Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Goyish Explanation of Purim—and Poetry

Queen Esther

Note—Last night at sunset the 14th Day of Adar began in the ancient Jewish lunar calendar.  Jews the world over mark the day as Purim.  It is sort of like a soap opera on steroids with all the sex, violence, and substance abuse you can handle. But it is celebrated as one of the gayest and most festive of Jewish holidays. 

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 in exile as never before. 

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.

As you may have noticed, when calendar events collide, as they do this year with Purim falling on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, I often concoct a poem out of it.  But what the hell can you do with that particular cultural mismatch.  True, when immigrant Jews and the Irish met in the slums of Boston the result became the corned beef and cabbage that runs a close second to green beer as a staple of American St. Paddy’s day celebrations.  But what spiritual connections can be made?  I mean the legend of Queen Maeve is also a yarn of royalty rife with violence, betrayal, and sex, but the contexts don’t mesh easily.

However in 2012 by a happy coincidence, Purim and International Women’s Day coincided.  I could not help but draw some parallels and, of course, committed poetry.  And I am sharing it again because I like it and because I can.  This is what I wrote.

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.
                        She laughed.

Her people, the Women of another age,
            leaned toward her
            waiting her word.

She cast her blazing eyes upon them,
            laughed again
            and spoke at last.

“So many Hamans.  Where shall we begin?”

—Patrick Murfin

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