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Sisters in Arms

Playing the defiant Vashti in a day school Purim play awakened my inner feminist

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Unmasked

Has Purim replaced Passover as the best holiday vehicle for expressing individual Jewish identity?

Purim FAQ

Everything you ever wanted to know about the story of Esther

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).

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Times have changed….I taught my first grade day school students a Hebrew song about Purim in which they sing “To Vashti we sing tsk….tsk….tsk…” About 5 hands shot up, wanting to know why we would say that to Vashti, They weren’t being procovative…..they flat out didn’t get it. At all. Love it! (I told them it meant we felt sorry for her for getting punished.)

Rachel Port says:

I have always felt that Vashti has been treated unfairly not only in the actual story, but by those who have repeated it through the centuries. Refusing to unveil before a bunch of her husband’s drunken friends should be considered an act of virtue. If Ahashueros remembered anything the next morning, I wonder how he felt about the whole thing. If he didn’t remember, what did he make of Vashti’s absence?

I love the picture of Vashti picketing in front of the beauty contest.

charlie salem says:

Feminist or not – scholars agree that Vashti got her comeuppance – measure for mesure.
She made her Jewish slaves work on shabbat ajnd for her sins – got it where it hurts!!!

are those the same scholars who say she had a tail?

I just played Vashti last night at our synagogue, in a play called “Megillah According to Disney”. MY Vashti said a few choice things to her king (my husband in real life), and she came back near the end of the play. I was told by several people that my version of Vashti stole the show! So yes, I think times have changed.

Once again Jewish ignorance triumphs. Vashti was essentially the equivalent of a woman Nazi concentration camp guard. She would make Jewish woman strip, tie them together in a long rope and parade them on all fours like dogs, whipping along the way. That was just one of her pleasures.

How do we know? From testimony of the time, as recorded in the Talmud. But one would have to first learn Hebrew and Aramaic, invest serious hours over serious years to do so. Why should a modern American Jew do so, when she can trade working hard to learn Torah for confusion for the ease of access to ignorant, self-serving revisionism?

Vashit: Great role model for Jewish women to emulate!

bucky says:

Moshe Pesach, how well put. As one who is finishing Masechet Megillah G-d Willing in a few weeks,I was SHOCKED at the headline. What amaratzim. For those who do not know, that means ignoramous. As far as the smart guy who asks about Vashti’s tail and being Green skinned as well, that is a minority opinion and can be taken a number of ways. Shocking. This passes for Jewish thought nowadays.

Adam says:

Yes, I guess that you can interpret Vashti’s tail and green skin various ways — that it’s myth OR fiction. There’s something very exciting about Jewish women adapting these ancient stories for their own ends.
The Jews who take these stories as true are the ones who are alienating the educated.

Sharon Baumgold says:

I played Vashti in Orthodox religious school in 1963 or 1964. I much preferred playing the independent wife, rather than the wife I saw as a mere instrument used by Mordecai to manipulate events. I have always preferred Vashti and proudly tell my daughters that I have always preferred Vashti.

Just to be sure. My ‘smicha’ is from Reb Zalman Schachter. I spent 35 years with Reb Shlomo Carlebach. I create and ran the Jerusalem Camp Cente at the American National Rainbow Gathering. I support Orthodox women rabbis, am a vocal and staunch defender of Agunot, as well as passionate opponent of reinstating polygamy in Jewish law and have years experience counseling women with recovered repress memory of prior sexual abuse and abuse in general an a vocal critic and opponent of any rabbi abusing his position and authority, knowledge and charisma. Having established my bonafides, such as they are and as unnecesary as I believe it to be, allow me to speak just as strongly on this issue:

1- The re-making of Torah and Jewish history in ‘one’s own image’ is ultimately nothing more than an institutionalization of particularly American neuroses and narcicistic rebellions, building a ‘binyan’ out of the angers and dissappointments that Jewish life in America and American life in general.

2- Such passionate and profoundly felt imperatives bespeak the disconnection with the inexcorable flow of the journey and ultimate destination of the Jewish People, what time it is on the planet and so, so much more.

3- For most American Jews this disconnection from the unbroken chain of Jewish history, allows one to simply dismiss the past as myth and/or fiction. Careful, the same will be said of you and your lives in the future.

4- How many of you know that the from the first word of Megillat Esther till the last, 9 years elapsed? How many of you know what this six-month feast of Achashveirosh was all about?

5- How come, when it comes to rejecting Torah, you all suddenly become Fundamentalist Jews, interpreting Torah literally and as narrowly as you can, so as to reject and remake it your own image.

6- This is ultimately all Avodat Zara. You’re not serving HaShem. You’re serving yourselves. As that paradigm of radical feminist post-modern Jewish Renewal ‘Chief Rabbi Zalman Schachter said, “We are paying far too much attention to the horizontal and not enough to vertical.” This was a polite way of saying, “We’re (you’re) looking too much at yourselves and not enough to what God is trying to tell you.”

7- If this is not the definition of what it means to be an American, I don’t know what is.

Yoni Yudin says:

Moshe,
I would probably disagree with just about everything else you have to say regarding Judaism d0 to your connection with Zalman Shechter. But, I have to admit I am very impressed with your clear and concise responses. Your background leaves little doubt that your opinion is based on fact and not any agenda like the author of this article and the other responses.

Reb Yoni

Thank you for the integrity of your response. I would be most interested in hearing in substance your response. http://www.rebmoish.org.

My only agenda is to advance the arrival of the Great Day, which is at hand and there is no bringing Redemption except through the portal of truth, whether it is a truth we like or a truth we don’t like. Shabbat Shalom.

