Original image: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo
Original image: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo
Navigate to Community section

The Other Queen of Purim

Rewriting the story of Vashti

Anna Solomon
March 09, 2020
Original image: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo
Original image: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo
This article is part of All Hail the Queen.
See the full collection →︎

If anything was clear during the Purim celebrations of my childhood—and I’ll be honest, between the costumes and groggers and carnival vibe, not much was clear—it was this: No one wanted to be Vashti.

Whatever grown person played her in the Purimspiel was usually dressed like a caricature of a prostitute. Even worse, at least to me, who loved to act, almost as soon as Vashti entered she was gone. Banished from the stage and from the story, never to be heard from again. Had she been killed? No one seemed to know. Rumor had it she was a prostitute. Or maybe a leper. Or … maybe a leprous prostitute!

Suffice it to say, if you were a young girl, you did not wear a Vashti costume in the pageant. You were Esther, with all the other Esthers, which meant that you were beautiful, and good, and brave. You were the hero.

I bought into this story, for the most part. And yet. As I watched Vashti exit, I felt uneasy. A flicker of doubt would pass through me, quiet but consistent, year after year. Was that really her whole story?

I couldn’t know then that I wasn’t the first person to have such a thought. I didn’t know that such a thing as Talmud or midrash existed, or that rabbis had been writing and talking and arguing about Vashti—along with every other character from the Tanakh—for hundreds of years, or that their judgments of her varied widely. She was wanton, according to some; she was an anti-Semite who would force her Jewish servants to work naked on the Sabbath, according to others. Still others opined that Ahasuerus had been wrong to demand that his queen appear before his party “in her diadem”—a phrase commonly interpreted to mean that he wanted her otherwise naked. One midrashic account has the king regretting his behavior. Another describes Ahasuerus sobering up after the party and asking for Vashti. When he’s told that he killed her, he asks why, and upon learning that he commanded her to appear naked and that she refused, he responds: “I did not act nicely.”

Rabbis weren’t the only ones who’d wondered about Vashti. In The Woman’s Bible, edited by suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and published in 1895, a section devoted to Vashti includes these lines from a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson:

Oh, Vashti! noble Vashti!
Summoned forth, she kept her state,
And left the drunken king to brawl
In Shushan underneath his palms.

The Woman’s Bible also includes a forceful vindication of Vashti by Lucinda B. Chandler, who writes: “Vashti is conspicuous as the first woman recorded whose self-respect and courage enabled her to act contrary to the will of her husband. She was the first ‘woman who dared.’”

Nearly a century later, though, in my conservative if egalitarian-leaning congregation in Massachusetts, news of Vashti’s redemption did not reach me.

This was in the 1980s, when on the winds of the second-wave women’s movement a generation of Jewish feminists were (unbeknownst to me) engaged in the same type of Old Testament excavation work that Stanton and her fellow writers had undertaken a hundred years before. In poems, prayers, essays, and manifestos, writers such as Merle Feld and Judith Plaskow called for a new outpouring of midrash that reenvisioned the old stories through a feminist lens. One of my favorite poems from this period is Enid Dame’s “Lilith,” which begins:

kicked myself out of paradise
left a hole in the morning
no note no goodbye

Dame’s poem goes on to transform Adam’s (folkloric/talmudic) first wife, maligned for centuries as a baby-eating she-demon, into a woman in late 20th century New Jersey who works, takes art lessons, and lives with, yes, a cab driver.

Although I wouldn’t discover Dame’s liberated Lilith—or others conjured in the same spirit—for a couple more decades, I did experience ripple effects of the movement out of which they were born. In 1982, when I was 5, my mother became the first woman president of our synagogue; in the years to come, like women all over the country, she would help start a Rosh Hodesh group to honor the new moon and the divine feminine, or shekhinah. But by then, I was at an age when almost any kind of behavior by middle-aged women—let alone middle-aged women singing in a circle on the beach at night—embarrassed me. Also, I was coming of age in a moment that deluded many young women into conceiving of ourselves as living in a post-feminist world, as insane as that sounds now. By the late 1990s, when Cups of Miriam started showing up on Seder tables, this addition seemed natural to me—a good idea, but not a radical one.

