Woody Allen once wrote about a mixed-marriage couple: he was an atheist and she was an agnostic. Fine distinctions in religion can often cause more conflict than large differences. How will they raise the children? In an extreme of such subtleties, Allen also wrote of a mythical beast – the Flying Roe – which had the head of a lion and the body of a lion, though not the same lion.
As we approach the Jewish festival of Purim, the story of Queen Esther, it is interesting to examine what parts have been grafted, like the lion’s head, on to the body of what is today mostly a secular holiday. It is a strange melding of pagan and Jewish themes. Esther, who is Jewish in the story, has a name that is a variant of the pagan name Ishtar (or the goddess Venus). Esther’s gentile husband is Ahasueras, who is a Persian king. Purim seems to have evolved out of an earlier festival that worshipped the Babylonian god Marduk and had became familiar to the Jews during their Babylonian exile. Esther’s cousin’s name, Mordecai (a name variant on the god Marduk) shows how the pagan roots of this story have been forced into an awkward Jewish mold.
So what, then, makes this a Jewish tale? There are many elements. It is a story that became popular to a people in exile. It is part of the long tradition of Jews absorbing parts of their surrounding culture, yet remaining a people apart. It celebrates the common Jewish dream of the triumph of clever wit over crude brutality. It has a heroine who is very adaptable, but with a hard core of loyalty to her identity as a Jew and to her fellow Jews in a time of trouble. Esther risked her life to assert her right, and the right of her people, to be Jewish in whatever way they chose. This holiday is perfect for Allen’s mixed marriage couple.
It celebrates a feisty and courageous Jewish character (Queen Esther) and the triumph of freedom over oppression, but human initiative is the theme throughout and there is no mention at all of the Jewish God. It also features Esther’s mixed marriage, in the long Jewish tradition of people like Moses and his Cushite wife, who was probably Ethiopian or Sudanese. Esther did not feel that she was compromising her Jewish identity by marrying the Persian king. And she did not fail to assert that identity when the crisis in the story came. Purim can be seen as a celebration of Jewish solidarity in a time of danger, but also as one of reaching out to someone with a different background.
From Olden Days
Jonah Brodtman, 8 and Mickey Stepanskiy, 7, advance their game pieces forward while playing a board game . Photo by Amy Mortensen.