Esther vs a Hamantashen: What Would You Rather Be on Purim?

When I was three, four and five years old, my mother used to dress me as a hamantaschen (a three-cornered triangular cookie, filled with jam or some other sweet filling) for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

She would cut two large triangles from corrugated cardboard, decorate them to look like the front and back sides of a hamantaschen , thread string through them and put them over my head sandwich-board style. She would also make a triangular hamantaschen hat for me, tied around my neck with a string.

An example of a hamantaschen costume!
An example of a hamantaschen costume!

As Purim approached, I dreaded getting dressed up in that hamantaschen costume. I hated it! I thought I looked silly, it was uncomfortable and who wanted to be a hamantaschen anyway? Every Purim that I had to wear that ridiculous costume, I longed to dress up as Queen Esther. For me, Esther epitomized the ideal heroine – she was beautiful, brave, courageous, a queen, and on top of all that, she saved her people’s lives. Finally, when I was six years old, my mother made a Queen Esther costume for me and I was ecstatic! I lovingly wore that same costume every year until I became too old to dress up as Queen Esther.

Each and every Purim many young girls love to dress up as Queen Esther, their Jewish heroine. Young Jewish girls don’t have very many biblical role modes. The few women we read about in the Torah are most often discussed only in context of their relationships with key male characters.

We hear about these women only in their roles as sisters, wives and mothers. Moreover, for most of them, their stories center around their ability or inability to procreate. If we look at the biblical text, it seems that the only important contribution these women had to offer society was their offspring.

Because the Bible does not give us a complete picture of women and their roles, and since we rarely hear about their accomplishments apart from their roles as sister/wife/mother, we tend to cling to those women who appear to be strong, independent and have contributed something unique and special to the Jewish people.

Esther, at first glance, appears to be such a woman. And, she is only one of two biblical women who have a whole book named after her! Many people have declared Esther to be a heroine and a positive role model for Jewish girls. Even the rabbis of old credit Esther with extraordinary characteristics and qualities. The Talmud (Megillah 15a) says that God’s holy spirit accompanied her when she went to see King Achashversosh to begin the process of saving her people. This midrash elevates Esther’s status to that of a prophetess – someone who has been endowed with “ruach hakodesh” – the holy spirit. And because God’s spirit was with her, the rabbis say, all of her future actions were sanctioned from “above”.

There are many more Talmudic and midrashic tales which show that the rabbis see Esther as a powerful, strong and independent figure. They attribute to her great courage and authority. They portray her not only as the savior of the Jewish people, but also as an halachic authority (an authority on Jewish law) and a great political figure. The rabbis look far beyond the actual text of the Book of Esther to create this powerful heroine. For the actual text of the Book of Esther itself only shows her to be Mordechai’s puppet, unable to make decisions unless prodded to do so. The real hero in the Book of Esther is Mordechai.

The rabbis of old need to be given a great deal of credit for writing their midrashim which depict Esther in such a powerful manner. It is these early rabbis who tried to show that perhaps, the author of the Book of Esther’s portrayal of the character of Esther is andocentric, skewed and not totally appropriate as a Jewish feminist heroine. It is this rabbinic image of Esther which has been handed down to our children. It was this image which served as a model of inspiration to those who were dissatisfied with the feminine role models who exist in our Jewish tradition.

If we want our children to think of Esther as an appropriate role model, then we need to do as the rabbis of old did: we need to go beyond the text itself, to teach them the midrashim that the rabbis wrote about her, and to write our own midrashim as well.

We also need to listen to another silent, female voice in the text, the voice of Vashti. Vashti should get more kudos for sticking up for herself. Yes, Esther saved the Jewish people’s lives, but the credit, at least as the biblical tale depicts, really belongs to Mordechai.

Maybe my mother knew what she was doing all those years ago when she insisted that on Purim, I dress up as a hamantaschen and not as Queen Esther.

Chag Purim Sameach – Happy Purim!

Zachor – Remember

Purim begins this Saturday evening, March 15th. Purim is our Jewish holiday of merry-making, silliness and fun. It commemorates the victory of the Jews in the city of Shushan in Persia, thousands of years ago, over the evil Haman who wanted to annihilate all of the Jews. We read Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, retell the story, celebrate with carnivals and games and have lots of fun.

This particular Shabbat immediately preceding Purim has a special name: Shabbat Zachor – The Sabbath of Remembrance. This Shabbat, we read a section of the Torah from Deuteronomy (25: 17-19) in which the Israelites are commanded to destroy the Amalakites from their midst. The Amalakites were enemies of the Israelites who attacked the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.

