Yehuda Septimus

Projecting Judaism, protecting Jews

A Boston-bred boy, I awoke proudly Thursday morning, October 21st, 2004.  It was the day after the historic game 7 victory of the Red Sox over the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, ending 86 years of Yankee ascendency over my team.  I rarely wear hats, but I made a point of wearing my Red Sox hat that day.  As I left my Riverdale ghetto after davenning, venturing toward the number 1 train in the “real” Bronx, I have to admit that I became nervous.  For the first time after years of riding New York subways in a kippah – I felt unsafe in my headgear.

That morning I gained a new appreciation for what it meant to be a Jew living in New York.  Subjective or not, I felt more secure in New York as a Jew than as the fan of the wrong sports franchise.  Unfortunately, with the recent growing viciousness of antisemitism in Europe, that appreciation has only intensified of late.

The climax of Megillat Esther can be read as the reaction to a similar type of appreciation on the part of the Jews of Shushan: “The Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor”(Esther 8:16).   Described here is the great victory celebration of the Jews over their enemies.

But there’s a problem.   The Jews had not yet defeated their enemies.  Far from it: Haman’s plot had been discovered, and Haman had been executed, but our enemies were viciously awaiting the empire-wide pogrom still scheduled for the 13th of Adar.  Despite Esther’s plea, Achashverosh had refused to repeal Haman’s decree, only agreeing to issue a second decree that the Jews could defend themselves, but the Jews were still very much in danger.   One miracle had already occurred.  But it was going to take a miracle even greater than the first for the Jews to survive.

Why the premature celebration?  In order to answer this question, we must consider more carefully the roles of Mordechai and Esther in the Purim Story. Mordechai and Esther are character foils.  Mordechai daringly exhibits his Judaism; Esther cautiously hides hers.

But we can’t say that Mordechai and Esther disagree fundamentally on the way to project and protect Jewish identity in a hostile world.  After all, who tells Esther to hide her identity when she first becomes queen?  None other than Mordechai himself.

Rather Esther initially has no choice but to hide her Judaism; her life is at stake.  Then everything changes with Haman’s decree.  As we know, Esther initially hesitates to reveal her identity to Achashverosh.  Mordechai responds pointedly:  “Do not delude yourself that here you will escape the fate of the other Jews. For if you are silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish”)Esther 4:13-14). Mordechai’s words – al tedami be-nafshekh lehimalet bet hamelekh mikol hayehudim – can also be translated more literally:  “Do not imperil your soul, thinking you can escape here from your responsibility for the fate of the Jews.”  If you escape, you will not be the one person – from the Jews – who escapes; you will be the one who escapes – from the Jews; you will be losing your connection with them, escaping, indeed leaving behind, your Jewish identity.   And when you do that, you will not survive with your soul.

To forfeit your life is an obvious blow at the hands of anti-Semitism.  To forfeit your way of life is a less obvious blow; but no less devastating.

Last week, Rabbi Chaim Eisen of Yeshivat Sharashim in Israel, addressed our shul, the Young Israel of North Woodmere, as a scholar-in-residence.  He argued passionately that we are our Jewish identities.  If when we walk into a room we must check our Judaism outside, then we are leaving ourselves outside.  We might think that we are sitting there in that room.  But if our Judaism is not there with us, then we are not there.

At some point, an overly hidden Jewish life becomes a Jewish life not worth living.  Esther realizes that and acts accordingly.  But it is not enough.  Achashverosh refuses to repeal the decree against the Jewish People.  What do you do when you risk your life before the king, the king claims to be willing to give you half his empire, but he still refuses your request?

In his spectacular book on the Megillah, The Queen You Thought You Knew, Rabbi David Fohrman explains that part of Mordechai and Esther’s tactic to intimidate Israel’s enemies is to stage an extravagant celebration of Mordechai’s rise to power – before the victory has ever happened.   That is why the triumphant words of the Megillah, “The Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor,” precede the triumph.  They reflect not a post-victory parade, but a pre-victory-charade, a campaign of psychological warfare aimed at leading Israel’s enemies to conclude:  “My goodness, how the tides have turned!  Well, I guess the palace is behind the Jews after all.”  This explains why the Megillah describes the result of this parade – as “the fear of the Jews having fallen upon [the Gentiles].”

