Unmasking Purim's Heroes—and Ourselves

Kurdish Purim
A Kurdish Purim

Who needs Halloween or Mardi Gras? On Purim, the masquerade of characters is lively and intriguing: Spangled Vashtis, bearded Mordecais, snarling Hamans, bejeweled Esthers, silk-robed Ahasueruses.

The secret of Purim, however, is to see beyond the masks. Purim's noise and noshing is great fun, but the holiday also unveils the story of character and courage. For us, too, Purim can be a time to strip away external masks in order to find the strengths that lie within us. The heroes and villains of Purim can lead the way:


Once the stereotype of a vixen, Vashti is no longer perceived as the siren of the Purim story. Instead, she's become a feminist hero who refuses to flaunt her beauty for the king's entourage. She stands up for her convictions in order to preserve her integrity, presaging the modern lesson we teach our kids: "Just say no."

Vashti can be a positive role model for girls and boys, one in a long line of women from the Talmudic scholar Beruriah to Rosa Parks. One good source for finding modern role models that are both Jewish and female is a comprehensive new reference, “Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia,” edited by Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore (Routledge), which profiles 700 women from opera singers to politicians.

Vashti's message also resonates on Purim because of the custom of drinking until we cannot tell the difference between "Blessed is Mordecai" and "Cursed is Haman." Teach your children the balance between responsibility and recklessness—and follow it yourself.


Esther might seem like a meek and malleable young thing who does her Uncle Mordecai's bidding, but she discovers a strong sense of identity along the way. Beauty contests aside, without a mature understanding of herself and the meaning of her Judaism, she could not have taken the risks she did. It's not easy being Jewish in Persia, but Esther proudly announces her Jewishness to save her people.

Take a bold step this Purim. Reveal your Jewish self. Take on a ritual you may be afraid of or be embarrassed about beginning. Take one step toward keeping kosher. Recite kiddush on Shabbat. Enroll in a Hebrew class or an Israeli dance course. Learn how to lift or dress the Torah.


Mordecai's combination of fearlessness and faith in G-d enables him to rise above the Persian politicans who indulge themselves and lose sight of the larger good. Mordecai never puts his ego above his convictions or forgets the suffering of his people. No matter what the consequences, he holds steadfast to his beliefs, refusing to bow down to Haman, putting on sackcloth to mourn the decree of destruction for the Jews of Persia, and remaining humble even when paraded through the streets of Shushan.

Like the grogger that drowns out the wicked name of Haman, we, too, need to help uproot suffering. Because of the comforts our own lives may offer, it takes courage to stand up and call attention to the suffering of others. But communities around the world still suffer—whether they are Jews in Argentina or neighbors in our own cities. Infused with the spirit of Mordecai, we can stop standing by in silence.


From Ahasuerus and Haman, we learn how not to behave. The king of Persia is a roly-poly, wishy-washy party animal who relegates power to unsuitable advisers. He surrounds himself with gold, silks, jewels, sexy women, and alcohol—fancies that mask the real priorities: the needs of his family and subjects.

Purim can be a time for us to re-evaluate our priorities in order to find the cherished jewels in our own kingdoms. Let's reinterpret the name of the holiday as a true "feast of lots"—not in the gambling sense, but in terms of how much we have. From the uniqueness of our children to the sweet simplicity of hamentaschen, we have "lots" to celebrate.


As for Haman, he hangs on to his prejudices until they catch up with him and make headline noose...Sorry, but it is Purim, after all! We can all do something to stop bigotry or hatred. Take a friend to visit a Holocaust museum. Tell a non-Jewish neighbor the story of Purim—and explain how much it means to live in a world of friendship and forgiveness.

Happy Purim!

Rahel Musleah is a freelance journalist and the co-author, with Rabbi Michael Klayman, of “Sharing Blessings: Children's Stories for Exploring the Spirit of the Jewish Holidays” (Jewish Lights).

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Unmasking Purim's Heroes—and Ourselves

Who needs Halloween or Mardi Gras?  

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