Sisters in Arms
Playing the defiant Vashti in a day school Purim play awakened my inner feminist
A couple of thousand years after Haman was sent to his death for trying to persuade King Ahasuerus to execute all the Jews in his kingdom, a motley group of fifth- and sixth-graders at Temple Emanuel Community Day School of Beverly Hills (motto: “Living Judaism!”) pulled out all the stops on a Purim musical revue spectacular.
We all wanted to be Esther, of course, the heroic, beautiful, self-sacrificing beloved of the King. The ingénue savior of the Jews, and so thin from all her fasting! She was going to get to wear a dirndl and sing a re-lyricized “My Favorite Things.” Second choice would have been to play a member of Esther’s harem, biblical pole-dancers with veils, MC Hammer pants, exposed midriffs, sequins. Ahasuerus, surrounded by his minions and ogling a parade of bachelorettes, was given to breaking the fourth wall, winking at the audience, and exclaiming, a la Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the king!”
I was cast as Vashti and was, at best, ambivalent about it. She was the shrew. The cast-off first wife, a mere footnote to the story of Esther’s bravery and the salvation of the Jewish people. My costume was a modest polyester gown and my big number was “I’m Gonna Wash That King Right Out of My Hair.” I was last seen on stage protesting the beauty pageant, pacing back and forth downstage, alone, with a large sign that read WOMEN UNITE!
Sure, it wasn’t the most nuanced portrayal of feminist values, but lo and behold, the audience ate it up. They positively roared. On the VHS I scavenged from a musty box in my mother’s basement, you can see a relieved and astounded smile creeping over my face, replacing Vashti’s enraged, playacted protest and alienation. And something crucial sparked in my pre-pubescent brain: sometimes the pretty, virtuous little princess is a snooze. The girl who played Esther had a somewhat underdeveloped stage presence, and proved quite unmemorable. But everyone found Vashti—in her tiara, shouting down biblical gender paradigms—hilarious. At age 10, I already had a reputation for being tough and loud and something of a handful, and now it seemed I’d found an acceptable outlet.
How fun and exciting (and attention-getting) to be protesting and shouting and refusing. Why was it okay in any case for the King to demand sexual favors from Vashti and then unceremoniously dump her if she didn’t feel like putting out? I was too young to fully get the situation, or appreciate the fact that in ancient Persia gender paradigms necessarily operated rather differently than at Temple Emanuel in 1989— though I had, by then, discovered and memorized my older brothers’ stash of disturbingly extensive hardcore porn—but the injustice of the situation, and the righteousness of Vashti’s refusal, seemed clear, and I ran with it.
By all accounts, the show was a triumph. Our director, an Israeli woman named Nili with a frosted perm and lots of blue eye shadow, was exacting and visionary, and I wonder now if her production, with its satirical nods to contemporary Broadway and experimental casting revealed larger theatrical aspirations. In a nice bit of gender-play, my friend Raquel was cast as Haman, and before being sent to the gallows in the show’s final act, delivered a truly heartrending performance of “Don’t Cry For Me, Shushan City”.
After the show, I found I’d become the target of a fair amount of teasing:” “Hey Elisa, women belong in the kitchen!” “Hey Elisa, are you going to get married and have lots of babies like you should?” A good many peers and even adults in my life seemed to find it cute to bait the grade-school feminist. I found myself embroiled in frequent spats about this burgeoning identity, forced to defend ideas I didn’t understand. Despite the fact that I was utterly without the tools to properly argue my as-yet-unarticulated case, it was clear that something was off: this “feminism” thing got me into creepy one-sided arguments with grownups. My elderly great uncle tersely advised me, ostensibly in response to my fifth grade feminist harlotry, to “keep my legs crossed.” Another relative liked to mock me with statements like “women shouldn’t be doctors,” just to laugh while I stuttered furiously in disagreement.
Some years passed before Grace Paley, Naomi Wolf, Vivian Gornick, Andrea Dworkin, and others kindled the spark of a complex adult feminism in me and taught me to articulate its terms, but I’m convinced that my embracing of their ideas and worldview hinged on already having identified—in that stubborn, childish, attention-hungry, way—with Vashti. With her refusal to degrade herself for the entertainment of her husband and his friends, with her dignity in the face of being dumped and cast aside, and with her sadly lacking place in the Old Testament.
The Megillah tells us nothing about what happened to Vashti, but it’s likely she was put to death at the King’s insistence. I’m not observant these days, but every Purim—a holiday on which it’s a mitzvah to get so drunk you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai—I toast her spirit, and my fellow players in that long-ago Shushan spectacular, for helping me begin to see what resistance is all about.
Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night is Different and the editor of the forthcoming anthology Freud’s Blind Spot: Writers on Siblings. She is currently Writer-in-Residence at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Holland. This essay is excerpted from Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists (Seal Press, April 2010).
Has Purim replaced Passover as the best holiday vehicle for expressing individual Jewish identity?