elizabeth wurtzel   Vashti  
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  Even though Passover meant an afikoman present for whichever child found the missing piece of matzoh at the seder, and Hanukah meant a gift a night for eight nights running no matter what, my favorite Jewish holiday when I was growing up was always Purim, a springtime festival meant to celebrate the day the Jews of Persia were saved from an extermination that might have been the Holocaust of those ancient times. Purim was the closest thing nice Jewish girls and boys got to a purely pagan holiday, involving as it did an elaborate costume party to rival Halloween, and traditionally demanding, as part of the celebration requirements, drunkenness to the point where one couldn't tell the goodness of Mordecai (the hero of our story) from the evil of Haman (the would-be Hitler of this episode).

Every year for Purim, all the girls, pretty or plain, would do their damnedest to dress up like Queen Esther, the Jewish woman who won a beauty contest (the Bess Myerson of her time?), married the king of Persia, and through guile and goodness, saved her people from ruin. I can remember the ritual before going to synagogue to hear the megillah read on the eve of Purim primping my hair into ringlets with my mother's hot rollers, pinning my grandmother's rhinestone tiara at the crown of my head, fuming a crocheted pink blanket into a royal cape, and wearing all the blue eyeshadow and magenta lipstick that was strictly off limits to six year olds in those days. The boys, certainly, had much less to work with, but would wear a beard and sackcloth to portray the righteous Mordecai, the usual crown and cloak and dagger to play King Ahasveros, and if they were feeling beastly and rebellious and mischievous, they'd dress as Haman, wearing clothes that took their inspiration more from Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten than whatever villains of that day were meant to look like.

And a good time was had by all.

The one Purim character no girls ever dressed as--unless they were supremely confident or prematurely subversive--was Queen Vashti, the first wife of Ahasveros, who was summarily executed in the first chapter of the megillah after refusing to appear naked before the king at a banquet he was holding for a few hundred of his closest and most intimate friends. It seems that, about seven days into this drunken revelry, Ahasveros got it in his head that Vashti ought to come out and show off her bare beauty to all his guests, and for whatever reason, she (wisely or foolishly, depending on your politics) refused. This, of course, set the stage for Esther to become the new queen (you know the rules of drama: if a gun appears in the first act, it must go off by the third), and so, in the world of biblical binary oppositions, Vashti has to be the villainess to Esther's image of sweetness and light.

I don't remember ever thinking twice about Vashti at the time. We were taught in Hebrew school that she had pimples, that she was vain, that she was disobedient, that she was wicked, and that she deserved to die. Certainly, it was never suggested that she might have had a sane and logical reason for refusing to appear--a sense of personal modesty or fear of what a room full of drunken men might do to a disrobed woman, queen or not (after all if the king had so little trouble banishing Vashti from this world, why would she suspect he would protect her from, say, something as trivial as gang-rape?). It wasn't until much later, attending Purim services in college, that in my boredom with the awkwardness of the reader, I started to study the megillah closely and realized that all the implications of Vashti as virago, termagant, hellion and whatever else were nowhere to be found in the text itself. In fact, her appearance is abbreviated, at best. All we know is that she refused to be the entertainment at the royal banquet (didn't they have harem girls for this sort of dirty work anyway?). Yes, it's true that one of the king's adviser's--one of the men who, I might add, did nothing to prevent the king from carrying out the final solution to the Jewish problem that Haman proposed, and is hence guilty by act of omission--when asked how Vashti ought to be punished for her disobedience, says that she not only sinned against the king, but also against all the men of Persia whose wives might be tempted to follow the queen's example, thus creating a full-fledged Lysistrata-type scenario. So this particular character advocated capital punishment for Vashti, but nowhere in the text's narration are we told of this woman's character at all. Nowhere does it indicate that she had designs on the Jewish people, or that she was ugly, blemished or anything else. How all these qualities have been attributed to her in the years since the megillah was written I don't know. Certainly, Judaism has a proud tradition of biblical interpretation by rabbis throughout the centuries--that is, in fact, what comprises the whole of the Talmud. But while it spices up the story--and enhances Esther's image as the righteous woman--there is no reason that Vashti must be portrayed as evil. This is an embellishment of myth, legend and tradition that has no textual basis.

