I am Joan Mach, a retired librarian from Teaneck, N.J. My husband teaches Creative Writing at the Senior Center and I am the teacher’s pet. We have been married 50+ years, and he is officially eligible for sainthood for putting up with me.
Sex, revenge, power grabs and lots of booze. No, this isn’t a James Bond movie, it’s Purim. My favorite Jewish holiday enjoins you to “get so drunk that you do not know the name of Haman (the villain) from the name of Mordechai (the hero)”. The special foods include three-cornered cookies known as Hamantaschen. You are required to make lots of noise in Shul. This plot is easier to follow than most operas. Here is a brief synopsis.
King Ahasuerus of Shushan, Persia (probably Xerxes) is celebrating the anniversary of his reign by holding daily drinking parties with his nobles. After a few days, he commands his queen, Vashti, to come and dance for them. She refuses and is put to death. The king holds a beauty contest to select a new queen. Esther is the ward of Mordechai, the leader of the Jewish community. She has no desire to be queen, but is taken forcibly to the harem to participate in the contest. The king likes her best, and she becomes queen. Mordechai tells Esther to keep her religion a secret.
Shortly after, Mordechai overhears men plotting to kill the king. He reports them, they are killed, and Mordechai’s name is recorded into the book of records.
Haman, the evil antisemite, becomes Prime Minister. He orders everyone to bow down to him. Mordechai refuses. Haman, outraged, plots his revenge. He casts lots, or “Pur” to ascertain the best day to kill Mordechai and all of the other Jews. He determines the 13th of Adar would be the best date for revenge. Haman offers Ahasuerus money to exterminate the Jews. The king takes the money and says: “Do as you wish to them”. The proclamation went out: rise up against the Jews on the 13th of Adar, take their property, and kill them all,
Mordechai, on hearing this proclamation, goes to Esther. She says: “The king has not asked for me in 30 days. If I go to him, and he does not favor me, I will be killed”. Mordechai replies “ Do not think you will escape the fate of all Jews. Who knows if G-d has not placed you in this royal position for just this reason?”. Esther and the Jews of Shushan fast and pray for three days. Then, Esther takes her life in her hands and approaches the Ahasuerus.
Ahasuerus favors Esther. She invites him and Haman to a wine party. During the party, the king asks Esther if she wishes any favor from him. “Yes, I would invite you and Haman to another wine party tomorrow. I will make my request then”. Both the king and Haman accept, eagerly.
Haman leaves a happy man. Then, he sees Mordechai at the gate of the palace. He returns home, tells his wife and advisors of his great honors, and asks their advice. They tell him to build a gallows to hang Mordechai, then ask the king’s permission to hang him.
Ahasuerus cannot sleep. He asks his servants to read him the book of records. They read him or Mordechai’s foiling his assassination plot. “Was the man ever rewarded?” the king asks. “NO”, they reply. Haman enters the royal courtyard at that moment. “Haman”, the king asks, “What shall be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honor?”. Haman, thinking the king wishes to honor him, replies “Dress him in royal robes, put him on a royal horse, and have a noble parade him through the streets of Shushan shouting “Thus shall be done to the man the king delighteth to honor”. “Now go and do that to Mordechai the Jew” the king commanded. Haman has to obey.
The next day Haman rushed from leading Mordechai through the streets of Shushan to the wine party. At the banquet, the king asked Esther “What is your request?” She replied “Let my life and the lives of my people be spared. We have been sold to be annihilated”. When she identified Haman as the man responsible, the king ordered Haman hanged on the gallows he had erected for Mordechai. Esther was given Haman’s estate, and Mordechai was made Prime minister in his place. The evil degree was changed so the Jews of Persia could fight back, and they killed their enemies on the 13th of Adar.
Whew! This is just the bare bones of the plot. There’s fun stuff where Haman pleads with Esther for his life, throwing himself across her body, and the king comes in and thinks Haman is trying to rape her. Haman’s wife warns him he will not prevail against “that race” after he leads Mordechai through the streets of Shushan. Haman’s ten sons are killed in the fight against the Jews. Esther finds favor with he king’s supervisor of the harem by asking for nothing, while others ask for jewels and rarer perfumes.
The most joyous of Jewish holidays, Purim is celebrated by riotous behavior. We wear costumes. The entire Book of Esther, the Megillah, is read. Every time “Haman’s name is read, we turn noisemakers know as graggers, or shake boxes of pasta, or scream and stamp our feet to drown out the evil name. The reader changes voices and hats to represent characters in the plot.
We dress in costumes. One year, Joe went as a hippie and passed out flowers to everyone in the congregation. I bought a caftan in a souk in Morocco, and banged my tambourine. Joe owns a thobe, a loose robe. We swap plates of hamantaschen. fruits, candy and juices. Halloween pales in comparison. Of course, we remember the poor while we swap goodies. The charity boxes stand close by, awaiting donations of food and money. After the reading, we drink, snack and sing. Even the best Christmas pageant ever could improve by following our example. The book of Esther has become a symbol of female empowerment. It’s still fun.