If you are silent at this time, help may come from another Place, but you and your father’s house will perish. (Esther 4:14)
On Wednesday March 19th I joined a small group of local members of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) at a recent public rally in support of Israel organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia following the murder of eight teenage yeshiva students in Jerusalem on March 13th. While I expected plenty of criticism of Israel’s opponents, I was astonished to hear many of the speeches by Federation representatives – in a public forum, with the city’s Mayor Nutter present – speeches which included frequent and pointed comparisons of Haman to contemporary Persian leaders, such as the comparison of “President Ahmadinejad to President Ahashverus” by Rabbi David Gutterman, executive director of VAAD: Board of Rabbis in Philadelphia (it is noteworthy that none of the reports in the Jewish press of the rally included descriptions of these religious references).
The public extension of these connections between Haman and Hitler to Arabs generally, Israel’s Arab neighbors, and even Israeli Palestinians, expressed a xenophobia, and specific Islamophobia, overwhelmed me, and set me to some serious study and thinking about the association between Purim and Jewish religio-political ideologies. I was heartened to find that others were thinking along the same lines.
If you’re not Jewish, you just might not know about this “minor” holiday. Purim is based on the Book of Esther, which describes a Jewish Cinderella-Supergirl story: the wise Jew Mordecai offers his beautiful and modest niece Esther as a bride for the Persian king Ahashuerus (who is displeased with his beautiful but arrogant wife Vashti). Five years or so later, the Persian Jewish community is threatened by the evil Haman, who has influenced King Ahashuerus against the Jews, and casts lots (pur-im) to decide a date when the Jews will be killed. Queen Esther bravely breaks the rules and appears before the king – unbidden – to disclose her identity and plead for her people. Of course, she wins and saves the Jews … and Haman is executed. (Illustration: Marc Chagall’s “Esther”)
Tradition calls Jews to celebrate Purim by reading the Megillah (the “whole story”) aloud for the community, to “blot out” the name of Haman and his followers, and to give charity to the poor. For American Jews (most of whom are have an Ashkenazi, or European, background) Purim is the Jewish carnival or “Halloween” – children (and adults) gather in costumes representing the central characters of the story (or not – as in Purim in Shanghai, 1929; left; or costumed revellers in Jerusalem this year), re-tell the story as a “spiel” (silly story or play), punctuated frequently by the noisy din of groggers (noisemakers known to percussionists as ratchets) to drown out Haman’s name, and eat a few Hamentaschen (Haman’s hat) cookies.
For most Jewish adults, Purim is a rather benign affair – an opportunity for fundraising balls or carnivals, a chance to play games, gamble, and drink to excess (drinking until unable to distinguish between good/Mordecai and evil/Haman has long been a central mode of observance of the holiday), or it’s long been the occasion for fundraising parties or balls (Fancy Dress Ball, March 15, 1881, New York, in Library of Congress exhibition of 2006, From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America).
Growing up in a community with few Jews, and having had limited contact with my family’s synagogue three towns away, the memory of the over-sized Hamentaschen my Nana brought each year on her weekly visit eclipses the traces of the handful of noisy Megillah readings and Hebrew school carnivals I attended. But I remember the first time I saw a picture of an illuminated Esther scroll (like the 18th c Italian scroll pictured at right, from the Library of Congress) – it stopped me in my tracks, and left me with a passion for illuminated Hebraica that persists to the present. As a young-er adult, Purim became an opportunity to review and expand my collected images of the Megillah, or to have a look at antique scrolls (such as the remarkable collection of megillot on display in the lobby of Philadelphia’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom).
Purim has taken on new meaning though, in part because my synagogue incorporated the local gay & lesbian congregation, Beth Ahava, after BA lost its lease a few years ago. This has meant we could share not just the extraordinary education and expertise of many BA members, but also BA’s annual Purimspiel drag show. I tentatively considered attending in costume — after my earliest years, costumes and Halloween were not a part of childhood – a drive-by shooting incident sent some trick-or-treaters to the hospital, and my parents joined others in keeping us children indoors. But making costumes for Halloween with my sons was a special activity in my own home (in spite of the pagan/Christian resonances of the holiday) – we had a “one cardboard box” goal, and the year one of the boys turned out as the Empire State Building, complete with a dangling King Kong, was a special one. Since contra-dancing has become a part of our lives, the annual Rum and Onions Halloween dance in Princeton has been a way to work my knitting into the event – I really enjoy spending a weekend or two at the end of summer devising and executing a knitted disguise. I already had knitted a lamé crown, black Nerfertiri wig (Hallowig pattern) and a Medusa’s snake headdress, and thought any of them would suit Vashti perfectly. A recently-discovered pattern for a dwarf’s helmet and beard could easily be modified to a turban-beard combo for Mordecai (or Haman), in case I could persuade any of my menfolk to join me.
