Good evening. I’m Susan. I’m here for the dialogue and the Turkish food. I also have some ideas I want to run past you.
The Title of my talk is: The Jewish Holiday of Purim and Community Response to Hate and Violence.
I’m going to tell the story of the Book of Esther. I’m only going to tell selective sections of the Purim story. Some of the story of Esther is uncomfortable, especially in a world where women are supposedly equal to men.
Once upon a time, King Ahasuerus was a drunken, fictional king in Persia. His wife Queen Vashti refuses to be exploited during yet another drunken feast. Ahasuerus sent for her. She doesn’t come. The King’s advisors are outraged. The King’s advisors convince him to get rid of this wife and search for a new one.
Esther is a pretty young Jewish girl who lives with her uncle, Mordecai. When the king’s administration demands all pretty young things come to the palace to audition for queenship, Esther’s uncle prepares her to go. His big advice is: Don’t tell anyone that you are Jewish.
Esther is one of a large group of women who spend a year at the palace being groomed. Mordecai spends a lot of time around the gateway to where the women are, hoping to hear how Esther is. Let’s skip some of the uncomfortable details of how Esther wins this beauty contest. The bottom line is that Esther becomes queen, wife to the drunken and easily influenced king Ahasuerus. Queen Esther is safe and comfortable in the palace.
Now, Mordecai spends his time in the gateway to the palace. He has become an advisor to the king. Not exactly part of the king’s regime, but not exactly a regular citizen either. Mordecai is appreciated for his mind and for his concern for others.
Enter Haman. Haman is an advisor to the king. Though he is not the king, he demands the respect the king’s position might afford him. Just like the king, Haman demands that citizens bow to him. Mordecai refuses. Maybe he refuses because Jews do not bow to earthly kings. Maybe he refuses because he doesn’t think Haman deserves that kind of respect.
Bottom line – Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman. Haman becomes obsessed with Mordecai, complaining about him and his whole people. Haman makes revenge his pet project. He gets a law passed. On the fifteenth, all the Persians are encouraged to attack the defenseless Jewish citizens of the kingdom.
When Mordecai hears of this new law, he is outraged and worried. He puts on the traditional clothing of mourning. He seats himself at the gateway to the palace, wearing sackcloth and ashes. His niece, the queen becomes uncomfortable. She sends a messenger to him with clean clothing.
He sends her a message: “Haman is planning to kill all the Jews! Go to the king! Fix it! Fix it! Fix it!”
She sends him this message: “While that is upsetting news, what do you want me to do? My whole job is based on pleasing the king. I can’t interrupt him, and I certainly can’t tell him bad news. Plus, you told me never to tell anyone that I’m Jewish.”
Mordecai writes back: “Don’t think for a minute that you can stay safe in the castle. Being queen won’t protect you. If you don’t stand up for the Jews, help will have to come from another place……”
Esther thinks about it. Then, despite her fear and discomfort, she sends a new response: “Gather all of our people. Ask everyone to fast with me for three days. Then, I will go to the king to ask for help.”
The people join Mordecai in sackcloth and ashes and fasting. Esther visits the throne room. The King welcomes her. Esther prepares two consecutive feasts for the King and his advisor, the evil Haman. At the second feast, Esther tells the king that she’s worried about the Jews and the new law. She admits that she is, in fact, Jewish. The king takes a moment to absorb all this information and then his administration quickly adds to the law.
The new law is that the Jews are allowed to fight back. So, the Jews and the Persians prepare to fight. The Jews win.
This story is violent and fictional. And it leads to a famous joke about us. Purim and Passover are both summed up this way: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
What have we learned from Purim?
Some of our lessons are these:
Jewish survival is confusing and wonderful. Jews are a minority in the world, and yet we survive.
It’s important to stand up for what is right, even when it’s terrifying.
Sticking together, working together, praying together, fighting together means everything.
Find the entry ways. Mordecai is almost always at a doorway or a gateway. The royal administration notices him because he’s always by the entrance.
Be a Noisemaker
We bring noisemakers to the Megillah reading. When the reader says Haman, people make so much noise, trying to blot out the sound of his name. Since January 20th, many of us have had a the chance to be a noise maker. There are a million suggestions and guidebooks out now about how to be the best and most-effective noise makers. Here are my favorite suggestions this week:
One: I have heard from a few sources that we should start talking about the Republican Administration. When the president does something that we find offensive or frightening, instead of talking about the individual president, we can talk about the Republican Administration. Instead of trying to hold one slippery person accountable, we as a group will hold the party responsible. And hopefully, the party will care about how we see them as a group.
As far as I can see, this party sees us as our group identity, religious minorities. So, we can let them know how that works – from the other end.
Two: When it comes to letting a politician know what we think, emails and voicemails aren’t as powerful as calling. (You must know that I never never ever talk on the phone. I text. It’s faster and it doesn’t depend on two people being free to talk at the same time.)
BUT I’ve been calling our senators and my neighborhood’s representative. I haven’t called every day, but I’ve called at least once a week. I have a new notebook and I keep track of whose lines are busy, who answers, what I say, and what they say.
I’m a noisemaker. I get my ideas from a few websites and journalists whom I like and respect. I write down one issue. It usually starts with – “I’m concerned about….”
I have a Cookie Proposal.
If you’re Christian, then the whole country validates you, your customs, your traditions, your calendar.
The country doesn’t know that much about us Jews, but they believe they do. They know that we don’t accept Jesus as our savior, but most of what they know about Jews, they know from television shows like Seinfeld.
The main thing that non-Jews in Texas know about us is food. During hannukah, my friends ask for potato pancakes. During the high holy days, they ask for matza ball soup. During Passover, I usually share chocolate matza brittle. During Purim, I make hamentaschen, these three cornered cookies with different sweet fillings.
So, here is my idea: a Muslim Cookie Strategy.
The non-Muslim Americans don’t know you. They have no idea what Eeeed is, how to pronounce it, why there are two of them, and when to expect them in the calendar.
My strategy is teach folks about Islam with cookies. It’s not a brilliant theory, and it’s not just a play to receive snacks, but this is my idea: Before or after Eeed and other celebrations, bring some snacks to people who don’t really get you yet – the fire department, the police department, the teachers at your kid’s school, the nurses’ station at the hospital. I am proposing Cookie Diplomacy.
On Purim, one of our mitzvot, holy obligations, is hearing the Megillah, Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther. We are not obligated to read it, we are obligated to hear it. So, to fulfill this divine commandment, we gather together to hear the same story, every year. Storytelling is the glue that binds our community together. But just being part of the Jewish community isn’t enough. We, all of us, can use storytelling to bind us to our neighbors.
The reason we are here tonight is the Dialogue Center, a group that values connection.
As I have learned from my chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom, storytelling binds us.
As I have learned from the New Israel Fund, it’s time for us to stand together, to tell each other the good stories and the bad stories.
There is no better way than to deepen empathy than to share our stories.
Take the tough stuff seriously, and then party seriously. Ta’anit Esther is the fast the day before Purim. It’s hard for some of us to celebrate the fictional death of the fictional Persian attackers. Judaism provides us a fast day to separate our grief from our celebration. There is nothing like a day set aside for grief to make a day set aside for a party possible.
Thank you for this invitation. I’m honored to be included at the Dialogue Center. The Dialogue Center does important work, and the Dialogue Center also feeds me very well. Being part of this community, a group of friends, cousins, and bakers, is a blessing to me.