An excerpt from This Jewish Life by Debra Darvick
The Story of Valerie Peckler
The Purim story is the first story of the Bible that deals in a modern ambiguity—disaster is averted, things work out in the end, but God is not explicitly in the text. There are no showy miracles in the Book of Esther—no splitting seas, no walls crumbling before the sound of a trumpet. What you have instead is a series of coincidences and ironic twists and turns. An obscure Jewish girl becomes queen and is thus in the right place at the right time to save her people. The king’s evil viceroy plots against the Jews and in the end is himself punished with death. Esther’s uncle foils a plot to murder the king. On a sleepless night, the king is reminded of this good deed, richly rewarding Mordechai while humbling Haman.
Things work out in the Book of Esther because people take risks. Did God put Esther in the palace and Mordechai within earshot of the plotters? Did He hoist Haman on his own petard? It’s up to the individual reader to decide. What is unambiguous is that the element of human intervention averted disaster.
Esther, eponymous heroine of the Purim story, is as human as they come. She is one of many maidens brought to the king’s court for consideration to become his queen. Initially, Mordechai advises her to conceal her Jewish identity. When the Jews are threatened with annihilation, Mordechai urges Esther to tell the king the truth. Esther has to be willing to risk her life to save the Jewish people, her people.
Esther faces a struggle many Jews today face. How “out” do we want to be vis à vis our Judaism? Do we speak up when a co-worker tells a Jew joke, or do we remain quiet so as not to make waves? Do we take opportunities to educate people about Judaism, or let the opportunities pass? As I have become more observant, the Esther issue is certainly present. People who don’t know me well think I just happen to like hats. Others who know me better understand that the berets and baseball caps are my way of fulfilling the requirement for married women to cover their hair.
Regardless of what I do, people will identify me as a Jew, so why not enjoy all the riches that are mine because I am Jewish? Especially in the post-Holocaust era, a lot of people are edgy on some deep, unspoken level; they feel threatened or embarrassed to be open about their Jewish identity. You have to go through the fear and deal with it. We are a minority, and a lot of horrible things have happened to us throughout the centuries. Being visible means being vulnerable. I look at it this way: even the most assimilated Jews in Nazi Germany were murdered, so I might as well enjoy my heritage and celebrate my inheritance.
Different people do things differently. We Jews are different and so we do things differently. But that doesn’t mean our way is wrong, second class, or better. It stands on its own merits. It is beautiful, enlivening and filled with wisdom.
In the Book of Esther, Haman said to the king, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the other people in all the provinces of your realm whose laws are different from those of any other people. … it is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” Haman painted these differences as a horrible thing. Some Jews react to their difference with a squirmy feeling of discomfort. Sometimes that discomfort is the result of ignorance.
I look at the difference my Judaism creates as an opportunity for joy and learning. I approach being Jewish in what has been called a counter phobic manner. We Jews have a lot of good stuff going on. Why not share it? I dispel anti-Semitic myths by being myself. I enjoy being kind and generous. I do so openly and joyfully. When others perceive these qualities, they will know that this kind and generous person is also a Jew. If they have been raised with the image of the stingy Jew, they will have living proof that it is a slanderous lie.
I consider Purim a wonderful part of my religious inheritance because it combines two of my favorite things about being Jewish—entertaining and food. We are commanded to share gifts of food—mishloach manot—with friends and family. When the kids were young, we would make up a huge mishloach manot basket to put in the teachers’ lounge. In the fall for Rosh HaShanah, I brought in honey cakes to wish everyone a sweet New Year. Bringing hamantaschen was another aspect of sharing who we were. Putting the sweets in the teachers’ lounge (as opposed to distributing individual baskets to each teacher) impacted a large number of people and created a forum for positive discussion and sharing.
My family lives within two calendar systems. Since Purim comes when no other commercial holidays are being marketed, it really got a lot of attention. People like to be remembered, and this was a great way to do something nice for my kids’ teachers and teach them something about their students’ heritage. After a few years, the teachers would start asking me in February when the basket of those “really good apricot, prune, and poppy seed cookies” was coming. We weren’t teaching religion; we were simply sharing something we loved about our Jewish life.
One year I got a call from one of my kids’ teachers who is Jewish. She had shared part of the Purim basket with her class, and a student’s mother became incensed when she heard about it. The mother was enraged that Mrs. L was “teaching religion” in the school. I’m a good cook, but I’ve never had one of my desserts compared to a religious experience. The biggest irony, of course, is that God’s name isn’t even in the Book of Esther. This is a story about a people on the verge of annihilation whose destruction was averted by the courage of one young woman.
Mrs. L was brought before the superintendent. The teacher’s Irish Catholic lawyer instructed the superintendent on the law of the land. She was able to keep her job. The issue finally blew over, but I thought, “If they can’t handle Purim hamantaschen, what are they going to do with Ramadan?” God has become the last obscenity. I don’t have a problem with nativity scenes. For me, the problem comes when people try to say that anything to do with Jesus is American and not religious, and anything do to with Judaism is religious and therefore subversive.
The fallout from the hamantaschen incident inspired me not only to bring candy and hamantaschen to work on Purim, but to dress up, as well. Why shouldn’t I? My co-workers come dressed as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on Halloween.
It’s terrible to feel so vulnerable that something as innocent as a cookie is perceived as a threat. We need to change people’s perceptions and enable them to feel free enough to enjoy their own culture and want to share it with others. I share who I am with an open hand and heart. I leave aside the fear. I love my tradition; it’s who I am. Judaism provides color, depth and community in my life. It connects me in time to a living ancient tradition.
And I never miss an opportunity to make the world safe for pastry.
This story is a section from my book, This Jewish Life. The book contains more personal stories like this one. Fifty-four voices enable readers to experience a calendar’s worth of Judaism’s strengths — community, healing, transformation of the human spirit, and the influence of the Divine. This Jewish Life is a year in the life of a contemporary Jew told by a variety of individuals.
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