BTW any relation to Benjy Yudin?

questioner says:

@Moshe Pesach Geller – what you refer to as Talmudic testimony is actually midrashim – a story the rabbis told to explain what happened to Vashti. Midrashim serve an important purpose. But they are not necessarily the truth.

tzip says:

As with “questioner” I too find Moseh Pesach Geller leaning a little too heavily on the MALE-DOMINATED era in which the Midrashim and Talmud was written. As far as I know, no woman was up on Sinai either when the Torah was handed, and yet it was the women who refused to worship the golden calf while Moshe was busy …

Geller states he is accepting of and supporting of “female Orthodox rabbis” … those who wrote the Talmud of yore did not. If he is so entwined with rights of ‘abused’ women, then can he not see the OBVIOUS emotional abuse [not to mention disrespect] inherent in the requests made by Vashti’s husband… because if he cannot, then he is a hypocrite. Regardless of what her behavior was like in other aspects of life in the Perisan kingdom, Vashti should not have to be made to parade herself in such a manner or do anything that she felt mars her self-respect. Especially as a Queen. That would make her as a slave.

Moshe Geller, would you request this of your wife? And if you did, what would you do to her if she disobeyed? How do you counsel your sexual abuse victims to handle themselves in similar situations? Or do you only support and work with abused women who are Jewish and the others be damned? It takes a far stronger woman to walk away and refuse that abuse (even more so in those days when women and children were often quite dispensable) than to continue to “take it” because your hubby is king …

I may be wrong here, but I do believe that Hashem intended for Judaism and His people to grow and change and learn and ELEVATE. I can’t imagine any ‘compassionate’ G-d not wanting eventual harmony and equal rights between the sexes. Perhaps if he had made men to be women for say a year, preferrably including pregnancy/childbirth, walking down a dark alley alone and being accosted by someone stronger than you, applying for a job that you have as much smarts for as any man but being paid less, etc …. men would begin to realize that women are the most persecuted beings on earth … and dare we stand up for ourselves, we are called names, ridiculed, demeaned or as in Vashti’s case, we disappear or are exiled …

I am not a feminist, but I am a mother and I treat my male and female children equally. I gave up a career to be a stay at home mother because I thought it was the BEST job on Hashem’s green earth and I have no regrets. The woman should be the Queen in her home and I believe that is a Judaic tenet is it not? NO woman should be treated as property or an object … which btw, beauty pageants whether modern day or biblical are objectification big time.

As far as [his] condemnation of the author’s role as Vashti and the resultant cheering it led to, I would like to think after all these thousands of years that Hashem has a sense of humor, realizes that women have been suppressed for those thousands of years, and that He knows that Purim is also about masks and make-believe and celebration. Mr. Geller, I hope that within you there is a spark of that humor that is so much a part of Jewish culture and that you are not reacting out of ‘fear’ as do so many men at the thought of women having any kind of power over their own lives and thus there being less male power over them.

Shabbat Shalom

bennett says:

http://www.vbm-torah.org/purim/pur-es.htm

note that in this commentary by an obviously self-secure Jewish MAN, Vashti isn’t maligned so much as the King himself and his henchman Haman, she was just a necessary ‘foil’ to start the plot rolling …. basically the king can’t even make a decision on his own so Vashti isn’t really losing anything having been “given” to him in the first place like an object … what woman wants a man who can’t make up his own mind? secondly, Haman ends up being humiliated by his King, third, Esther (woman) humiliates both of them … seems to me not just a story of Jewish exile but also a story of what happens to men who treat women badly and are ruled by their ego and fear … Section VI Chapter 2 describes the parading of the young potential queens as “wheat” … objectification …

Baruch to Ytizak Etzshalom for having the wherewithal and clarity to see the many layers to the Esther story and being able to convey truth that some men are not ethical, whether Jewish or otherwise (Mordechai sets up his own neice to do the dirty work) and for portraying women in strong roles on both sides in spite of the circumstances of the day.

Vashti continues to be bashed and used as brand or label for any woman who dares to disagree with a man …. should women brand every man who whistles at us, uses sexual innuendo in his speech, or who accosts us in disrespectful ways as Haman? Wait, that would be appropriate …

There are many lessons in the Story of Esther beyond the implications of assimiliation and exile ….

just catching up on Tablet stories — this is great, funny, moving, real. brava.
*
some commenters’ fervent equating of midrash and reality is fascinating. but then, i’m one of those feminists, one of those “woman nazi concentration guard” equivalents.

mitch says:

There are three ways to see Vashti, based on who her antagonist was, in what amounts to a zero-sum game.

Some rabbis contasted her with Esther, so since Esther was good, Vashti had to be evil (thus the midrash about her enslaving Jewish women, etc.)

Other rabbis contrasted her with Ahashverosh, noting their power struggle, that they were cut from the same cloth. This characterizes Vashti, not as evil, but just petty.

But Vashti’s real foil was Memuhan, the advisor who pushed Ahashverosh to punish her, and is associated with Haman. If so, then, just like Esther, her antagonist was Haman, and their common rival meant they were allies, albeit sequqntially. Seeing Vashti’s virtue, therefore need not detract from Esther’s in any way. We can cheer both.

Leah says:

Yeah, my Eva Braun costume always gets tons of laughs on Purim.

There are a few good groups like Savage Men male strip clubs and American Babes male strip shows. There were a few other ones like Beefcake male strippers but they did not get a great rating from the male-reviews.com site.Iuse to go to school in New Jersey and we use to see the male strip shows every now and then. There was a great male strip show in Atlantic City called the Savage Men Male Strip Shows. I think they are on the Boardwalk area.

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Sisters in Arms

Playing the defiant Vashti in a day school Purim play awakened my inner feminist

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