Queen Esther and Her Mask

German mask used in festivals to represent Jewish person
Antique German mask used in festivals to portray a Jewish personi

During the height of the COVID pandemic, I wrote a story about a young woman who finds a scroll in an ancient jar. She understood one word from the fragments, star …estar… Esther. Playing with these ideas that came through unconsciously, I began to investigate the history of the great biblical queen and what she could mean for me today.

As a kid, I played Mordechai in my Hebrew school’s yearly Purim play …it never occurred to me to audition for the role of Queen Esther. After all, glamorous Jewess Joan Collins had played her in the film Esther and the King and at 4 ft 9, I was much better suited at playing a shrinking, old Jewish man.

What I remembered primarily from the story was a feeling of pride at hearing how a courageous woman saved her own people from destruction while looking incredible in silk pajamas and curly-toed slippers. I also remember having a knawing feeling of sadness for Vashti, the Persian King Ahasuerus’s head wife, who was asked to dance nude for a bunch of Ahasuerus’s closest 300 male friends.

Much later, I would also feel sorry for Esther, forced to marry a probably much older man because her Uncle Mordechai needed  her beauty for landing a sweet spot at court. Of course, this highlighted the eternal question many young women must eventually face: whether to marry for true love or for money, prestige and the softest cushion in the harem. This was a question Esther was never permitted to consider.

I must be candid and admit that another portion of the story disturbs me: that the Jews of Persia, being told that they could kill the enemies who plotted their deaths, did in fact do so. I wish Esther could have stepped in and winnowed the list of 75,000 to just a few rotten apples, but that was not to be. Still, she is a hero.

Since those early days of cranking the noisemaking groggers when villainous Haman’s name was called out during the service, I have moved away from these stories, in much the same way as I have almost stopped believing in fairy tales. And upon study, I have found many thinkers and academics who seem to have moved there with me. Was Esther made up? Did any of this happen historically and was Mordechai really Esther’s husband as uncles were permitted at that time to marry their nieces. Ugh. But worst of all, is the possibility that Esther may have only been 14 when she took her ‘marital vows, about the same age as Shakespeare’s Juliet.

But now as I get older, I’m more interested in symbolism(drop the comma) than historical fact. What significance does an event hold for me spiritually?

In 2020, I joined a Zen Buddhist sangha and met weekly with a group of strangers on zoom, a zangha. We read from texts, and I learned how to meditate. I also learned to slow down my reactive nature and ponder the oneness of life.

Last spring, when the coronavirus virus had taken a short sabbatical, I traveled to California to meet some of my fellow meditators in person. I also went to experience a mask workshop taught by Zen priest and actor Peter Coyote. He had been teaching this course for years and wanted to see how it stood up with people who were on a deliberate spiritual path.

It was great taking the Covid mask off and donning a theatrical one. It reminded me of the Purim festivities, where even as kids, we chose masks that allowed us to become another part of ourselves … not to hide but reveal the hidden part through the freedom of the mask.

Esther, too, was hidden through much of the Purim story. Her husband had no idea he had married a Jewess and no idea that Mordechai was her uncle. It was only when she was called to stand up and take action — to speak truth to power by telling her husband what her deal was and how Haman plotted to destroy her and her people…only then did she leave her hiding place and show the world. and more importantly, herself, what she was made of…who she really was inside.

Within the name of Esther is the idea of hidden. Her Jewishness was hidden as was her personal power; eventually she found herself and her voice. Her natal name, before she glammed up for the King, was Hadassah which is associated with the ideas of compassion. Certainly, she demonstrated deep compassion for her people when she risked her own life to stand up for truth and protect her community. Her mask was necessary…eventually she could take it off.

When I look at the work of Hadassah, an organization that reaches out to peoples all over the globe with compassion, the connections to Esther and the story of Purim are infinitely clear. Their mission “that each of us has the power to heal our world, to take action, to make an impact” is truer today than ever.

It is one thing to swing the grogger at evil and injustice; it is a much harder thing to do something about it. Hadassah and Queen Esther remind us that to understand the oneness of our world and to seek peace is the ultimate power… both Jewish and Buddhist and worthy ideas to celebrate at Purim.

About the Author
Nancy Cohen-koan works in several mediums. Her film on Jewish dissident Abbie Hoffman, My Dinner with Abbie started her in quirky docs, producing two films for UK Channel 4 including Malcolm McLaren – Not 4 Sale. Woodstock: A Snapshot in Time is now on the festival circuit and won best feature doc in the Red Moon Film International Film Festival. Something About John (Lennon) is slated for 2022. As a visual artist, her work has been shown in New York galleries. She has a photograph in the MOMA collection and gifted Charles Saatchi with a portrait made of paint and candy. She is a poet and essayist and her latest short play The Best is Yet to Come (or else) was showcased by Equity Library Theatre in New York City. She is completing a musical PSA against guns with Stew Nachamais and a musical puppet series on climate change with Dave Ogrin for Tik Tok. She is a member of the Hadassah New York Metro Region.
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