The evil Haman from our Purim story, is said to be a descendant of the Amalakites. Thus, we remind ourselves this Shabbat that if we do not fully eradicate evil from our midst, evil could once again arise to plague us, just as Haman arose to threaten the Jews of Shushan. So, we hear the Torah being read and we remember. (For an excellent essay on the difficulties encountered with this text, click here: Is It Ever Okay to Hate? A Lesson for Purim, by Rabbi Evan Moffic)

We then go on to celebrate Purim with light hearts and full spirits.

(For my take on the Purim story, click here to read my brief essay: “Esther: Going Beyond the Biblical Text: A Purim D’var Torah)

For me, this year, this Shabbat is also about another kind of remembering. This year, Purim happens to fall on the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. She died on the evening of March 15, 2010, five days before her 70th birthday, just 10 weeks after my father died. (They had been separated/divorced for almost 37 years).

Her Hebrew yahrzeit (anniversary of death) will fall on April 1st this year – just prior to Pesach (Passover).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my mother died between Purim and Pesach. She LOVED all of our Jewish holidays and everything about them: preparing all the special foods, getting the house ready, the home celebrations, the rituals in the synagogue, helping all six children to organize ourselves.

My mother and father at ages 20 and 22. (Circa 1960)
My mother and father at ages 20 and 22. (Circa 1960)

I remember my parents every day, not just as their yahrzeits, or their secular anniversary of their deaths and birthdays approach. They are with me each and every day. But on those special moments, I tend to be more self-reflective. My siblings and I check-in with each other and share our thoughts and feelings. My parents would be so proud of what everyone has accomplished. They would kvell (Yiddish for “rejoice” and “beam with pride”) at everything their eight grandchildren are achieving.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us: “As a drop of water in the sea, as a grain of sand on the shore are our few days in eternity. The good things in life last for limited days, but a good name endures forever.”

My parents live on in the good names they created for themselves over the course of their lives, in the deeds they have done and most importantly through us, their children and grandchildren.

Mom with her grandmother's brass candlesticks brought over from "the old country" and a challah cover that my mother embroidered
Mom with her grandmother’s brass candlesticks brought over from “the old country” and a challah cover that my mother embroidered

My parents were the biggest influence in my life Jewishly. I grew up with the synagogue as my second home. My earliest memories revolve around Shabbat and holiday celebrations. I would not be a rabbi today, had it not been for both my mother and my father guiding me, nurturing me and instilling within me a deep and abiding love for our Jewish culture and heritage.

Judaism also teaches us about the sacred duty of memory. It is through our memories that our loved ones will always live on. Through our actions and aspirations, we carry forward the heritage entrusted to us by those who came before us.

My mother bequeathed many things to me. But what I value most, she gave to me from the time I was born: a deep sense of connection with God.

From the time I was born, my mother began to sing the “Sh’ma” to me and my siblings at bedtime:

“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.”

It was my mother (and father) who showed us by example what it meant to have a personal relationship with God. My relationship with God sustains me and nurtures me to this day, just as it sustained her and nurtured her.

12 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. She had three kinds of cancer in one breast and was told that it was 95% certain that it was metastasize to the other breast. She opted to have a bi-lateral radical mastectomy. She also needed intensive chemotherapy and radiation.

The night before her surgery, she held a “bye-bye boobie party” for herself. My non-Jewish sister-in-law, Marilyn, who is a palliative care nurse by profession and a textile artist by avocation, presented my mother with a surgical cap that she made. On the outside she printed photos of all my mother’s children and grandchildren. Inside – in Hebrew – she printed the words of the Sh’ma.

Top of surgical cap made by my sister-in-law for my mother for her mastectomy surgery
Top of surgical cap made by my sister-in-law for my mother for her mastectomy surgery
Inside of surgical cap - with the Sh'ma inside - for my mother to wear into surgery
Inside of surgical cap – with the Sh’ma inside – for my mother to wear into surgery

The tears streamed down my mother’s face. Marilyn knew that my mother was a deeply spiritual and religious person, whose connection to God was an integral part of her very being. She understood that if my mother could have something that represented both her family and God’s presence with her simultaneously while she was undergoing surgery, my mother would find the strength to overcome any obstacle in her way. My mother wore that cap into surgery, and kept it with her any time she went into the hospital. She felt embraced by her connection to God, her family, her congregation and the greater community. It gave her the conviction and the hope to recover with flying colors.

Following her cancer treatment, my mother lived to celebrate Purim and Passover and many other holidays, Shabbatot and life-cycle events for eight more years.

If she were here this weekend, I know that she would be sitting in the second row of her sanctuary, she might even be chanting Torah. She would have baked hamantaschen (triangular cookies filled with different fillings to symbolize Haman’s hat/pockets) for the holiday, and she would be celebrating with joy and gladness.

So on this Shabbat Zachor, this Shabbat of Remembrance, I remember the traditional things I am supposed to think about, but more importantly, I am remembering my mother: Judith Rosenthal Sobel. Zichrona livracha – may her memory always be for a blessing.