Purim potpourri

“Potpourri” was one of my father’s favorite words. Which is kind of odd, considering he had his files extremely well categorized. But sometimes, especially when he was writing his books, thoughts seem too random and unable to be put in one category or another. It struck me as one of those onomatopeic words, but in any case, it sounded nice.

So, random thoughts on the Megillah, the scroll we read on Purim–today–about the ancient story of the Jews’ redemption from the hands of a bitter foe who disliked one Jew and wanted to get rid of all the rest. A classic story of prejudice and anti-Semitism. But since Purim is a happy (and superficially, at least, a “frivolous” one, not all my comments are deadly serious.

1, What kind of king or any ruler spends 180 days showing off the glory of his kindgom? I don’ know the answer to that, but the expression to “show off one’s wealth and glory” till has relevance when a person “shvitzes,” i.e., is a show-off.

2. Feminists have made a heroine of Vashti, the king’s hapless queen, because she refused to obey his command. The rabbis said the reason she refused was that he asked her to appear naked at the party, with “only” her crown. (The literal meaning is “with her crown.”) I’d like to think that many women would have refused to do that.

3. Women must have been considered very strong and influential beings if it took a royal edict to convince men that they should be ruling their own homes.

4. I never knew what to make of the midrash that Esther and Mordechai were married. Because that would add adultery to intermarriage as a no-no for Esther in wedding the king. Of course, the text makes it clear that none of the virgins (could she have been a virgin if married to Mordechai?–there’s another midrash about that, I’m sure) had much of a choice about being taken to the king’s court.

5. I never knew what these potential wives for the kind could be doing for 6 months in myrrh and another 6 in perfumes. I would have died of boredom! But perhaps it was a way to keep them subservient, when all of them had been taken by force from their homes.

6. I always wondered what Esther looked like. Was she like a young Joan Collins in the very bad Hollywood movie? How could any one woman be more beautiful than all the rest? Or did it have to do, as my brother pointed out when we were kids (I had been naive till then), with what happened during the night each woman spent with the king? In any case, Esther must have been a very memorable person. I’m not sure why these days it’s popular to glorify Vashti and demean Esther as “passive.” She must have been memorable.

7. Again, Haman’s description of the people who needed to be killed was classic anti-Semitism and prejudice. The main sin of this people was that they were different. But what kind of king decides, based on one sentence, to kill an entire people without even knowing who they were? Still, shades of many persecutions in Jewish history start right here.

8. My father’s picaresque sense of humor led him to say that the reason Esther asked the Jews to fast for three days on her behalf, rather than the customary one, is that she had gained some weight in the palace (must have been those kosher airline meals), and needed the three days to make herself more presentable to the king. But oh, her poor non-Jewish handmaidens who fasted along with her! They had no practice.

9. One of Haman’s miscalculations was overestimating how much value he had to the king. It didn’t stand up to whatever the king felt for Esther–and his own ego.

10. I never understood just what Mordechai meant when he told Esther that if she didn’t speak up for the Jews, she and her father’s house would perish, but the Jews would be rescued from another source. Especially because he was part of the father’s house–otherwise she was orphaned. But it doesn’t matter. The dialogue between them about who would save the Jews is one of the most moving in the Bible–and the crux of the Megillah.

11. It always bothered me that the sons of Haman were hanged, after they were already dead. Not a Jewish thing to do, but then, the Jews of Persia were apparently somewhat secularized. There are many people today who are troubled by the Jews killing so many people who rose against them. I don’t know where they got the weapons, and I’m not very comfortable with it either. But there is so much more to the Megillah than that, and the Megillah makes it clear they were defending themselves, not looking for trouble, and that they took no booty. Nor did they seem to glorify in the killing in any way. I don’t want to reduce the Megillah to discussions about justified violence. There is so much more. Besides, imagine if one authority in Germany had permitted the Jews to defend themselves against the Nazis. Would many of us had objected?

12. Something I noticed only a few years ago. The closing verse of the Megillah declares that Mordechai was great among the Jews, and acceptable to most of his brethren–though he sought their good. Having had a father who was a Jewish communal leader his entire career, I was stuck by that one word–“most.” There is no Jewish leader, not Mordechai and not Moses, who was ever accepted to all the Jews. Not possible. If most admire you, you’re doing pretty well. Happy Purim!


When your home is no longer a castle

(Part 2)

Recently, my father’s brown leather recliner came home.

As the movers eased it through the front door, all the while watching to make sure our two indoor cats didn’t dash out (it was snowing, to boot), I thought of all the memories that chair invoked. How my father would go to read there on a Saturday afternoon, after complaining about insomnia all through lunch, and fall asleep not soon after. (He slept much better semi-upright in that chair with a book on his lap than in bed.) The chair was also an “escape,” from company–often family–whose company he could tolerate for only short spans of time.

It was also a “toy” for my children, who, when young, would climb on their beloved grandfather’s lap and ask him to move it back and forth. Maybe “amusement-park ride” is a better description. They would bounce up and down, sometimes, when they got a little older, pulling the lever to move the chair from reclining to upright position.

The people who rented our house wanted the recliner, and it would have been easier (and more lucrative) to let them keep it. Moving the additional items that had been left in the house would have easier and less expensive, and they would have paid us for the chair. I hesitated for a minute, then knew what I had to do. I said, almost apologetically, that the recliner had sentimental value. That it had been my father’s, and my kids–though they’re now 22 and nearly 24–would have objected. I didn’t even ask them. Partly because I knew what they would say, and partly because I was afraid to be wrong, that maybe the recliner didn’t mean to them what I thought it did. So the recliner came to us.

It was, in addition to being a recliner, emblematic of the larger process of cleaning out my parents’ apartment. It was one of the harder jobs I’ve done in my life. My parents were comfortable, not wealthy, and the furniture they had, at least according to the “relocation specialist” who helped me dispose of things, had little resale value. They had some interesting knick-knacks, but thanks to the building management (who had seemed benevolent, or at least neutral, through the years), we were not allowed to have auctions or other sales in the apartment unless I was there. Since I lived 180 miles away, it became difficult, to say the least. What my parents mostly had was books–hundreds of them–and movies (mostly videos) and electronic equipment and LPs.

I donated a ton of clothing and books–the recipients, Jewish schools, mostly, could not believe how many we sent (and couldn’t guarantee they would fit in their libraries). We tried hard to find someone to buy the LPS–and couldn’t. (Ironically, a few years later, when my husband and I moved, he did find someone equidistant between my parents’ New York apartment and her old house–who bought hundreds of LPs) So most of my parents’ records, sadly, ended up in thrift shops. Maybe that wasn’t so bad, considering my father had worked for nonprofit charitable organizations his entire career, but to me it seemed sad. We simply had no room for the records and the books and the movies. Again, ironically, had I known at the time that we’d be moving in a few years and downsizing our own stuff considerably, I would have kept more of my parents’ things. We also sold hundreds of books to an excellent independent bookstore in Harrisburg, our old town. That was a great relief, that they found a home, and we made some money.

But I would have liked to keep them all. As it ended up, we have only a fraction of my parents’ prized possessions. Things are only things, but when they represent a person’s character and interests–as these did, especially my literate and cultured father–they are more than that.

At least we do have the recliner–and its memories.