In honor of Purim, a Jewish holiday about Queen Esther and the saving of the Jews of Persia, I made hamentashen cookies (they’re supposed to be either the hat or the pocket of the story’s bad guy Hamen). The recipe is in another post. I used my mother’s recipe and I will here recount my rough version of the Purim story. Stick with it, there is a lot of build-up and back story before you get to the real action.
Also, a quick note: traditionally you’re supposed to get dressed up as the characters and then get so drunk you can’t tell Hamen from Mordechai. It’s a little bit like a Jewish Halloween, with more alcohol.
The Story of Purim (more or less, with all the feminist leanings of my upbringing and education):
A long time ago the King Ahashverosh of Persia had a wife named Vashti. Now Vashit was a proud and beautiful woman. In some versions of this story Queen Vashti has leprosy, in others something else judgmental and terrible thing has happened to her to anger the king, but in the feminist version Vashti refused to dance naked for the King and his friends at a feast. So, Vashti, unwilling to debase herself for the king was either killed or sent away.
Which, or course, leaves us with a single king of Persia. So Ahashverosh held a beauty contest and chose the sweetest, smartest, and most beautiful of the young women to his new wife. That young woman was Esther, a Jew. Esther had lost both her parents and had been raised in the capital city by her uncle Mordechai. When Esther was chosen to be the queen, Mordechai cautioned her not to let Ahashverosh or anyone else in the palace know that she was Jewish. And so Esther, keeping her identity a secret, became the queen of Persia.
Now, every week, sometimes more than once a week, Mordechai would go visit Esther, so he was always walking by the palace walls and one day he heard two men plotting to assassinate Ahashverosh. Mordechai immediately told Esther, who told Ahashverosh, who was able to avoid the plot and kill the conspiring men. Next Ahashverosh went to his chief adviser, a man named Hamen, to ask how to best honor Mordechai. It went like this:
“Hamen, how should I honor someone to whom I am grateful and who I love?”
Hamen, being conceited, assumed the person in question was himself and answered, “You should dress him in the king’s robes and mount him on the kings horse, and one of your officials will walk with him and proclaim through the city: ‘behold the man the kings loves!’”
“Why Hamen,” said Ahashverosh, who, it seems, took every idea to heart, “that’s a great idea! Do you want to know who that man is?”
“Yes!” (me) said Hamen.
“It’s Mordechai; he saved my life. And since I respect you so much, Hamen, you can lead him through the city on my horse, in my robes, calling out how much I love him.”
Hamen was not pleased. He developed a massive grudge against Mordechai and, once he found out that Mordechai was a Jew, against all Jews. So over the years Hamen kept conniving and scheming how to punish Mordechai and the Jews. And finally he came to it: Hamen met him in the street and told Mordechai to bow because he was chief adviser to the king. But Mordechai refused, saying he would bow only to god. Hamen was pissed, angrier than ever, and ready to put his scheme into action.
Hamen went to Ahashverosh and had a nasty manipulative conversation something like this:
“Hey Ahashverosh, shouldn’t all your subjects love you and bow to you?”
“Well, what if I told you there was a group of people who loved someone more than you?”
“That’s terrible! Who are these people?”
“The Jews! The Jews love their god more than they love you.”
“And what should I do?”
“Kill them, kill them all!”
“Okay, let’s pick a date.” Again with the not thinking for himself. Ahashverosh is remarkably un-discerning for a king.
So Ahashverosh and Hamen drew lots (I think that’s literally what Purim means) and picked 13th of Adar to be the date on which all the Jews of Persia would be killed. He put it into law and Hamen was really happy.
Mordechai, however heard and was heartbroken. He tore his clothing, wept, and laid in the streets. Then he went to see Esther and told her about the plan. Esther, seeing that she had the power to prevent this massacre, knew she had to take action. She decided, given the limited social roles available to women in her time and position, to use her feminine wiles. She started by fasting for three days and Mordechai organized all the Jews to fast a well and pray for her. Then Esther faced the challenge of going before Ahashverosh. To go to the king unannounced and unasked was punishable by death, but Esther knew she had to nonetheless.
She put on her finest clothes and went to the court of King Ahashverosh. She walked by the open door once, slowly, hoping the king would see her and invite her in, but he did not. She walked by a second time, and again he didn’t see her. So a third time she passed by the door. A third time he did not see her. And so Esther took a breath and stepped into the court.
At once guards ran to her, pulling out their spears. But Ahashverosh finally saw her and called out to let her go. And so Esther came and sat with the king all afternoon and at the end of the day she asked the King to join her for a banquet in her personal chambers. The king came and had a great feast with Esther. And she asked him to come back the next night and to bring his adviser and friend Hamen. Again, they all had a great time. And Esther asked them both back for one more banquet.
At the end of the third banquet Ahashverosh said to Esther, “Thank you my dear for these banquets, they have been so wonderful. Please, how can I reward and thank you? Be it up to half my kingdom, what can I give you?”
And Esther, finally having her moment proceeded carefully, “What would you say, my king, if I told you someone wanted to kill me?”
“What!” Cried the king.
“Who? Kill him!” Cried Hamen.
And Ester stood. “Him,” she said, pointing to Hamen. “Hamen wants to kill all the Jews and I am a Jew.”
Ahashverosh jumped up as well and called for the guards, who took Hamen away and hung him on the gallows he had prepared for the Jews. But, Ahashverosh still had a problem because he’d already passed a decree to kill all the Jews on the 13th of Adar. He brought Mordechai into the court and made him an adviser and the two of them put out a decree that the Jews could defend themselves and their neighbors could defend the Jews. And so Esther saved the Jews of Persia.