By Meredith Jacobs
There is a picture in one of the old photo albums in my parent’s home, of my sister and her synagogue nursery school class dressed for Purim. All of the little girls were Esther. Most of the boys were King Ahashveros, with some of the more “vilde” ones (as my Uncle Saul would call them), Haman. But all the girls were Esther. And, why not? Esther was the beautiful and brave queen, who spoke up and saved her people from certain death.
No one wanted to be Vashti. Vashti, after all, was the evil queen. Evil because she disobeyed the king and refused to dance naked for his friends. We didn’t think of Ahashveros as her husband, but rather the king, who was to be obeyed by those with less power. Thank goodness she was banished, because that opened up the position of queen for new applicants. In the Shushan version of ZipRecruiter, the job applicants were assembled for a beauty pageant from which the king was able to select his true love.
Funny how that all made perfect sense.
I don’t know at what point I began to understand the story differently. Certainly by the time my own children were enrolled in our synagogue’s pre-school and we would dress as a family for the Megillah reading. By then, I had fully embraced Vashti as the badass who stood up to her husband and king and chose banishment over objectification. Command me to dance naked? Hell, no.
Years have passed and my little preschoolers are now college students, and once again, I understand the story of Purim differently. For the past decade, I have been involved with Jewish Women International. With a mission to end violence against women and girls, JWI has provided me the education to now understand Vashti as a survivor of abuse.
If we consider Ahashveros as a husband (king to Vashti’s queen), then his call for her to dance naked and subsequent banishment upon refusal, is abuse. And, by the way, what really happened to her after she left? Did they have children together? What happened to the children? Was she given money? Certainly, she neither possessed her own wealth nor had access to any. With this understanding, her banishment , which as a child I always assumed was her skipping off to a neighboring kingdom only to wreak havoc there, was more likely to the street and a life of begging or worse. Let’s now add financial abuse to Ahashveros’ list of deeds.
If we consider Ahashveros a person in power (king to Vashti’s courtesan), then she experienced sexual harassment. Understanding that banishment translated to poverty or death, we can better understand the bravery it took for her to say no.
In today’s era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s now time to add #IAmVashti.
I’m not sure how to wrap my head around all of this. I’m not sure how we should now teach our children or even discuss the story in our synagogues in light of our modern understanding. And, I know we have to put it in the context of the time it was written and the purpose of the story, but we must also acknowledge that it’s these little things we let slide – laughing of the abusive actions of a man as those of a “silly fool,” casting the woman who stood up to harassment and assault and refused to be objectified and degraded as being “wicked.” These messages normalize behavior and culture and understanding of the role of women and men and who really holds the power. Our children and our community deserve better.
So let’s talk about Vashti. And Ahashveros. And all their complexity. Let’s understand Vashti as a heroine and dress like her on Purim. And, let’s use her character to have an important conversation about assault and harassment.
Join JWI from now through Purim in an online communal conversation by posting on social media using #IAmVashti. Read the essays we’re curating from Jewish women about Vashti on jwi.org/magazine. Write your own essay and send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can add it to the collection.
And, Esther … I still love you. But this year, #IAmVashti.
Meredith Jacobs is COO of Jewish Women International, the leading Jewish organization working to end violence against women and girls. Jacobs is the former editor-in-chief of Washington Jewish Week and author of The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat and Just Between Us.