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Embracing the Jew-fro: lessons on beauty from Esther

Purim is as much a story about gender persecution as it is about anti-Semitism. Some years ago, a rabbi gave a shiur suggesting that the oppression of women that emerges in chapter one of the Megillah is a foreshadowing of the hatred of Jews which takes up the story from chapter three.

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Religion

ADINA ROTH

Our first encounter with women in the story is with the complex character, Vashti, who is invited to the feast of Achashverosh “with her royal crown”. Our rabbis comment, “with her crown, and nothing else” – Vashti is invited to the feast without clothes to slavishly please the gaze of a horde of drunken men. By saying no, Vashti ruffles the king and his advisors. She is dismissed, and a totalitarian edict goes out to the entire Persian empire (foreshadowing the edict against the Jewish people): men must rule their homes, and women must speak the language of their husbands.

In the very next chapter, Achashverosh wants a new wife! This chapter describes an ancient beauty pageant which takes place in a royal harem where women anxiously and laboriously prepare their bodies to be gazed at and evaluated by the king. Guided by the king’s eunuchs, the women are subjected to a rigorous beauty regime which puts our visits to Sorbet to shame: “six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics”. Only when they are deemed ready, are they called before the king, so that he can gaze at each woman and determine whether she is beautiful enough to become queen.

The reader is invited to see this rigorous beauty pageant as a pendulum swing against the disobedient Vashti. In chapter one, she refused to be looked at by the king and his friends. In chapter two, Achashverosh makes the point that he can look at any woman he chooses and more, and women will dedicate their every hour to preparing for the very moment when he will cast his gaze on them. Esther, a young Jewish woman, is forcefully taken into this demeaning finishing school for would-be queens, and has to navigate a double oppression, the fear of anti-Semitism and her subjection to the gaze and beauty standards of a harsh patriarchy. How does she navigate this space?

When each woman was called before the king, we are told “whatever she asked for would be given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace”. One imagines each woman going laden with bags of beauty adornments and cosmetics, nervous about her night with the king. Yet, when Esther is called before the king, we are presented with calm antithesis: “She did not ask for anything but what Hegai, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the women, advised.”

Esther adopts a minimalist approach to her beauty routine. Forsaking the intense use of accoutrements, she seems to go au naturelle. Yet, we are told, Esther won the admiration of all who saw her. The text subtly suggests that Esther preserves her dignity in these undignified circumstances. On the one hand, she conceals her core Jewish self, yet in refusing the tyranny of this beauty regime, it’s possible that she doesn’t disguise her Jewish features.

We are many centuries away from the story of Purim, yet we might easily recognise ourselves in this beauty pageant. From botox to diets to tummy tucks to high fashion, aren’t we also somehow bound by our “six months of myrrh and six months of cosmetics?”

In the past few weeks, a video has been doing the rounds called Be A Lady They Said. The video critiques the pressure women are under to meet the beauty standards of Western culture. From being told that too much is wrong, and then being told that too little is wrong, the video explores the ways in which the dictates around women’s bodies and women’s appearance in our culture aren’t that different from the harem of Achashverosh. Indeed, these beauty ideals can be even more crushing for minority groups whose stereotypical features don’t conform to the dominant group culture. I’m thinking now of Jewish women.

Marc Oppenheimer and Stephanie Butnick, the hosts of the popular Jewish podcast, Unorthodox, reflected recently on the ways in which Jewish women can display their Jewishness visibly. Traditionally, men have the option of a kippah, but women don’t have straightforward ways of displaying their Jewishness publicly. A hair covering denotes marriage. A long skirt denotes religiosity. But what of a woman who wants to simply show her Jewishness? At the end of the discussion, Oppenheimer came up with some unexpected words of advice: “How about if you have really, really curly hair and you are always straightening it or blowing it dry, then just stop, just look more Semitic. If you are somebody who is in some way toning down Semitic features, stop, just stop. I’m putting it out there – let your Jewfro fly.”

In Oppenheimer’s candid and clever manner, he was drawing on an irony which could cut deep for many Jewish women. We might aspire to wear Jewish symbols to celebrate our Jewishness, yet our beauty routines suggest an aspiration to “remove the Jew” from our look, whether it’s by getting rid of our curls or straightening our noses. We aspire to look somewhat more, well, Scandinavian.

Oppenheimer’s comment reminded me of a story my mother told me. She attended a government school in Johannesburg in the 1960s, and she described how she was teased mercilessly by girls with their perfect, straight, blonde hair, because her hair was dark, frizzy, and “Jewish looking”. One can imagine Esther entering into a very similar kind of world in the Persian beauty contest. Yet, we are told by the text, “she didn’t ask for a thing” (of beauty improvement). Is it possible that Esther might have opted for her Semitic features, even though she dared not say she was Jewish? In a world where black women fight dominant beauty standards with the notion of “black is beautiful”, one wonders what would it look like to really celebrate and embrace the beauty of a Jewish woman.

I can’t say for sure, but I want to believe that Esther was somehow able to do what Oppenheimer advises Jewish women to do. She couldn’t tell anyone she was Jewish, yet she took pains not to disguise her Jewish features. Perhaps she flounced her fro. Thus, the Megillah of Esther is a Jewish feel-good story in more ways than one. The anti-Semitic Haman and his gang are thwarted, and the king falls in love with a Jewish girl who actually looks Jewish!

In reading about Esther this Purim, we modern Jewish women might want to reflect on beauty. Purim’s message is certainly that beauty is about an internal sense of values, about acting with courage and authenticity. But an additional message might be that the externals of beauty are more about appearing as ourselves than minimising our Jewish features. For Jewish women, isn’t it time to step out of the Western beauty pageant, and celebrate our Semitic inheritance, to “let our Jew-fro fly”?

  • Adina Roth runs B’tocham Education in Johannesburg, teaching courses to B’neimitzvah and Tanach and Midrash to adults. She is also a Melton educator, and a clinical psychologist in private practice. She is currently the national chairperson of Limmud SA.

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Religion

Why we refuse to forget

Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.

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Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?

They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.

Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews never had history. We have memory.” History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.

Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They weren’t weeping for themselves or their lost liberties, but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.

And, because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And, because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over while our victors have been vanquished by time. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.

Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people, and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days, and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.

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Religion

Strength in diversity

The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

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Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul

Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.

The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”

The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.

In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.

The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.

And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.

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Religion

Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health

There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)

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Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy

The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?

The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.

What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?

Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.

Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.

Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.

In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.

Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.

The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.

Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.

Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.

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