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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Honoring Esther the Queen

The Bible says she existed and saved her people.  History says she's more of a myth.  But her story inspires.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was flipping though channels, trying to find something to watch on TV, I came across an old movie, Esther and the King.  Filmed in 1960, it stars Joan Collins and it's based on the Biblical story of Queen Esther.  I saw maybe 15-20 minutes of the film.   The cinematography captured ancient Persia. Joan Collins was gorgeous, and it was so interesting to see her play an innocent,  sympathetic character -- so different from the roles that made her famous later on. I couldn't really get involved with the movie, though, because the writers took a lot of  poetic license with the story.  And it's a story I know so well.

The Jewish holiday of Purim began last night and will be celebrated today.  Purim is yet another one of those "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat" holidays.  In this case, the "we" were the Jews of Persia, especially in the capital city, Shushan. The  "they" was  Haman and his followers; Haman was an advisor to King Ahasuerus.  The heroine of the story is a Jewish girl named Hadassah, also known as Esther, the niece of Mordechai, another advisor to the king.

Purim is similar to Mardi Gras or Halloween, it involves dressing up in costume, feasting and drinking.    You're supposed to exchange gifts of food, including hamantaschen, a triangular pastry  that's supposed to resemble Haman's tricorn hat.  You're supposed to drink until you can't tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai.  In more traditional times, the children would go door to door, begging for treats.  They'd recite:

Today is  Purim
Tomorrow no more
Give me a penny
And show me the door.

These days, most synagogues and Jewish community centers host a carnival for the children.  I can't begin to tell you how many goldfish I've won at Purim carnivals, or how many my daughters brought home.  Ah, tradition.

But the most important ritual of Purim is reading the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther.  The congregation shows up in costume, with all sorts of noisemakers.  The entire story is read aloud.  And every time Haman is mentioned, the entire congregation is supposed to make as much noise as possible, to blot out his name.  In our synagogue, the readers sometimes use funny voices, and the Rabbi likes to throw chocolate at the children if they answer his questions correctly.  It's loud, it's  irreverent, it's fun.

The story is intriguing, filled with palace plots and the like.  And interestingly, it is Esther, not Mordechai, who saves the Jews of Persia from death. 

A bit of trivia about the Megillah.  G-d is never mentioned, not even once.  Esther and the Jews of Shushan fast and pray, but the Almighty is more of a behind-the-scenes presence than an active participant.  The bravery of a single Jewish woman saves the Jews of Persia from death at Haman's hands.

Well, no wonder that the largest philanthropic organization of Jewish women is called Hadassah.

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