The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote in Jokes and their Relation to the Subconscious that a joke suppresses something more serious. If Tisha B’Av demands sadness and Simchat Torah joy, Purim asks that we sit on the knife’s edge, flirting with catastrophe before bursting into celebration. For some of our ancestors who read the Megilla there must have been a certain bitterness reciting the words of Esther knowing that the die that cast a favourable outcome for the people of Shushan would not be the same for them.
If Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce owe their talent for comedy to generations of Jews who used humour to manage adversity then surely the biggest debt is due to Purim. This story doesn’t hide behind the problematic nature of some its key themes – identity and assimilation, feminism and the nature of retribution. The result for us as a listener is such a mixture of uncomfortable feelings that laughter might be the only redress.
… the King gave a banquet in the court of the King for seven days in the court of the Kings Palace Garden for all the people who lived in the fortress Shushan, high and low alike. .… And the rule for the drinking was “no restrictions!”
This is a story about the Jews of Shushan, and yet at this feast there is no mention of them. They are as the title and the theme of the Megillah suggests – hidden. They may have felt that being unrecognizable might avert anti-Semitism and yet despite their best efforts, Haman the antagonist of the story sees them as clear as day. Echoing Pharaohs’ “the people of Israel are becoming too strong and numerous”, Haman says, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among all the other peoples in your realm, whose laws are different from any other people and who do not obey the King’s laws.”
So their efforts to hide their Jewish identity makes them more visible. A Jew hoping to join his favourite anti-Semitic golf club is asked at his interview, “What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?” “I love fishing and hunting,” he replies with gusto. “And may I ask your religion?” “I’m a goy!” he responds. And as for Jews who saw themselves as German first in the 1930s, they were, as my wife’s bubbie commented wrly, “The first to go.”
If Jews are victims of this story, then so are the women who are objectified by the society they live in. Esther’s introduction embodies the tone of misogyny.
“The young woman was beautiful in appearance and good to look at”
In such a society it is inevitable that a strong-willed woman like Vashti will clash with those around her. It’s not so much her refusal to do as the King demands that speaks of her modest character, but an earlier line in the story.
“Also Vashti gave a banquet for women in the royal palace of King Achashverosh”
This seems like the greater act of defiance. Given the treatment of women in Shushan, and what was likely to happen at the feast, this may have been an attempt to protect them from the groping hands of the drunken men. While Vashti might be the original #Metoo for protecting her dignity as a woman, it is Esther who sees her sexual appeal as something that could be exploited for the benefit of her people. The simple reading of the text is that, through a lucky coincidence, Esther, who happened to be Jewish, also managed to be chosen as the wife of Achashverosh, who then used that power to try and avert Haman’s evil decree. If this stretches credibility then we might consider the controversial theory put forward by an LSE academic, Dr Catherine Hakim, who a number of years ago suggested that women take advantage of their “sexual capital” to get places.
If it dismays the reader that a virtuous woman such as Esther trades her freedom for a loveless marriage, the bigger question is what does she gain in return? Her uncle hoped she would wield power in the royal court on behalf of her fellow Jews but it almost doesn’t happen. Esther puts her life on the line to meet with the King to revert Haman’s decree against the Jews. But this cannot be overturned; the best the Jews can hope for is the opportunity to defend themselves against an impending massacre. Our history has always treated the court Jew with some ambivalence. And who would have possibly thought that having a Jewish wife, daughter or son-in-law in the corridors of power doesn’t make you prey to the influence of an anti-Semite?
If this story makes us uncomfortable about the Esther’s role, so too do the final chapters with their gratuitous acts of violence exacted by the Jews of Shushan against those who try to kill them. This is not the justice that Judaism holds in such high esteem but the kind of bloody vengeance that might bring Quentin Tarantino back into the director’s chair. The execution of Haman’s sons is treated with such contempt that we’re not even allowed to waste more than a breath on them. And this meticulous reporting of the killings, almost revels in the act.
In the fortress of Shushan the Jews killed and disposed of five hundred men
Having heard the Megillah, it is no wonder the Rabbis commanded that we get drunk. How do we accept that it took a genocidal maniac to remind the assimilated Jews of Shushan of their identity? A friend who found his passion in combating anti-Semitism said his favourite Jewish quote was “as long as there is one anti-Semite, I’ll always remain a Jew.” Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather have Judaism define me, than Jeremy Corbyn or Haman. And I don’t know whether the story is fiction (there seems to be no historical evidence of it happening), I don’t really care. Because at the very least we can marvel at the wit and wisdom of this punchy story which in ten chapters covers identity, assimilation, feminism, lust, power, anti-Semitism, intrigue and bloodcurdling violence. And as for what eventually happened to Esther, I think the Duchess of Sussex would have felt a connection with her. Writing over a year ago about the life of drudgery that Megan Markle could look forward to as a future Royal wife, Camilla Long wrote in The Sunday Times that the institution was “so anti-women that no matter how hard you work, or how talented you are, you can only sleep your way in.” She could well have been writing about the Queen of Shushan.
And on a lighter note for those of you still looking for fancy dress ideas, might I suggest
Fake news. Wrap yourself up in newspaper articles covering Israel from the Guardian, Independent and Morning Star.
Photo of woman in any frum Jewish newspaper. Dress modestly. Wear a big black sticker covering your face.
BDS hypocrite. Wear a cool ethically sourced jumper with badges saying “Freedom for Palestine” “Israel number one human rights abuser” and “Bring Netanyahu to the Hague” Unbeknown to you is a big label jutting out from the bottom saying “Made in Beersheva” “What?” you say barely concealing your incredulity, when told the truth. “I thought Beersheva was a village in Palestine”.
The nearly Jewish A-lister. Any non-Jewish celeb the Jewish Chronicle deems Jewish and whom in your wildest dream you hoped you might one day marry on the basis that their possible Jewishness might be good enough for Mum and Dad. Criteria for inclusion must be one or all of the following; their Greek/Armenian/Italian background makes them look like one of the tribe, their father only is Jewish or their Wikipedia page says they grew up in New York and their parents were doctors/lawyers.
King Achashverosh. Wear a big crown, blonde wig and dress in golf gear. Whenever anyone greets you say “it’s gonna be good, it’s gonna be great.” On your back it reads STABLE GENIUS.