Women Speak: V is for Vashti

LISA KOGEN illustrates how Vashti has been transformed from a vilified harridan to a vindicated heroine of the Purim story thanks to a popular program from Women’s League

by Lisa Kogen

An increasingly popular program transforms Vashti from vilified to vindicated

Once upon a time – not so long ago – early in the month of Adar little Jewish girls would eagerly await Purim when they could dress up in glittery costumes and crowns, dripping in their mothers’ jewelry. Each envisioned herself as the ravishing Queen Esther whose unparalleled courage saved the Jews of Persia from annihilation. At the reading of the Megillah, they joined in drowning out the name of the wicked, wicked Haman and cheered for the noble Mordechai. Esther’s presence was felt only through the colorful and glittery array of her young acolytes.

Little girls know the story well. Queen Vashti refuses to appear before the drunken king and his court. The biblical text reports sparingly about this episode except that the king, spurred on by his courtiers, is outraged by his wife’s defiance. Vashti is either expelled or killed (the text does not say which) and the king commences a search for a more docile wife. Esther, concealing her Jewish identity, becomes queen. Notwithstanding the king’s fury, the text offers no value judgment about Vashti as queen or wife.

Esther – clever, pious, charming, and beautiful – ascends the throne, enshrined forever as the female hero of the Purim story. Vashti, whose behavior might be viewed as equally heroic, does not enjoy the same fate. On the contrary. Hundreds of years later, when the rabbis begin to spin their own versions of the story, Vashti joins Haman as a villain of the Purim story. She becomes Esther’s evil counterpart. As Esther is beautiful, Vashti is leprous and has donkey ears and a tail. As Esther is compassionate, Vashti is mean-spirited. And worst of all, as Esther is Torah true and pious, Vashti delights in blasphemy.

And thus Vashti remained – the leprous, conniving, Shabbat-defiling harridan – whose only crime was her refusal to be humiliated publicly. Her rehabilitation came only (and finally!) with the rise of Jewish feminism in the latter half of the 20th century. An initial salvo was fired in a provocative essay by Mary Gendler in Response (Summer, 1973), a counter-culture journal of the 1970s. In “The Vindication of Vashti,” Gendler suggests “women begin to identify also with Vashti … to discover [their] own sources of dignity, pride and independence.” More recently, Ma’ayan, the Jewish feminist resource center, created Esther/Vashti flags – vividly colored and decorated with bells – to be waved whenever Esther and Vashti’s names are heard during the reading of the Megillah.

As women redefined their roles in both the synagogue and communal life, they also began to seek new and imaginative ways to create meaningful rituals and celebrations. Among some of the most prominent and popular are the baby naming ceremony for girls, rosh chodesh study groups and the women’s seder.

Historically, the Purim celebration has centered around men. Graggers drown out Haman’s name, we cheer for Mordecai, Purim delicacies are hamentaschen, or for Sephardim ‘oznei Haman. Even during the reading of the Megillah, the Talmud prescribes that a person is to drink ad lo yada, until he doesn’t know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” It is unlikely that this mitzvah was intended for women. The only opportunity for women was to make the hamentaschen and mishloach manot. The holiday cried out for a more appropriate women’s observance.

And so Women’s League for Conservative Judaism created the female-centered Purim celebration we call Vashti’s Banquet. The first banquet was held in New York City in March of 2008 with 240 participants. A second took place in 2010 at the biennial convention in Baltimore with more than 500 women enjoying dancing, Middle Eastern foods, music, crafts, and more.

Our Vashti’s Banquet was designed to capture the joyful and triumphal atmosphere of Purim, as well as to allow women to experience a taste of the sisterhood within an imagined Persian harem of long ago. The harem is one of the great institutional enigmas of antiquity. We all harbor our own fantasies about the exotic and mysterious harem – with images popularized by The Arabian Nights and the films of Cecile B. DeMille. While there are accounts of life in the harem from as early as the 18th century, there is no written account from the ancient world of life in the segregated women’s quarters. In designing the Vashti’s Banquet, Women’s League chose to present the harem as the quintessential woman’s space, where they lived together, mourned together and danced together, rather than a vestige of women’s subjugation by men.

Vashti’s Banquet included activities that we know of from anthropology and literature: the foods, music, belly (and other) dancing, storytelling, and, of course, all manner of beautifying secrets such as cosmetics, perfumes and henna. Not to lose sight of the religious importance of the holiday, a short study session highlighted the relevant parts of the Esther story in the Bible and some of the later, more colorful midrashim. (Not all that different from the fantasies of Cecil B. DeMille!) The first Vashti’s Banquet featured special guest Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who offered sterling advice about you-know-what.

Then, like the women’s seder that grew exponentially after the first one at Ma’ayan, Vashti’s Banquets have taken root in communities across the continent, offering workshops and activities reflecting the communities that host them.

Nearly 100 women in sisterhoods from East and North Brunswick, New Jersey, attended a Vashti’s Banquet at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, which included aroma therapy and mask making. At the banquet in Jacksonville, Florida, the chazzan, day school principal and ritual director vied for the title of Queen Vashti. Each displayed “her” own talent and answered provocative questions – no swimsuits. The winner was crowned by the assistant rabbi.

The Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, New York, established the appropriate mood with extravagant decorations of billowing fabrics, pillows, and tables draped with runners, sparkles, and colorful strings of beads.

The Vashti’s Banquet in Las Vegas (Temple Beth Shalom) raised an enormous amount of money for the synagogue while three co-sponsoring Philadelphia area sisterhoods (Tifereth Israel of Lower Bucks County, Beth El, Yardley, and Ohev Shalom, Bucks County) donated their profits to Gilda’s Club, which houses men, women and children battling cancer.

Over 150 women attended a banquet in West Hartford, Connecticut, where four sisterhoods joined together and offered study sessions by female rabbis, zumba and yoga lessons.

It is clear that Vashti’s Banquet’s entertaining female-centered celebration of a Jewish holiday has struck a chord. As women recover their experiences and voices from the past, we continue to create new forms of celebration, bonding with each other in the very real present.

Want to create your own Vashti’s banquet? You can find inspiration and ideas on the Women’s League website at www.wlcj.org.

Lisa Kogen is program/education director of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.