Purim: Masquerades and Narratives
Nothing is as captivating and exciting than watching a Purim parade in Israel. I am always overwhelmed by the amount of thought and effort that goes in to creating the costumes that the children wear. The excitement they exude is actually palpable and the gaiety is infectious. Purim is a magical Jewish holiday, I love it.
What makes Purim so wonderful is the custom. Every nation has a day for people to dress up and let their hair down. The Brazilians have their Mardi Gras. Americans and other Christian countries have Hallowe’en. We have Purim.
Things however, become problematic when you begin to think about the story of Purim. History is my hobby and I love to delve into historical occurrences and try to imagine what really transpired. This is when I hit a snag. There is no historical account, anywhere that Purim ever took place. What we know is that it if it occurred, it was during the Babylonian exile, and that a Persian king known as Xerxes I, who was most likely Ahaseurus, ruled during the years 486 BCE and 465 BCE. However, there is no mention in any historical document about a queen called Esther, or a vizier or advisor called Mordechai. What we do know, is that the Persians used to traditionally celebrate the end of winter with a festival, where there was much gaiety, masquerades and dressing up. The “patron” gods of this festival, were Marduk, the patron deity of the city of Babylon, and Ishtar, goddess of sex, love, and fertility. The resemblance to the names Mordechai and Esther are uncanny. The only mention of a person named Haman, is in the Koran, and he is mentioned as an intimate person belonging to the close circle of Pharaoh, during his confrontation with Moses. In fact, the only “historical” document we have of Purim is Megillat Esther. There is no definitive date when it was written, but what is clear, is that it was not written at the time that Purim occurred, but at least a full generation after.
Furthermore, some inconsistencies seem to exist in this document:
The first inconsistency is how an advisor to the court of Pharaoh, Haman, finds himself in a story which takes place in another country and another time? Or, is it purely coincidence that there is another royal advisor named Haman, who also happens to be against Jews?
Then, there is the issue of Esther entering a beauty pageant and winning the heart of King Ahaseurus. Our sources tell us that Esther was an orphan and that Mordechai was her foster parent. According to the tale we are told, Mordechai was a proud Jew – so proud that he refused to bow to Haman, because Jews bow only to G-d, remember? Is it logical, therefore, that a proud Jew would give away his foster child to become a heretic king’s concubine (some say queen)? I find that hard to swallow.
Then, there is the question of Mordechai’s confrontation with Haman, which was Haman’s motivation to have Ahaseurus pronounce an edict to kill all the Jews. What was a Jew ostensibly of dhimmi status doing, hanging around the king’s palace? How could a simple, Jewish, second class citizen and exile, be allowed so close to the royal court? And knowing his lowly status, whence his moral courage to stand up against the powerful Prime Minister, second only to the king?
Finally, consider the likelihood that King Ahaseurus, who has barely known Esther, would be persuaded by her wiles, to disregard the counsel of his most trusted minister, a man who he has known and trusted for more than a decade – to the point of executing him?
Yet, we have is this so-called historical account, written by people who were not witness to the incident. They tell a story of deliverance from genocide and the heroism of two individuals, who saved an entire nation, and we accept it, unquestioningly. This has been passed down from generation to generation for more than two thousand years, and it has become a part of our cultural consciousness. Nobody actually knows who wrote this document and hardly anyone questions its veracity. Was Haman’s hate for Mordechai anti-Semitism (which is so easy to sell us Jews), or was its true core political and/or commercial rivalry? Was Mordechai just a simple man, or was he a lobbyist for people with business interests – and that is why he was hanging around the palace? Why did Esther enter the beauty pageant? Could it be that she agreed to act as Mordechai’s agent and they saw an opportunity to enhance their lobbying influence if she was at court and close to the king? Was there really a genocidal edict instigated by Haman out of a pathological hatred for the Jews? Perhaps this was just a ruse used to embellish the story? What we can derive from this story, is that there is so much power in owning the narrative. Its proven influence is not only at the time it is written, but what people generations later believe and accept as fact.
I was moved to write this article, because of what I heard today on the radio. It was a short piece about a group of old men and women, all in their eighties and nineties, and how for months, every Friday they gather at Sha’ar Hagai, the road to Jerusalem, to protest the government’s decision to name the national park commemorating the bitter battles to break the siege of Jerusalem, after Rehavam Ze’evi (Gandhi). They are all Palmach veterans who fought in these battles, and whose friends and comrades fell alongside them, while enduring the withering crossfire of Arab snipers, as the convoys crawled up the steep incline at a snail’s pace, protected by planks of wood, sandwiched between two pieces of thin metal. This is their final battle, before they retire. It is a battle for historical accuracy and the legacy of their fallen comrades.
Rehavam Ze’evi was a Palmach platoon commander, but he never fought in the battle for Jerusalem. He fought in the north, against Kaukji’s militias in Hativat Yiftach, not Hativat Harel. Therefore, there is no connection between his legacy and the legacy of Hativat Harel. If one were looking for past heroes to honor, it would be more appropriate to name it after David Elazar z”l, the intrepid Palmach platoon commander at the time, who broke the siege of Jerusalem and brought reinforcements and supplies to the beleaguered Hagana soldiers. Or, Yithak Rabin z”l, who was the commander of Hativat Harel.
Despite impassioned pleas by these brave heroes, to whom we owe having Jerusalem as our capital today, and despite the blatant lack of logic in naming this national park after Ze’evi – not to mention the disrespect he is showing these heroes, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government has so far refused to reconsider their decision. The problem is that the two candidates I mentioned also happen to be “Left wing generals”. It seems that the decision is political and has nothing to do with preserving the legacy of the heroes of Bab el Wad. It would seem that there are precious few right wing heroes to name monuments after, and in this right wing government’s desperation to find such a person, they are prepared to twist and rewrite history. It is petty. It is unseemly. It is ugly. Yet, just like the men who wrote Megilat Esther, Netanyahu, Bennett and co. choose to ignore historical integrity and prefer to dominate the narrative. And, generations from now, when people visit Park Ze’evi, they will associate him with the great heroism and sacrifice made by those who fought for our capital, and they will have done their job.