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The Megillah that might have been



Last year some time, in an attempt to show us, a group of eager, but unsure English honours students what a bad argument looks like, one of my lecturers quipped, “It’s like writing an essay arguing that Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet was a feminist figure!”

At first, this was difficult to decode. Elizabeth is strong. She speaks her mind. She even rejects Darcy, and his inheritance of £10 000 a year. However, as my lecturer pointed out, feminism, at its core, is about equal rights and equal opportunities, regardless of gender. Elizabeth Bennet may be admirable, but nowhere in Pride and Prejudice is she concerned with the overall status of women.

This is a common mistake. We equate strong, outspoken women with feminists, especially fictional, or historical women, who are unable to correct or contradict us. In the story of Purim, Esther and her eponymous Biblical book is cast in the same role. The internet is littered with articles: “Esther is a postcolonial feminist icon”; “Was I, Esther, a feminist?”

There’s no doubt that Esther deserves our respect. She plucks up the courage to approach King Ahasuerus, even though by doing so, she’s putting her life at risk. She hatches a plan to save her people, and curries favour with the king and Haman. In the end, she reveals her Jewish identity to Ahasuerus, and demands that her life and her people are spared from Haman’s evil decree. Esther is brave and she is smart.

At the same time, Esther is also constrained. This is best illustrated in the Megillah’s strange and unexpected conclusion. For nine chapters, the focus has been on the tightly-packed, tense drama between Haman and the Jewish people. The Jews are saved, and the Megillah concludes, “Now Esther’s order confirmed these matters [the matters of Purim], and it was inscribed in the book.” This, it would seem, is the logical end to the story.

However, there’s a short, final chapter – one that’s often forgotten. Chapter 10 of the Megillah details Mordechai’s rise to greatness, and ends with the line, “For Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to King Ahasuerus and great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all their seed.” This is the line that sticks with us when we finish the reading.

Each year, when we get to the end of the Megillah, I have the same question: Why is everything all about Mordechai all of a sudden? What happened to Esther? I thought this was her story? The answer is, of course, that it’s both their stories. But in the world of fifth century Persia, it was always going to be Mordechai’s story.

Mordechai needed Esther to negotiate with the king. She acted as a token, as a piece, in a larger game of power played between men: Mordechai, Ahasuerus, and Haman. Ultimately, Esther is pushed out of the narrative, as Mordechai’s prominence takes priority.

All that we hear of the brave, powerful Esther after the Purim story, is that she has a son, Darius, with the king. Darius eventually allows the Jewish people to return home, and urges them to rebuild their Temple.

Whereas Mordechai rises to political power after the curtain is closed, Esther is pushed into a traditional child-bearer role. This, of course, shouldn’t undermine Esther’s achievements and her agency. She did what she could within a limited system. But she didn’t – and couldn’t – overhaul that system.

The day after Purim, 8 March – and the same day as Shushan Purim – is International Women’s Day. International Women’s Day is roughly 100 years old. The first National Women’s Day was marked in the United States in 1909 by the Socialist Party in honour of the garment worker’s strike. Interestingly, the feminist agenda hasn’t shifted much since. Garment workers, specifically those in the Global South, are predominantly women. These workers rarely earn a living wage and work in difficult conditions. Their plight is one of the most pressing feminist issues of our day. Women’s Day became international the next year at the initiative of Clara Zetkin, the leader of the Social Democrats in pre-war Germany.

International Women’s Day is about celebrating the centuries of fighting for women’s rights, and the huge advancements that have been made. On International Women’s Day, we can look at a figure like Esther and be proud of her: of her power, her strength, and her courage. At the same time, we can celebrate that today, the Megillah would have ended differently. Esther would be able to be the only hero in her story. She wouldn’t need Mordechai. The Megillah would end with her – and just her.

This week offers us a special opportunity. We get to look back at history, and we get to recognise the achievements of remarkable women – from Esther to Zetkin. We celebrate what has been done, and, at the same time, we look ahead to all there’s left to do.

  • Jessica Goldblatt is an English Literature Masters student with a passion for Jewish education and social justice.

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