"I'll Give You A Topic," I wish Ester said
It is difficult, at least for me, to think of a topic for open Hebrew conversation class on Wednesday. Two Wednesdays ago, I wracked my brain; I asked friends; I even set myself up for sure disappointment by asking my brother and expecting a serious answer. His suggestions ranged from Ukraine to body parts.
I arrived at class with a Google list of 250 conversation starters and I didn’t need them. Our teacher had a series of slides and a topic selected, Purim. At first, class progressed as an unfortunate intersection of gaps in both my Hebrew vocabulary and Jewish knowledge. As any English Language Learner knows, you can’t read words you don’t know. AND, it is exceedingly difficult to retell a story when you’re afraid you’re going to miss the main events, even if you remembered them in order, to have the words you need at the right time.
Ironically though, and despite the missing details that prohibited my already limited vocabulary, I embraced this topic. I had loved the character of Ester for years. I even used aspects of her narrative in a young adult novel built from a research project around fact in fiction. Ester. Ester and her identity. Jewish. Woman. Ester and her actions. Strong. Savior.
From somewhere these words escaped my instructor’s lips, “Ester was a feminist.”
True or not, limited to scrolls, or not, I always read truth in her experience as women’s historical roles and descriptions in those roles. At the end of the class, our teacher charged us with finding examples of the Purim story for next week. Instead, I Googled, “Ester and Feminism”. The article, Vashti and Ester: A Feminist Perspective, caught my eye. After tracing the mirroring actions of two women, the article concluded,
“We struggle to draw our borders, to be open and yet traditional, free and yet constrained within halacha. Purim is a holiday in which we explore and challenge our boundaries. We dress up as other people. Some of us drink to the point where differences become blurred. In the spirit of this holiday and following the legacy of our ancestor Esther, I encourage us to reexamine whom we emulate and from whom we shy away.”
I read these words article on my phone only one click away from the pink and purple unicorn princess costume my niece had selected for the day (yet another princess, this time minus the blonde Disney wig). I understood these words against the backdrop of the same kinds of doubts and questions women often have when it comes to identifying the identifying (desirable) characteristics they own/are assigned.
How many descriptors agree with each other?
How many judge?
How many celebrate?
Wednesday came and went again. Our instructor asked for a retelling of Ester. Three men, in turn, told a part. Finally, one shared a You Tube video. The video concluded with the proclamation that all girls will celebrate Ester and dress like her.
“Like a whore?” she asks.
Her uncle answers, “Only those in high school.”
Again, a giggle easily escaped from Zoom squares, including my own. It was in jest, and yet it wasn’t a joke, when as women our tools for self-determination were or are so limited that only one costume fits.
Unlike my care when analyzing the article above, during class, so many words never arrived in my notebook. Again, that Wednesday evening, I was strategic with my energy when dedicating energy to memorization. I considered, so too, the women of history judged in their choices, and their resulting remembrance, or not. As easily as my instructor dropped the categorization of Ester’s feminism a week ago, she left us with the following that night.
אם אין אני לי מי לי
If I am not for me, who will be for me.
For my own celebration of Purim, I will imagine a topic Ester could have said, and many woman should have said in the years since. I will give you a topic, the title of Florence Given’s new book, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty. Women don't owe 'pretty' to cloak their skin nor their words.
The act of making a list of words. The words that some, too many, or none used to describe womanhood recalled my own puppeteering of characters to take on this search within myself, so I did not have to search myself. I do not celebrate Purim once a year, and yet I do, all year long I do not purchase manufactured costumes, but I wear them, daily. I construct them. I choose them. In fact, this year my sister-in-law purchased several I chose to wear at once for years, Anne of Green Gables. The hope, perhaps not unsimilar to Ester’s, would be as I grew into Anne’s contradiction, others would abandon the one-dimensional self-characterizations. My niece would grow out of the unicorn princess gown, and the high school girls their shortened skirts, unless they were their own audience, and not the king, not a people, not any other.