Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for March 2019

I’ve written several Purim spiels which were performed on previous years, within the confines of my synagogue, at this season around 14th Adar. One was a full length play called The Persian Scroll; another took the form of SMS texts and emails between the characters, one was based on Fiddler on the Roof, another on the films of Hitchcock and the last one on the Harry Potter books. One of the rabbis dressed up as Hedwig.

With that, I came to the end of my inventiveness in turning that disturbing and quite violent scriptural text into PG certificate comedies.

This year I thought of telling the Purim story in a series of tweets with a political resonance but it seemed like a gratuitous insult to cast anyone as Haman, even though some contemporary names did occur to me.

The problem with Megillat Esther, the biblical book which is read at Purim, is that it includes a massacre. No wonder we are urged to get drunk at Purim. How else can we read of a massacre and not get melancholy? The first drunk in the bible was Noah, after the waters of the flood abated. Who could blame him? Noah wasn’t partying, on the contrary; not one but two black dogs from the ark were at his heels.

The book of Esther is a court tale, from the time of the Persian Empire, about 500 BCE. King Ahasuerus, Achashverosh in Hebrew, may be based on a Xerxes or an Artaxerxes. These names were as popular among Achaemenid rulers as Henry and Edward among the Kings of England.

The story in brief: Ahasuerus has a disobedient wife, Vashti, and replaces her with a Jewish girl called Esther, without knowing that Esther is Jewish. He then appoints a prime minister called Haman who has an atavistic grudge against Jews, based on some pentateuchal and prophetic passages. Haman persuades the king that the Jews should be exterminated. Esther’s uncle Mordechai prevails on her to speak up on behalf of her people and this she does. The king is  angry with Haman and orders his execution. There are some Hamanite uprisings at outposts of the Persian Empire but these are overcome by ad hoc Jewish militia. Mordechai is promoted to government and Queen Esther institutes the holiday of Purim.

Esther is almost the only book of the Old Testament which uses the name Yehudim to mean ‘Jews’. In the others books, Yehudim refers to the inhabitants of the territory of the tribe of Judah.   Biblically, the Israelites are designated as the Children of Israel (Israel being Jacob’s other name), the People of Israel or the Hebrews. The exception is Jeremiah 34:9.

The traditional celebration of Purim involves reading the book of Esther aloud in the synagogue, giving edible presents, wearing fancy dress, devising humorous entertainments and – for the adults – drinking, although surprisingly I don’t recall ever seeing a single person drunk at a Purim celebration. There are parties and activities for the children who come dressed up as Esther or Mordechai or Super Mario or Elsa from Frozen – any fancy dress at all, depending on preference, availability, dexterity and funds.

Over the years, I’ve heard a significant number of adults say that they don’t enjoy Purim, that they avoid coming to Purim services, finding the gaiety overcooked and the noise fortissimo.

Purim 1994 was a bleak time as an Israeli Jew massacred Palestinian worshipers at a Hebron mosque. Since then, Purim appears to many with the indelible stain of this contemporary slaughter perpetrated on that date as homage to an ancient massacre. The bloody ninth chapter of the book is held by some in revulsion. It is normally included in the Megillah reading but one does not linger over it.

Acts of terror against Israelis continued after the Hebron murders, year after year and I would have to look them up for dates and places, but I remember very well  the details and the horror of Baruch Goldstein’s lethal violence.

When the canon of the Hebrew bible was fixed, the inclusion of the book of Esther was disputed because its tone is so secular that God is barely mentioned. There is however an allusion to the deity when Mordechai tells Esther,

For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another quarter.

Purim is considered to have greater religious significance than the minor festival of Chanukah as, unlike the latter, it is based on scripture and is also the subject of a tractate in the Mishnah, date estimated at around 200 CE. The tractate is called Megillah, referring to the scroll on which Esther is written,

Purim resonates because every generation has its Hamans but many of us approach it cautiously,  because of the violence intended and the violence executed.

The sense of existential danger to Jews is greater now than it has been in my lifetime because antisemitism has become either respectable or unrecognizable to the kind of people who would have rejected it in years gone by.

As I mentioned, I thought about writing a humorous and seasonal Twitter thread, by way of a Purim spiel. I am now quite relieved to abandon that project.

When Mordecai knew all that was done, Mordechai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes and went out into the midst of the city and cried with a loud and a bitter cry. (Esther 4:1)

The ‘loud and bitter cry’  recalls Esau who, on hearing that his father had given his birthright to his brother,

…cried with a great and exceedingly bitter cry. (Genesis 27:34)

Esau’s descendant Haman, from the tribe of Esau’s grandson Amalek, might consider it karma that Jacob’s descendant Mordechai, from the tribe of Benjamin, cries out, on learning of Haman’s genocidal ambition, just as Esau cried out on being disinherited.

Finally Haman is thwarted and this is why Purim is a celebration not a fast.

It is said that antisemites through the ages are Haman’s spiritual descendants. There are a lot of them about at the moment.

This Purim I have no spiel but may have a drink and I may cry out with a loud and bitter cry. We never bow to Haman. We do what we can to avert catastrophe, with words, keyboards, votes, demos, whatever comes to hand. Help may come, as before, from another quarter.

 

 

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