Megillat Esther, the book or scroll we read on the holiday of Purim has both male and female main characters. The women in the story are Vashti, Zeresh, and Hadassah. These women have stronger personalities than their male counterparts.
Queen Vashti was ordered to appear at Kind Ahashverosh’s drunken party of men. She refused. She knew what was respectable and where she drew the line. The king on the other hand was befuddled. He didn’t know how to handle the situation and turned to his attendants for advice. He took their advice and later regretted it.
Zeresh was the wife of Haman, the evil character in the story. Haman had a high position in the courts. He wanted more power. He noticed that Jews, represented by Mordechai, had a presence in the courts but didn’t necessarily feel inferior to him. Taking it as a personal affront, Haman decided to exterminate the Jews. Zeresh understood the tides of political misfortune. She noticed details and was able to recognize when Haman was falling into disfavor. She warned him but he didn’t take heed.
Hadassah was raised by Mordechai, a Jew who was familiar with the King’s court. Her secret Jewish name was Hadassah, and her public Persian name was Esther. Thrust into the formal world of royalty she navigated the aforementioned political tides. She learned how to influence her suggestible husband the King, how to spotlight her enemy Haman, and how to achieve what her uncle Mordechai could not achieve.
The story of Purim with its strong female roles was an important holiday to the Jews of Portugal and the Jewish refugees who fled from the Portuguese Inquisition. In Portugal today one can stand in the city squares where there were forced conversions and auto de fe against our people in the 16th century. The torture and death that Jews faced in the time of the Portuguese Inquisition is horrifying. The lack of historical Jewish culture and architecture is sobering. The Conversos (secret Jews) of Portugal held on to their traditions as much as they could. Secretly, covertly, they retained the laws and traditions they could practise without being caught.
Purim was a very important time for the secret Jews. They identified with the antisemitism Haman instigated in Shushan. Just as Queen Esther fasted for three days, the Conversos would also fast for three days and meet secretly to hear the story of Esther saving her people. Some people took shifts for the three-day fast. Sometimes one person fasted the entire time. Some communities called Purim the Festival of Santa Esterica or the Feast of St. Esther in order to mask the holiday as a dedication to a saint. It was a solemn holiday, not the joyful carnivalesque holiday we celebrate today.
The Portuguese women were the caretakers of the religion. They remembered certain prayers and, over time adapted them or created new prayers. They carried on whatever they remembered of the holidays and led Passover observances. Queen Esther saved the Jews, and the women of the Converso communities saved whatever vestiges of their former religion they could.
It’s interesting to think about the strength of women in this book of the Bible. The most important lesson is to be aware of danger. We must face it and deal with it wisely. And may the world never again witness horrors like the Inquisition which the Conversos had to experience.
I suspect the women of 16th C Portugal didn’t make hamantaschen, but here’s a recipe for you to try.
Bonus Prize: Bobba Dobby’s Hamantasch recipe:
3 eggs 1 cup water
1 1/2 cups sugar 2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt 4 -5 cups of flour
Combine the first four ingredients, Add the flour, stirring it in, until the dough is soft but not sticky. It should roll out well on your rolling surface. Divide the dough in quarters. Roll one of the batches on a floured surface to almost 1/4 ” thick. Cut it into circles about 31/2″ in diameter. Place a spoonful of filling in the centre of each circle, pinch the three corners towards the middle. You can brush with beaten egg. Bake on a lightly floured baking pan at 350o for 30 minutes until golden brown.
Bobba Dobby’s Date Filling
3 full cups of pitted dates – cut them up first
1/4 cup sugar 1 1/2 cups water
lemon juice to taste grated rind of one lemon
Cook this on a medium heat or in a double boiler until it is like a thick jam.
Thanks for letting me share my week with you. Let me know if you try the hamantaschen. I hope you like them! later this week I will be posting about Shabbat Zachor. Best, Laya
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Have a joyful Purim and include a prayer for wisdom and unity.
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