An Adult Look at the Less-Than-Savory Truths of Purim

Rabbi Sari Laufer

Oh, once there was a wicked wicked man, and Haman was his name, sir.

He lied and lied about the Jews, though they were not to blame, sir.

Wait, hold up!

Now, my husband would tell you that I have a knack for imagining I learned song lyrics differently from others (until my last breath, I really believe we used to sing: “Little Bunny Foo Foo, I don’t like your attitude.”) Perhaps I’m not the most trustworthy on song lyrics, but trust me when I say that, growing up, our lyrics were a little different:

Oh, once there was a wicked, wicked man, and Haman was his name, sir.

He would have murdered all the Jews, though they were not to blame, sir.

Now, as the parent of young children, I appreciate the pivot. I understand age-appropriate learning, and I’m thankful I don’t need to explain genocide to my 3-year-old just yet. Purim is, and should be, a joyous holiday, a raucous holiday, a time for fun and frivolity.

But there’s also a dark side to the Purim story, and I think it’s time we let the grownups in on some truths. I don’t want to be the one to burst your bubble, but there are a couple of things you might not have known about the Purim story…and this list is by no means exhaustive.                                                      

1. Vashti probably didn’t head off to an exotic island.

The story begins with the king’s first wife, Vashti, who has become a feminist hero for her refusal to parade and dance naked in front of the king and his cronies. It was not just her refusal that incensed the king, but the fear that she might incite a Lysistrata-esque resistance amongst the women of the land (#neverthelessshepersisted).

While our standard telling of the tale suggests a no-fault divorce of some kind, the rabbinic tradition is far less kind to Vashti. Midrashim (rabbinic stories) imagine banishment at best, beheading at worst. Imagine what we could teach our sons and daughters about their bodies, and about consent, as it became appropriate for them to learn about what really happened to Vashti.

2. Queen Esther did not enter the Miss America pageant.

In our attempt to pretty up Purim and make it palatable for our littlest learners, we’ve set the story in an innocent beauty pageant, the stuff of pretty dresses and sparkly jewels. In reality, as I recently read,

“the voiceless, virginal Esther is delivered, by whom we're not told), to the king's harem. There she spends a year, ‘six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and feminine cosmetics’ (Esther 2:12), under the tutelage of seven court-appointed handmaidens, preparing for a sexual liaison with Ahasuerus. If she fails to win the king's favor and become the queen, she faces a lifetime sentence as a royal concubine.”

Then, as now, women’s bodies were seen as commodities, as something to barter and trade. We cannot ignore it then, as we cannot ignore it now.

3. At the end of the story, we did not just “nosh some hamantaschen.”

Growing up in religious school, I can remember loudly singing “Oh, today we’ll merry merry be,” as I happily grabbed the poppy seed hamantaschen (I’m a purist, and no one else wanted them). Even today, as I tell the story to the under-5 crowd, we end with a vague: “Then the Jews were saved, and we all lived happily ever after!” – all of us, that is, except for Haman, his 10 sons, and about 75,000 other people who were killed by the Jews of Shushan in a revenge-fantasy/surprise ending to the tale.

It’s ugly, it’s bloody, and it’s the way the story actually ends. It’s difficult to find a silver lining to this ending – and maybe we’re not meant to. Maybe we’re meant to understand the impulse, of a people persecuted and targeted, to rise up against their oppressors. Maybe we’re meant to see our own impulse to extremism, in order that we not succumb to it, even in our darkest hours.

Far from being a pediatric holiday or a Jewish Halloween, there’s also a grownup side to Purim – and we don’t just mean the beverages. There’s a dark side, and we shouldn’t shy away from that, at least not as adults.

There are plenty of terrible texts in our tradition – texts that challenge the stories we’ve been told, texts that challenge our values, texts that challenge our visions of what Judaism is and should be. From the moment we become a people, though, we are b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel – the ones who wrestle. We teach our children to question, to explore, to grapple with holding hard truths and competing narratives.

Underneath and in the midst of the costume parades and funny shpiels, Purim carries with it significant lessons – about sovereignty and oppression, about identity and pride, and about speaking truth to power, even when it is hard and scary. They are lessons for the young and the young at heart, just packaged differently. I do not expect to tell my 3-year-old all the dirty details of the King and his cronies. But us grownups? We can handle it. And nosh some hamantaschen.