I did not wear the crown and satiny dress, or stand in line for the beauty pageant. Queen Esther was not a role model I—or many other children—could choose. Later, in the academy, I understood that Esther’s subterfuge and seduction were the strategies of the weak, the politics of the minority. In Jewish settings, I found joy in singing along with the children as they restored Vashti to her rightful place, chanting the ebullient song: “She /said / ‘no’ to the king; she said ‘no’ to the king!”
Let’s consider a different Esther. A film called The Last Marranos brought me crypto-Jewish secrets from a remote village in Portugal. Women observed there had a tradition that conflated the story of the Exodus with that of Queen Esther. Perhaps these descendants of crypto-Jews preserved in Esther a memory of Doña Graçia Nasi. This historical sixteenth century Portuguese Jewish woman, so important in her time as to have been called “‘la Señora’” (Lady Graçia), was a great protector and patron of crypto-Jews who left Portugal in their escape from the Inquisition.
Another Esther: for some scholars and Jews who have identified as gay, as queer, or as transpeople, the crypto-Jewish Esther has become a symbol that dignifies or sacralizes the experience of survival in a hidden identity, and points to the salvific power of self-revelation.
This week of Purim, while acknowledging both Vashti and Esther, I would draw our attention to Memucan. When Vashti said ‘no’ to the king, Memucan advised him to strip her of her power, lest the princesses of Persia and Media follow her lead(ership) (Esther 1:16–20). Memucan understood that historical change could be catalyzed by even one important woman—one person. Esther or Vashti, the story of Purim teaches a lesson: it all depends not only on whether we can vanquish Haman or Memucan, but also on whether we act on what he knew. One individual can lead, and by example change the course of history.
The Last Marranos. Directed by: Frédéric Brenner and Stan Neumann.(1991).
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistomology of the Closet (1991).
“She said ‘no’ to the king”, Margot Stein, Rayzel Raphael, Bayla Ruchama, Juliet Spitzer (1988).