To say that the Bible offers short shrift to its female characters is to point out a tedious truism that has been remarked on often enough. It also overlooks the fact that the Bible, and certainly the Old Testament with its judgmental and jealous God, often makes its male characters look weak, unstable and corruptible as well. Even Moses is denied entry to the land of Canaan for a brief loss of faith. But most women in the Bible--even the good ones make their appearances as gossips, tramps and victims: Moses' sister Miriam gets leprosy for speaking badly of her brother's Ethiopian (read: black) wife Zipporah; the wife of Potifar tries to seduce his loyal adviser, Joseph, and instead ends up tearing his clothes off and sending him running naked for miles to escape her desires; Dinah and Tamar are rape victims; Leah, forced upon Jacob as a wife though he really wants to marry her prettier younger sister Rachel, is described as teary-eyed and morose, and is compensated for her lack of physical attractiveness with great fecundity; and, of course Eve, who was spawned of Adam's rib, brings down all of humanity by befriending the serpent and eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Given these images, that Harold Bloom could suggest that the so-called Book of J was written by a woman seems either supremely silly or deliberately provocative.

But the story of Purim is one in which Queen Esther is posited as a heroine, a woman of valor, a mighty image of feminine courage that has endured through the ages. That's why little girls dress up as Esther on Purim year in and year out. Still, it strikes me that even Esther's heroism--brought about, though it was, by earning the title of Miss Persian Empire--was damped as a woman's achievement by the villainy of Vashti that seems to necessarily accompany it.

In the secular world, Kate Millett's bestselling Sexual Politics, along with many more obscure and didactic studies of gender and leading, have revealed the insidious sexism of the great literature of Hemingway, Mailer, D.H. Lawrence and others. Certainly, feminist scholars have, in a scattershot way, exposed the sexism of the Bible and other ancient texts so that it is easier to see Jezebel and Delilah, Medusa and Medea, as heroines in their own right, women acting defiantly and making use of what little power they were allotted--or that they stole for themselves--in a patriarchal society. Lilith, the original Eve who was supposedly drowned by God for refusing to have sex with Adam, is now the name of a Jewish feminist literary magazine. But just as most Jews are not likely to be sufficiently orthodox that the men recite a blessing every day thanking God that they are not women, most people are not likely to be reading books written by Ph.D. candidates and professors, published by academic presses, arguing against the Bible's misogyny. What they are exposed to, however, are the holidays and tales and Bible stories that every Jew with a rudimentary interest in Judaism comes into contact with. And it is in this context that the story of Vashti is told.

In a recent essay, the poet Katha Pollitt wrote about the implicit sexism of the popular animated feature The Little Mermaid, and worried about the effects that movie would have on her young daughter. Entire seminars have been held to reexamine all sorts of prejudices in the works of the Brothers Grimm. And these are just fairy tales. But Judaism is a living religion, practiced on some level even by Jews who claim to be atheists. For many people, the Bible is a living document, a record of the word of God, a blueprint for life much like the American Constitution. The story of Purim is taught to children not as a cute bit of folklore but as a piece of history, as nothing less than the truth. And in the case of Vashti, the problem is not even with the Bible itself--it's with the way it is being taught. While religious people are, justifiably, wary of any suggestions to change the text itself to make it more modern and readable--and less sexist--they could hardly object to altering the way it is taught so that Vashti can be seen as brave--or at the very least, not evil--in her defiance of the king. After all, how are girls going to grow up to be strong, self-determined women when one of the first things they learn is that if you get pimples and refuse to pose nude in public, you deserve to get killed? What kind of message is that?
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Copyright © 1998 Elizabeth Wurtzel.