By Rev. Carol Bodeau
This month includes one of my favorite holidays to celebrate, but it is a holiday that is often ignored in contemporary popular culture: Purim.
Purim is the Jewish celebration of the story of Queen Esther, who saved her people from the evil Haman, who advised the King of Persia to slay all the Jews in his kingdom. Esther, a Jew herself who has been basically drafted into the king’s harem, wins favor and becomes queen. She is then able to convince her king to spare her people, and have the evil Haman punished.
In some communities, Purim is celebrated with a ‘Purim-spiel,’ a play in which characters act out the story of Esther, often in some modern or quasi-modern setting. These Purim-spiel are always musicals. For example, there have been 70s’ style Purim-spiels; Purim set to the music of Grease or to the songs of Disney movies; Purim as the musical South Pacific; rap Purim; etc. You get the idea. At Westside, a few years ago our children helped us put on a Winnie the “Pooh-rim” spiel. I really enjoy this creative and fun way to share stories that have been sacred to generations of people in both the Jewish and Christian traditions.
But this year, Purim took on new meaning for me when I listened to an audio book that told the story in a new way. The book, Christian historical fiction writer Lynn Austin’s While We’re Far Apart, is special for me in many ways. The book is about a young woman caring for a widowed friend’s children while he is away in WWII. Downstairs from the apartment she and the children share lives an elderly Jewish man whose son, daughter in law, and granddaughter are trapped in Hungary during the war. The first thing that was powerful for me about this book is that it showed me just how significant the story of Esther still can be for Jewish people. Here, in the context of WWII, the elderly man downstairs, who befriends and helps the young woman with the children, tells the story to help her understand just how important it is that the Jewish people be saved from persecution.
The story also powerfully shows how persecution against Jewish people was rampant in American society at that time, even as American soldiers travelled around the world to help liberate Europe from the grasp of Adolph Hitler. Of course, it also subtly reminds contemporary readers that this sort of prejudice, and persecution—against Jews and other groups—are not a thing of the past. And one of the most important things about this book for me was that it was the work of an explicitly Christian author writing to the end of eliminating anti-Semitism.
So this year, Purim still has all the feel of a fun, creative, festive way of retelling a powerful, beautiful old story. But it also has new meaning for me, as a story that speaks deep wisdom about the history of an entire culture, the Jewish people, and as a warning against the sorts of prejudice and persecution that are so easily perpetrated when the ‘safe’ groups are just not paying close enough attention.
I encourage you to read the story of Esther, in the Hebrew scriptures, and consider its wisdom for our time. How can we be like Esther, and speak truth to power that is dangerous? How can we be like her wise cousin, Mordecai, who is a true advisor and better suited to serve the people than the power-hungry, self-serving Haman? And what stories do you have in your family, your community, your traditions, that need a closer look, to truly embrace the wisdom and ageless truth they contain?
I look forward to hearing what other stories we might all reconsider, and learn anew the wisdom of the ages.