Weird, maybe, but wholesome enough. Right?
That’s what I thought when I was a kid. And it’s what I kept thinking until I had kids of my own and saw the holiday, and the story behind it, in a new light.
It started when I read a Book of Esther picture book to my son and daughter one night before bed, hoping the Old Testament story would wind them down, maybe even lull them to sleep.
Because the book was made for children I assumed it would simplify the story, which is, after all, a convoluted one: A queen in Persia is banished; the king sends for another; he chooses a nice Jewish girl; a bad minister with personal baggage turns the king against the Jews; the nice Jewish girl saves her people; the bad minister gets hanged. All this and I haven’t even mentioned the myriad plot holes.
The picture book simplified nothing. Not only did it include every twist and turn, it also included things I had forgotten or maybe never quite understood. Esther, the nice Jewish girl who becomes the queen and the story’s hero, is first a concubine trapped in a harem with lots of other concubines. Ahasuerus, the king, acts surprised that his minister is killing the Jews, but he is the one who signed off on the idea in the first place. Oh, and when the Jews finally topple the bad minister, they immediately go on a killing spree to wipe out his people, the Persians.
Here it all was, in vivid color!
My kids sat up straighter. They weren’t sleepy at all. They had questions.
What happened to the king’s first queen? Why does the king get to choose any maiden he wants? What even is a maiden? Why does Esther’s uncle tell her not to tell the king she’s Jewish?
“Oh that,” I said weakly. This was another thing I hadn’t thought about, but now it hit me that the Book of Esther has a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy written into it.
Their other questions weren’t any easier to answer. “Um, the king’s first queen is banished because she refuses to parade in front of him and his friends.” (Naked, I did not say, because how to explain that?) “And the king gets to choose anyone he wants because, um, he’s a king? And, yes, a maiden.” (Only one of my kids at that point knew what sex was.) “Well, a maiden, in this case, is basically a teenage girl.”
Egad. Hearing myself, I closed the book. When my children protested, I put it on a high shelf, promising we could read it again tomorrow and they could ask more questions then … even as I hoped they would forget about it.
It was one of those parenting moments that left me both embarrassed and annoyed by my lack of preparation. Why had no one ever taught me Purim basically revolves around a queen’s nudity, a teen concubine and ethnic cleansing?
I knew why, of course. No one had taught me any of this for the same reasons I put the book away. It was difficult to explain. It shined a not-great light on our people. It was chock-full of the kinds of bigotry, sexism, inequity and outright cruelty most adults have not figured out how to talk about.
Purim came and went that year. We did not go to the carnival or the play.
The book made its way back down from the shelf. My children wanted to read it again. And again. They were drawn to the story by the very things that made me want to avoid it — the characters’ dubious behaviors and the story’s many hypocrisies and all the questions tricky to answer.
I wish I could say I was ready to face their queries, but apart from not hiding the book, I did not do much better. I dodged and deflected. I did what I have come to think is one of the worst things a parent can do when facing a challenging story with our kids: I tried to smooth over the ugly parts by saying, “That’s how things used to be,” or “That used to be something people said.” This also had been my approach when we came to the virulent anti-Native racism in “Little House on the Prairie,” or when we arrived at the scenes in just about any old Disney movie where a character is reduced to caricature on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity or nationality. “This was made a long time ago.” As if contemporary books and movies are free of such problems.
My kids knew better. Now 12 and 7, they have come into consciousness during a time when, for better and worse, it’s impossible not to know better. “But women’s bodies are still treated like objects,” my daughter said, speaking of Esther. “And the president is sexist and seems mean,” my son added, pointing to the king. “People are being attacked for just being who they are,” one of my kids continued. “Like the color of their skin or their religion or where they come from.”
They forced me to reckon with the story. Once we were talking, it was easier than I had imagined. Instead of me telling them what I wished were true, we entered a conversation together about the truth. Instead of me trying to make the story something it was not, we tried to learn something from what it is. We talked about the power dynamics they witness and experience in their own lives. We talked about Israelis and Palestinians thousands of miles away and about refugee families we have met here in New York. We talked about how people sometimes create stories, often out of desperation, as a way of feeling better about themselves.
In separate research I had begun for a novel, I was discovering Purim, like most carnival holidays, was about turning existing social structures upside down and inside out — it was meant to provide an escape valve, however temporary, from lives that often felt, and were, inescapable. A hero might turn out to be a villain, or a villain a hero. The low might be brought high, and the mightiest brought low.
Which raised another set of fruitful questions. What if the categories we so easily fall into using, for other people and for ourselves, aren’t as solid as they appear?
Recently I learned adults watching the Purim play are commanded to get so drunk by the end they can no longer tell the difference between the good guys and the bad ones. No wonder all the grown-ups in my childhood memories seemed to be having such a good time. It also struck me this commandment might be a decent metaphor for one of our most important tasks as parents: to raise children who understand that the divisions the world so often presents — good/bad, rich/poor, smart/dumb, able/unable, member/outsider — are as flawed and fluid as human beings are complex. A parent who thinks she is doing her best to protect her kids can turn out to be complicit in protecting the very inequities she says she wants to fight.
My approach to uncomfortable stories is different now. I have moved from defending or excusing them to embracing them. So we will go to the Purim play this year. And afterward, we will talk about it and about our world, as it is and as we want it to be.