Ah, Purim. For some, it’s the time when drunken exes call to find out if you’re single, or when family members wield knives at their grandchildren (true story). For others, it’s the time of year when a host of holiday videos aimed at the religious communities flood your Facebook page with post-modern takes on the holiday and its narratives.
In fact, Purim has, since the rise of YouTube, become an interesting lens into the minds that create these videos, for it presents these would-be viralists with a curious paradox: on the one hand, there exists in the Haredi world an exhortation against staging women; on the other hand, there exists the irrefutable fact that the hero of the Purim tale is Esther, after whom the, uh, Book of Esther is named.
Here’s a list of people after whom the Book of Esther is not named: Mordechai. Haman. Ahasuerus. A small boy with a big black yarmulke named Lester.
And yet, it is these people who curiously feature as the story’s heroes in two of this season’s most popular videos. Take the fully animated “Story of Lester,” which you can rent here for $3.99 or buy here from Artscroll for $22.49. The movie, Presented by EMES Productions and Produced by Kolrom Animation Studios, tells the tale of Doniel Lesterovich—called “Lester”—whose job it is to produce the Purimspiel on pain of losing funding from a government operative. But Lester falls, hits his head, and goes back in time to Shushan. And because he knows how the story ends, Lester accidentally warns Vashti that she’d better attend the party, advice she heeds, thereby upending the narrative of the Megillah: Because Vashti attends, she doesn’t have to be killed; because she isn’t killed, Esther never appears. She has been replaced, literally, figuratively, and textually, by Lester. “Every person has a purpose and a place!” he whines, when insulted by Haman. Almost everyone, Lester!
The film, a 65-minute romp, spares a full 10 minutes for the jokes of drunken Shushanites—as well as two appearances of a deeply offensive Irish bartender, dressed as a leprechaun and saying “Jiminy Cricket!”—but it can’t spare a single minute for the heroine of the day.
Another video called “What does Haman Say” hit the web this season, too. Produced by A.K.A. Pella and distributed by CD Eichlers, the video is a parody of the Ylvis video “What Does the Fox Say.” This film has as its anti-hero Haman, and as its central drama the fact that Mordechai would not bow to him. One would think that a parody of the Megillah would better be called “What Did Hashem Say?” as God’s name is entirely absent from the supremely secular Megillah. But instead, the folks at A.K.A. Pella decided that they would prefer to alter the Purim story to reflect their fascination with the anti-bromance between Mordechai and Haman. And while Esther makes an appearance, she, as well as Vashti, are presented for mere seconds and in masks, while the men are free to roam and perform dances in the snow to their heart’s content, unimpeded by masks or shame. This film opens and closes with extremely drunk individuals, too. And it ends with devotions to God—one character who doesn’t, in fact, appear in the Megillah at all.
“But it’s just a cute video!” I can hear you protesting. “Where’s your sense of humor??” To which I can only meet you at your level and say: But it’s not actually funny. It’s obscene. It’s small. It’s obvious. The creators of these films are catering to an audience who they think will be threatened by Esther’s power, whether because it’s sexual, or because it’s textual. This despite the fact that any child who understands the bare minimum of the holiday’s text—the Megillah—will be forced to confront the gloriously discomforting fact that a woman with power was given her own holiday. And not just any woman; a woman with what can only be called sexual power becomes a leader of her people by using said power to save the Jews. So while we might (please, let’s!) debate whether the text is a feminist text or not, there is no question that the text is not only about female power, but about redacting, and canonizing it.
Now, you might be thinking, what’s a guy to do if the part of the Megillah that he most relates to has to do with Haman and Mordechai, and not Esther? What’s a production company to do that feels that children should not be exposed to acts our foremother committed in order to save the Jewish people? What if you feel better having a little boy exposed to drunkards than having a woman save the Jewish people? Well, for starters, such a person should certainly not take children to shul to hear the Megillah, which is heavier on Esther’s acts and doesn’t seem at all invested in alcohol.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.