Yet it was in the middle of that same over-it decade, during my freshman year of college, that I came into contact with an act of midrash that shook up my blasé attitudes—toward feminism, and toward storytelling itself. There I was, studying Othello in a Shakespeare course and trying to come up with an idea for a third paper about this one play (what more could possibly be said? my 18-year-old self actually thought) when I discovered another play, written by Paula Vogel, called Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief. Othello doesn’t appear in this play; neither does Iago or Cassio. The main stage in Vogel’s production is a back room of the palace, where men don’t go, but where Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca play out a series of hilarious, bawdy, rage-fueled scenes that challenge almost everything Shakespeare’s original play has told us about them. What previously went unsaid is now shouted. What was absent now takes center stage.

Studying Desdemona opened my eyes. While I had and would read other texts that played similar tricks, this was the one I would return to again and again, as if to confirm what felt like my own private discovery: that stories, even old ones, are not fixed, but as malleable and open to interpretation as we decide to make them.

This is how, by the time I became a parent, and my kids grew old enough to wonder the same things I’d wondered about Vashti, I was ready to begin imagining another vision of her story—a view into its back rooms, so to speak.

I started to dig into what others had written about her, and into the broader tradition of midrashim. I met with my rabbi, Rachel Timoner, who was kind enough not to laugh at my ignorance of certain basics, like the difference between Torah and Tanakh, and who pointed me toward more writings still. I took a wonderful course at the Drisha Institute with the novelist Amy Gottlieb called “Jewish Sources, Literary Narrative.” I read, and read. I loved especially the stories that had no basis in the original Book of Esther but which someone, somehow, had made up, like the one about Vashti being a servant-beating anti-Semite—or another that described Haman’s daughter, on a roof during the parade and so thinking him Mordecai, dumping a bucket of shit on her father’s head. I continued loving my children’s questions, not only about Vashti but about the other characters, too, like: Does Esther even want to become queen? And I found what felt like divine inspiration in Adele Berlin’s JPS Bible Commentary: Esther, which argues that the book was never intended to be read as historical record, as its relentless emphasis on official practice and procedure seems to suggest, but as comedy—so much so that the passages most obsessed with practice and procedure are in fact the very embodiment of the book’s farcical spirit. Take a line like, “For it was royal practice to turn to all who were versed in law and precedent …” which on the surface seems to explain why Ahasuerus lets his advisers decide Vashti’s fate. If we understand the book as comedy, though, the line is there to justify an absurd plot point—one of countless absurdities that together make up the ranging, raunchy, and hole-filled plot.

The more I grasped the humor in the Book of Esther, the more fascinated by it I became. Who had written it? And when? No one knew for sure, it turned out, just like no one knew what happened to Vashti after she was banished. As a fiction writer, little is more exciting to me than a well-known story about which almost nothing is actually known. I would fill in the gaps, I decided. And so I began to write my own sort of midrash, which grew into my forthcoming novel, The Book of V.

As compelling as the question of Vashti’s fate, I decided, was the question of who she was, before her banishment. If, as is commonly accepted, she was the daughter of the Babylonian king Belshazaar, and if on the night her father was killed she was given in a rush to Ahasuerus—a mere steward in her father’s kingdom—then wasn’t she, from the very beginning, above him? More royal in some essential way than he could ever hope to be? What if she were better educated, too? Ahasuerus has the “book of records” read to him? What if Vashti, wherever she wound up, could read and write? Or what if she had a different kind of power, one that saved her, and maybe others, too? What if …? And so on.

In The Woman’s Bible, Stanton rues: “I have always regretted that the historian allowed Vashti to drop out of sight so suddenly.” The line serves as one epigraph to my book, and it also encapsulates, perhaps unwittingly, the wildly contradictory impulses at the heart of the Book of Esther. What poses as a book of history is in fact a tribe-boosting burlesque. What seems a clear-cut tale of good and evil is not so clear when you look a little closer. The king is complicit in genocide. The Jews, when they emerge victorious, commit a genocide of their own. Esther turns out to be a concubine. Vashti turns out to be virtuous. All the categories that seemed so fixed when I was a kid turn out to be far more fluid, as most of us—if we’re honest—know them in fact to be.

The word pur means lot, as in to cast a lot, as in a lottery, as in random chance. If on Yom Kippur, Jews solemnly yield our fate to God, on Purim, we explode the very notion of control, and maybe of category, too. Writing Vashti anew has demanded a similar kind of release on my part, even as I’ve been the one holding the pen. It’s another contradiction, perhaps, but a satisfying one: allowing a character to become whatever I make of her. Maybe even good and beautiful and brave.

Anna Solomon’s third novel is The Book of V.