But festive dress-up plans were set aside after the Federation rally, and prepared for Knit for Peace Day, which coincided with Purim this year. As usual, I tripped over a couple of historical and cultural surprises as my study progressed.
Gallows Humor: strange sounds and fruit
Thus the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction, and did what they would unto those that hated them. Book of Esther 9:5
The murder and mayhem part of the story – the Jews’ retaliatory execution of Haman, his ten sons, and slaughter of more than 75,000 other Persians (according to the text) – like Amelek and his people (Exodus 17:8-16; Deuteronomy 25:17) – this narrative of Jewish violence little known to most of us modern Jews, since we seldom read through the entire text in the course of the festivities. So I spent some time researching the historical Purim – not the historical veracity of the Book of Esther itself, for which there is no proof ; the Megillah is another example of “collective memory”, imagined story, but not history (the Magnes Zionist has provided a fine discussion). The history of Jewish observance is another matter – and I found myself – like many others – profoundly disturbed by the evidence of Jewish violence at the heart of it all, wishing that catcalls and groggers were the least of it.
Examples of contemporary groggers featured by Judaica Journal, though aesthetically-pleasing (even inspiring) obscure the ethnic hatred and ritual violence that undergirds the traditions associated with Haman. While children’s groggers “playfully” torture Haman with each spin, adults have been building connections between Haman, Hitler and modern Arabs … Hitler’s name appears alongside Haman’s on mid-20th-c. Israeli-made groggers (Hebrew inscription on the wooden grogger reads “Down with Hitler down with Haman“).
The iconography of Haman is explicitly violent – antique Jewish Books of Esther often featured Haman and his sons as the strange fruit of “Haman tree” (such as this 14th-c. example).
Christian bible illustrators of the 13th-15th centuries approached the text similarly, filling their leaves with images of Haman suspended from both crosses and gibbets (Christian associations of Jewish ritual violence against Haman as cover for celebration of violence against Jesus was a source of considerable anti-semitism from late antiquity on. According to Eliezar Segal (“The Purim-Shpiel and the Passion Play“), the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius prohibited Jews from burning an effigy of Haman on Purim, believing the custom to be a parody of the crucified Jesus). While the emperor’s belief may seem far-fetched, both Jewish and Christian records from the 12th century relate a Jewish community’s execution of Christian murderer after the criminal was paraded through town with a crown of thorns on head (in a transparent burlesque of Jesus’ crucifixion); the incident led to the martyrdom of the local Jewish community on order of the king.
Our more modern record is consistent with these reports, at least among the Sephardim. According to Israel Abrahams, The Book of Delight and Other Papers, Kessinger Press, at 135) …. purim plays were not commonly performed by Jews before the 18th c …. though many were written and performed by Christians (especially monks, who had a long tradition of mixing humor and morality at Easter time). So what were Sephardi Jews doing (besides making noise)? Crucifying, hanging and burning effigies of Haman (described in detail here, and in Erich Brauer’s The Jews of Kurdistan, 1993).
So I suppose it was only mildly surprising to learn that the tradition of ritual violence is sanctioned by Talmud. As described by the Ge’onim in Sanhedrin 64 (Babylonia, c. 500-1000 CE; Sanhedrin 64), Jews celebrated Purim by playing with a mashvarta de Puria — a ring (or stirrup) of Purim: “The young lads make an effigy of Haman and hang it from the roofs for four or five days. Then, on Purim, they make a bonfire and throw the effigy into it, and they dance around the fire and sing. They hang a ring over the fire, and they jump through the ring from one side of the fire to the other” (source).
The association between Haman and Hitler is clear in Arthur Szyk’s Haman Hanging on the Gallows (1950), where Haman’s black costume emblazoned with swastika (compare Szyk’s pre-war image of Haman, 1925), confirms the tenor of the speeches at the Federation rally. Similar comparisons are made in other media (such as The Wandering Jew blog). (There’s considerably more information available from Allan Nadler’s review of Haman’s Swaying Power: Purim and the Image of the Gallows, bBy now, the association between Haman and Hitler is well-established in contemporary Jewish thought. What’s less obvious is the racisim/bigotry/xenophobia that underlies equating Haman with the Arab world.
I confess that I am unable to see these images without also recalling images of hanged Jews in in concentration camps (image here), or hearing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” ringing in my ears, and the image of the lynching of black Americans that inspired the song.
But maybe that’s the point.
Somewhere along the line I learned other lessons from Judaism, lessons which provided the ethical lense through which I engage with the world. I learned about empathy and compassion, and the possibility of connecting to racial, religious and ethnic difference on the basis of shared humanity. I learned that the boundary between ethnic pride and protection, and ethnic chauvinism, is very, very narrow.
