With Purim just around the corner, it’s time to reflect on the story behind the holiday. For many of us, we picture making hamentashen in Hebrew school, and attending Purim carnivals at local synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. But the real story of Purim has little to do with delicious cookies and face-painting. One could even make an argument that it is one of the best historical demonstrations of a successful intermarriage. In the article below, originally posted in the Washington Jewish Week, JOI Executive Director Kerry Olitzky discusses why we should celebrate not just what Esther did for her people during Purim, but also the success of her interfaith marriage.
It sounds like an everyday story: A beautiful young Jewish woman marries a rich and powerful non-Jewish man.
She’s raised in an acculturated upper-class household, where the religion of power and influence is of greater importance than the religion of her ancestors. Synagogue attendance and Jewish education are not priorities.
So when our heroine meets a non-Jew who can give her everything she wants and more, they marry. Eventually she comes to identify with her people and, luckily for all of us, her husband also throws in his lot with the Jews at a crucial moment in history.
The Purim narrative is rarely seen through the prism of a successful interfaith marriage, yet clearly the holiday we celebrate is based on the relationship between a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man.
Esther married Ahashuerus, the king of Persia. Because of her beauty, she was chosen to become queen –or, more accurately, Harem Girl No. 1.
Like the other adult-themed components of the story, the various marital aspects of Purim are swept under the rug to create a kinder, gentler holiday we can share with our children.
Ignored are the thinly veiled sexual innuendoes, the horrendous slaughter of Haman’s relatives and any difficult questions about an intermarriage gone right.
Instead, we are left with Queen Esther beauty pageants for young girls — which some may say perpetuate the objectification of women — and synagogue youth carnivals that really have little to do with Purim.
Throughout the ages, rabbis have avoided the difficult questions, instead making apologies for Esther’s behavior.
In classic Jewish literature, commentators say Esther intentionally hid her Jewish identity until she was able to come out of the closet in front of her husband.
Some claim that the events never even occurred. Others say that use of her Persian name, Esther (rather than her Hebrew name, Hadassah) proves that the girl was complicit in Mordechai’s complex plan for Jewish survival.
There are even those who’ve figured out how Esther supposedly was fastidious about keeping kosher while living in the palace and taking part in the king’s parties!
None is willing to admit that were it not for an interfaith marriage that worked, the Jews of ancient Persia might all have been destroyed.
Perhaps the rabbis are afraid that such an admission would amount to implied acquiescence with those who choose to intermarry today — as if an ancient historical precedent affects the decisions individuals make about love, life, and Jewish continuity in today’s secular society.
The Purim story is timeless. That is its strength.
But this timelessness is not a result of a lachrymose approach to Jewish history, in which we see enemies rise up against us time and again, regardless of where we live.
Rather, it is Esther’s relationship to Ahashuerus that catapults the story through the portals of Jewish history.
Esther and Mordechai were heroes, but so was Ahashuerus. The Purim story shows that in the face of Jewish destruction — whether it comes from the outside, as in ancient Persia, or from inside the American Jewish community — intermarriage has the potential to help us rather than destroy us, if we are willing to bring the intermarried into our Jewish family and invite them to cast their lot with our own.
Kerry M. Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York, a national organization dedicated to Jewish outreach and opening the Jewish community to all who would join.