Another of those happy, perhaps significant calendar coincidences. Today is the 101th International Women’s Day which was proclaimed by the Socialist Second International and first celebrated on March 18. 1911. It had been inspired by a 1909 observance by the Socialist Party in the United States.
That’s a pretty big deal and a noble heritage.
But there is a far older game afoot.
Last night at sunset began the 14th Day of Adar in the ancient Jewish lunar calendar which will end at sunset tonight. Jews the world over mark this day a Purim. The tale behind one of the gayest and most festive of Jewish holidays is complex but boils down to this:
A young girl, Esther, is picked by a drunken Persian king to be his new bride. She keeps her Jewish identity a secret. Meanwhile her protector and cousin Mordecai discovers a plot to kill the king and by informing saves his life. The King appoints the vain and treacherous Haman as his new vizier. Haman is offended when Mordecai is insufficiently obsequious to him in public. Miffed, he plots to have not just Mordecai, but all of the Jews of kingdom killed. He gets the king, who has been participating in public drinking festivals for six months and is perhaps a tad addled, to sign such a decree.
After sending words to the Jews of the kingdom to join in a three day fast and prayer Esther gets the king drunk yet again at a royal drinking festival that she hosts with Haman among the guests. After the first night of debauchery Esther reads to the King the annals of Mordecai’s life saving service. Then asks Haman what boon the King should give to a man who has done him great service. Vainly thinking she means him, Haman says the honoree should be dressed in the royal robes and paraded before the people on the king's own horse.
The king astounds Haman by bestowing the boon on Mordecai and orders him to see that the command is carried out.
On the second night of the Festival Esther reveals that she is Jewish as is her cousin and that by the edict the king himself had signed all of her people, and she herself were marked for death. Outraged, the king orders Haman hung on the gallows built for Mordecai and names the Jew as his new Vizier. He cannot revoke his own edict, but he issues another which allows Jews to arm themselves and slay their attackers. On the 13th Day of Adar the planned attacks are launched but the Jews slay their attackers by the hundreds and thousands, including all seven sons of Haman.
The Jewish people are saved and flourish for a while as never before in exile.
Purim celebrates the deliverance exuberantly with costumed recreations of the story, noise makers meant to drown out Haman’s name whenever it is read in the telling of the story, special foods, and, of course plenty of drinking and merrymaking.
The story of Esther, heroine and savior of her People, resonates with women whether Jewish or Gentile.
This year in the U.S. women have found victories long ago won under attack. At every turn we read of Rick Santorum, Republican U.S. Senators, troglodyte state legislators, Rush Limbaugh, and the usual suspects.
So naturally, I have committed poetry once again.
Purim/International Women’s Day
14th day of Adar 5772/March 8, 2012
Queen Esther tossed her head,
gleaming black hair
tumbling to those lovely shoulders
that had enticed a lecher King.
Her people, the Women of another age,
leaned toward her
waiting her word.
She cast her blazing eyes upon them,
and spoke at last.
“So many Hamans. Where shall we begin?”