Rabbi Fohrman describes the massive celebration as a “grand deception.”  This fascinating insight into Esther and Mordechai’s tactic transforms our understanding of the Megillah.  But I believe the preemptive celebration carries a second layer of meaning.  The conclusion they hope their enemies will reach– that “the palace is behind the Jews after all” – is definitely misleading.  That said, the festivities are more than just a hoax.  The Megillah chooses not to portray the Jews as if pulling a fantastic stunt; it describes their parade as infused with “light, happiness, joy and honor.”  Is it possible to celebrate sincerely knowing that you are outnumbered by enemies about to attack, aiming to annihilate?

Ask that question of the Jews celebrating in Israel on May 15th, 1948, as the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq invaded from all directions.  There is, similarly, more than a little truth to this pre-war celebration of the Megillah.   Just like Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman, the pre-war celebration reflects more than a grand a charade, a political spectacle; it bespeaks a refusal to bow to terror, a refusal to say your anti-Semitism has vanquished my Judaism.

Considering its small size, the Jewish People holds significant influence in the world.  Yet there is a hopelessness we naturally feel when confronted with the resurgence of European antisemitism.  The pain is twofold.  And so must be the response.  As horrific as is the loss of a hero like Dan Uzzan, who gave up his life protecting his community, antisemitism delivers a second trauma.  It is the blow of Jews having to decide whether, like Mordechai, to risk their safety to live openly as Jews or whether, like Esther, to suffer the damage of having to hide all that is nearest and dearest to them.

The now famous ‎“10 Hours of Walking in Paris as a Jew,”‎ in which reporter Zvika Klein is videoed receiving a barrage of antisemetic attacks as he walks through Paris in his kippah, is just the most recent concretization of this challenge, but the challenge has been mounting for a while. (See, for example, “Hiding Judaism in Copenhagen,” or ‎“Anti-Semitism Creeps Into Europe’s Daily Routines”‎).

What can we do?   One thing is show our support.  Right now a delegation of Jews from the Five Towns, led by former president of the Young Israel of North Woodmere, Jordan Hiller and Judaic Studies Principle of HAFTR, Rabbi Gedaliah Oppen, are in Copenhagen, sharing letters of support written by Jews from throughout the New York area.

But there is something else that can be done in particular by Jews where I live, in New York, and other in other locations more tolerant of and friendly to Jews.  The opportunity we have here to serve as bold ambassadors of God’s name is unique.  Thousands of Jews will be traveling from the greater metropolitan New York area to the AIPAC Conference in Washington DC this coming week.   Like Mordechai and Esther we will try to stretch our political influence as far as we can.  We must do that.  But after we return home, we have just as much of a job to do here.

As virulent as the strains of antisemitism around the world right now are, we cannot fail to appreciate the places where tolerance is the norm.  We are in a position to proclaim clearly and confidently that Judaism has a message for the world, and that it won’t mute that message due to terrorism.  We have a unique opportunity when we walk the streets, or work at our jobs, or talk to our neighbors:  whether in our unabashed cultivation of a relationship with God, in our sophisticated advocacy for justice in all spheres, or in the way we wear our Judaism – quite literally.  Not all the Jews in Persia could march in the previctory Shushan parade.  And not all Jews in the world can celebrate their Judasim as openly as we can.  When we take that opportunity, we are not only marking our own good fortune; indirectly, we are helping spread that good fortune with Jews less fortunate.

About the Author
Yehuda Septimus is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of North Woodmere. He received his ordination from Yeshiva University and a PhD in Religious Studies from Yale University. He has taught at Yale University, Columbia University, and Brooklyn College.
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