Rereading the Purim Story Reveals Feminist Role Models

'Esther was no Barbie doll - she was one of the smartest women in the Bible.'

A few years ago one kindergarten had a slightly different pre-Purim party. Two set tables symbolized King Ahashverosh's and Queen Vashti's banquets, which took place simultaneously according to the Book of Esther. The color theme was gold, as befits the occasion and the children lounged on cushions. When they reenacted Vashti's famous refusal to appear before the king, one boy got up and wondered aloud: Why would the king suddenly command the queen to come to his banquet and why should she obey? A logical question.

But in many kindergartens and nurseries there is no place for such questions. Vashti, whose character has in recent years been cast in a new and feminist light due to her rebellion against the king, is still presented to kids as an object of ridicule; just as she has been traditionally for years. And in any case, Vashti's scene is just an appetizer to the main story of Esther, the symbol of proper and traditional femininity, who saves the Jews from destruction.

In many kindergartens, this sexist approach to the Book of Esther is still perpetuated. Little girls dressed as princesses are asked to walk about as if they were in a beauty contest, mimicking the pageant of women who appeared before the king.

Not surprisingly, one of the education students in the education for social justice, environmental justice and peace education program at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in Tel Aviv was responsible for the double banquet and the ensuing discussion in the kindergarten.

In this program, they work to change the outlook of kindergarten and school teachers, by presenting alternatives in the spirit of critical pedagogy, among other things. One example of this is bringing stories with a feminist approach to the legends and traditional stories. Dr. Hagit Gur Ziv, who heads the Center for Critical Pedagogy, is concerned about the way in which the Purim story and holiday stories in general are conveyed to children. She says that the underlying messages of the traditional stories in reference to women or minorities are problematic, to say the least.

The one-dimensional contrast between the good guys (the Jews) and the bad guys (the Gentiles) is no less problematic. In an article she published in the alternative education periodical Hinuch Aher, Gur writes that the moral of Vashti's refusal is that "anyone who refuses is bad. Anyone who reveals a mind of her own, wishes of her own, is doomed to be expelled and will remain forever without a king of her own."

Morals and massacres

Can shedding light on the character of Vashti and the attempt to emphasize her stand against the king, subvert the moral of the Book of Esther?

The story of the Book of Esther is actually conducive to a critical discussion, in Gur's opinion.

"Ahashverosh can be presented as a totalitarian king, and the decree to destroy all the Jews as patently undemocratic. One can extract human rights themes from the story," she says.

She mentions the massacre carried out by the Jews, which is described at length at the end of the Megillah, and which can be explained as the reason for the great joy of Purim: The pur (lot) that was overturned (Baruch Goldstein, who shot and killed 29 Arabs in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim in 1994, apparently read it that way).

In the secular public school system they usually censor the ancient massacre as an embarrassing issue. But even if we don't touch on the massacre itself, if we stay with the critical approach, there are additional minefields. The consumer aspect, for example, which is evident in the purchase of overly expensive costumes, as compared to the homemade costumes that were customary in the past.

In addition, it is hard to ignore the fact that the costumes are clearly gender-oriented: princesses and butterflies for girls, ninjas and superheros for boys.

Last week Gur's students prepared costumes from newspapers in one of her classes. "Many have childhood stories about feeling uncomfortable in a costume," says Gur. "We thought about how to have fun using nothing. A costume from newspaper, if it gets ruined, that's not so terrible. It was taking a stand."

At the same time a discussion developed about the social significance of a newspaper, its uses for the poor and rich.

Gur proposes a somewhat revolutionary way of avoiding the problematic nature of the holiday: simply to skip the sexist and inhumane messages, to give up the alternative interpretations as well, and to stick to the Purim atmosphere, which has elements of a carnival.

It's not certain that parents and teachers would agree with her. "Children learn the same story year after year, and that's the problem with learning about the holidays," she explains. "The children grow up, and we can work on additional things - whether a deeper discussion of questions of democracy, or interdisciplinary study that combines geography, foreign cultures and Judaism, comparing celebrations in various cultures. We have to think outside the box."

Sacred cows

Author Yochi Brandes says that she would like schools to expose children to less conventional readings of the Book of Esther, as well as those representing a more traditional interpretation, to create a debate.

"They should also bring opinions and readings of psychologists and writers, or non-Jewish commentators," she says. "Whatever will encourage the children to make their voices heard, to argue and to suggest other interpretations."

She says that the secular community is afraid to touch biblical holiday stories, and the Bible itself, in a liberating manner.

In spite of contemporary admiration for Vashti, Brandes prefers Esther, because, as she says, she sees Esther undergoing a process of change. "She wasn't a Barbie doll," she says. "She was smart, one of the smartest women in the Bible, but she understood that she had to conceal that. She works out a very complex plan - she understands the weak points of Ahashverosh and of Haman and knows how to manipulate them, so that Haman is exposed in front of the king and that's how she brings about his downfall."

Ahashverosh's honor and Haman's jealousy are certainly subjects that children can understand. Brandes thinks that the fact that the Tanakh and the holidays are studied in a routine, unvarying manner distances the children from them.

"When I was a child there were many reasons why I loved Purim," she says. "I liked to dress up; in Bais Yaakov (an ultra-Orthodox girls' school) it was the only day when we could wear pants. Mainly I liked the beauty contest. But when I grew up I understood the exploitation of the girls in the harem and the massacre at the end of the Book of Esther, which caused me to loathe it. I think it happened because I always had an uncomfortable feeling, because I was required to believe in what is told in the Book of Esther. Without criticism. We weren't allowed to ask or to think differently. Only later, when I discovered that I could bring myself to the text, my attitude toward the Book of Esther, to the Bible in general, changed completely."