So when I try to put Purim into context, I have to include Baruch Goldstein’s Purim 1994 massacre of of nearly 50 Palestinians in their mosque in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarch, a shrine sacred to both Muslim and Jews (more information here, BBC film clip here). I have to remember that militant Orthodox Jewish settlers made a “shrine” of Goldstein’s grave, that this became a pilgrimage site for extremist Israelis, that they celebrated the anniversary of the massacre (BBC report here) dressed in Purim costumes and brandishing weapons, and that the shrine was only dismantled after a spate of litigation (BBC report here).
This context is my starting point for understanding Jerry Haber’s essay “Planning for a Purim Pogrom and Police Passivity,” which describes the organized Jewish mob assault on the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem’s Jabel Mukaber neighborhood days after murder of Mercaz Harav yeshiva students as a Purim pogrom (press reports here and here provide additional information). Since my family fled from Russian pogroms to the United States in the beginning of the 20th century, pogroms resonate for me (a pogrom in the Soviet Union in 1931, from the Jewish Women’s Archive).
The term is derived from the Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc” – a pogrom is an organized attack, often a massacre, against a minority group. Not surprisingly, Jewish sources emphasize Jewish experience of devastation. Thus, one source explains that Jews in Russian lands were periodically victimized by these persecutions, often with the tacit knowledge, or even active encouragement, of local officials (Jewish home attacked in Russia). According to the Holocaust Remembrance and Survivor’s Project, the term “pogrom” comes from the Russian word for “devastation,” and signifies “the destruction of Jewish life and property – through a thuggish or thug-like encounter of organized mob violence and vandalism – against Jewish individuals, shops, homes or businesses that were directly or indiretly supported by the government. Another source offers “massacre, slaughter, act of organized destruction and violence,” and “organized persecution of an ethnic group. 20th century assaults on Jewish communities as example”.
Understandably, Jewish historical institutions endeavor to document the Jewish community’s experience of pogrom, of organized destruction of life and property by officially sanctioned mob violence and vandalism. But I am unable to find any reason why the terms shouldn’t be applied to Jewish-Israeli violence. I am sympathetic to Jerry Haber’s use of the term when Jewish mob violence against Palestinians is tolerated by Israeli officials.
The visual record of violence against Jews contains examples dating back at least to the medieval era. Jews frequently cite the inculcation of anti-semitism in educational practices of Nazi Germany, citing examples such as Nazi schoolbook illustrations of the expulsion of Jewish children from school, and the celebration associated with expulsion of Jews from Germany.
What are Jewish children learning from their Purim lessons and celebration?
How is it that the children of ultra-Orthodox settlers learn to assault Palestinian passersby, including the elderly? Settler violence against Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank – including unprovoked stonings and verbal abuse – is pervasive and well-documented.
How is it possible that religious Israeli Jews, who claim a right to Israel by virtue of the attempted genocide of European Jews in Nazi crematoria, can replicate the vitriole and racism with their Palestinian neighbors? (Graffiti from Jewish settlers in Hebron, via Chest Doc In Palestine).
Jewish settler violence against Palestinian residents of the occupied territories, , including unprovoked stonings of children, women, and the elderly is routinely routinely observed and reported.
How is it that we are not ashamed of public declarations by our civic and religious leaders, in an open city plaza, observed by pedestrians, print media and television cameras alike, that are overtly Islamophobic?
The space between these examples of hateful indoctrination is far too small for comfort.
Who is more Zionist?
I have trouble seeing the modern ultra-Orthodox posters inciting the violence against Palestinians in East Jerusalem after the death of the yeshiva students, and not recalling the familiarimages of anti-semitic propaganda posters in Nazi Germany (“Visualizing Otherness,” University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies, Histories and Narratives series).
I am similarly challenged by other images … especially the use of the Magen David (Star of David) in debates over Zionism within the Jewish community …
Hayim Shtayer’s 2005 poster warns of risk of war between brothers because of the evacuation of settlements in Gaza Strip. (Translation of the Hebrew: Who Is More Zionist?
Decent people are, by definition, those who condemn violence unequivocally. But is condemnation after the fact enough, or should we try and track down its source in order to pre-empt it? Rabbi Steve Golden
Perhaps this opponent (left) of Israel’s military policies will be joined by more of the ultra-Orthodox community. Perhaps the model of these voices (right) joined in support of peace and justice will encourage the compassion necessary for the moral integrity of Israel and tolerance of diverse opinions withing the Jewish community at large.
Perhaps then I’ll be able to hear children singing Chag Purim (translation here), one of the first Hebrew songs I learned in synagogue, and not also hear – in my inner ear – the overtones of Billie Holiday’s lament, or a Jewish settler’s rabid abuse of her Palestinian neighbors, or the neighbor’s screams of distress.