Purim is a holiday some of us may recall from childhood only because of the Queen Esther dresses we wore. (I still have the photo of myself, circa age 6, in a long organdy skirt of my mother’s, with a long and fancy sash—my mother’s—and a tiara—also from Mum, whose closets and drawers were always full of treasures like these.)
Aside from Purim’s limited but nonetheless enticing sartorial possibilities, I remember stomping out Haman’s name on the soles of my shoes in synagogue as a child, making haman taschen and other goodies first with my mother and later with my own kids, and pretty happily watching assorted rabbis wearing funny hats trying to act ridiculous at the masquerade party that Purim’s evening Megillah reading always seemed to morph into. But when I began to read the Megillah carefully, as I was writing my book Jewish and Female, I felt as if I’d been hit in the solar plexus. The wind knocked out of me, I had to re-think all those jolly Purim moments of my childhood, and of young motherhood too. And yet—as Susan Schnur observes in her deconstructions and reconstructions of the Purim story (pages 19 to 30)—I, like many other feminists too, somehow pushed aside my feelings of horror at the pernicious tale of the king who orders his wife to dance naked before his courtiers. I even stifled my worries about Esther, the youngster closeted in a harem and then dolled up like a hooker. Mostly, I let the Purim story be; I didn’t have anything to replace it with.
I wrote a little about Vashti, and how little girls should dress up like her, despite the fact that I couldn’t point to even one six year old (or nine year old for that matter) who would have wanted to be that transgressive! And I played my youngest child the tape of Margot Stein Azen’s Vashti song with its defiant refrain: “She said no to the King. She said no, no, no no no no no. She said NO to the King!” But if I was going to “do” Purim at all, I had to put the Megillah into the realm of weird tales that, because the holiday itself has so many turnarounds, was somehow still OK because it turns out alright in the end. It was OK because there are lots of things about Purim that you can imagine are only fantasies, happening once a year, if at all. Things that you wouldn’t want to have going on in real life—like drunkenness, lechery and people masking their true identities.
Except of course that they do go on. And, as we see from the well-documented article by Sarah Blustain on the alleged sexual predations of a late, revered rabbi, when women do “out” men whose sexual approaches were unwelcome, they run the risk of being scorned and disbelieved, or told that a greater good is being served by preserving things as they are. Denial is a powerful force, and sometimes very convenient— it helps us resist the truth until we have a suitable way to deal with our uneasiness.
In the courageous article on Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s paradoxical legacy, we hear women giving voice to experiences they have kept silent about, sometimes for decades. And guided by Rabbi Susan Schnur’s broad-ranging, learned analysis of Purim, we can see for the first time, really, the powerful structure of women’s myths and rites that supports the present-day Purim narrative we’d always thought (erroneously as it turns out) was the whole Megillah!
These two strong pieces provide us with the information we need to recognize what lies beneath situations which have been making us uneasy in the past—from the Purim story thousands of years old to the allegations about a rabbi who passed away only a few years ago.