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Diaspora Diaries: Why not dress up as Vashti?
By JENNIFER LIPMAN
11/03/2014
Year-in-year out the argument is advanced that Vashti is the story’s true feminist hero for her brave resistance; a victim of a male storyteller liking submissive women.
 
In a matter of weeks, it's going to be all about Noah. Darren Aronofsky, the Oscar-nominated director of Black Swan, has made a film about the eponymous biblical ark-builder, with Russell Crowe playing the man himself. Rainbows, animals going two-by-two, and presumably a fair bit of rain: the film is set to show us a new side of one of the oldest characters we’ve got.
 
It's not the only biblical story to merit the Hollywood treatment. There is The Ten Commandments, for starters, and rather a less cerebral animation The Prince of Egypt. Joseph has been staged a as a musical more times than he’s got brothers. Even Mel Gibson has been attempting to make a Chanukah film, and before that he made that nice Jewish boy Jesus a movie star. Given the rich source material, it’s hardly surprising that screenwriters looking for new storylines have found the Jewish scriptures ripe for the taking. 
 
The Purim story, of course, would make a fantastic film. It's got all the ingredients: a beauty pageant, a royal wedding, a conspiracy and a villain hiding in plain sight. It's about grand Hollywood-esque themes like loyalty, responsibility, and power. You can just see the awards rolling in. Natalie Portman would play Esther, obviously. 
 
If she did, she'd be in good company. How many Jewish women spent a childhood Purim dressed to the nines as Queen Esther, crown atop their head, playacting the closest thing Judaism has to Miss World? The fashions may have changed, but the costume theme has remained the same.
 
But this raises another question. How many Jewish women ever dressed up as Vashti, Ahasvereus' poor scorned first wife? An adult reading of the story makes clear that she was demoted less due to the crime of vanity and more because she quite understandably refused to partake in the king's rather X-rated party games.
 
Year-in-year out the argument is advanced that Vashti is the story’s true feminist hero for her brave resistance; a victim of a male storyteller liking submissive women. The theory of her as the ‘dissident queen’, as she was recently dubbed by Samantha Ellis in her brilliant memoir How to be a Heroine, is certainly not without merit. And Esther is an imperfect heroine, to be sure: she married out, for starters, which is something parents tend to omit when dressing up their offspring in her likeness. But let’s not write her off entirely; in a story where G-d is consciously absent, it's largely her plucky derring-do that saves the day.
 
Still, I wonder how many girls ever dressed up as Vashti? Or as Ruth, or Naomi, or Rahab, or Devorah the judge, or Miriam, or any of the fearsome women in the Jewish scriptures? My personal heroine - simply for the sheer chutzpah of how she does away with Sisera and saves the day - is Yael, who sees him off with some booze and a tent peg. Talk about not playing by the rules.
 
Yes, Esther is the obvious choice for a Purim costume, whereas the other women have no link to the festival. But it goes deeper than that, for she also tends to be the most familiar Jewish female icon, in what should be a crowded field. We should celebrate Esther, by all means – albeit for her courage, rather than her looks and feminine wiles - but why should she be the only one who gets a look in?
 
Judaism, or at least Orthodox Judaism, can sometimes feel like a religion for men and by men. When you consider the rules on divorce, or what to wear, or the almighty struggle facing women as they try to play a more active role in the synagogue service, on the surface at least it can seem like women are an afterthought.
 
But as the stories make clear, there are women in our heritage who did play a role, often a central role. That may not change the day-to-day of Jewish life, but is matters, nonetheless.
 
Without Ruth’s loyalty, there would be no King David. Without Miriam’s acumen, Moses would not have survived to champion over Pharoah. And without Esther – and Vashti’s disobedience - we might not be eating Hamentaschen this weekend. These women were anything but afterthoughts.
 
Whether you take them at face value or simply enjoy them as fables, the stories are a source of excellent role-models, comparable to modern-day fictional heroines as Katniss (Hunger Games) or Buffy the Vampire Slayer: strong women who did not wait for the men to come and save the day. These biblicalwomen were no damsels in distress, but women who shaped the course of the Jewish story, often in challenging circumstances and with limited resources. And while it might only be a morsel in the wider question of equality in Jewish life, it still matters.
 
With International Women's Day just behind us, it's worth acknowledging their contribution. We talk often of Moses’ leadership and Abraham’s faith, but not enough of the qualities of the women in the stories. It doesn’t need a Hollywood film to change that.

Jennifer Lipman is a writer living in London. She tweets on @jenlipman. She is the former Comment Editor of The Jewish Chronicle and has written for a number of British newspapers and online publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times. http/Jenniferlipman.wordpress.com
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