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
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