Earlier this month, Jews celebrated the holiday of Purim, our annual carnival. We dressed in costumes, partied rowdily and read the Book of Esther. The Book is a play, a farce set in Persia, where Jews were exiled some 2,500 years ago. Its characters are all caricatures. There’s a king, apathetic and dopey. His grand vizier oozes utter evil. An orphan Jewish girl becomes queen. Her uncle is the story’s reluctant hero. The Book uses humor to confront the dark shadow of antisemitism, the overarching theme of the play.
For example, the Jewish girl’s birth name is Hadassah. But as she’s selected to compete with other maidens for the heart of the king, she changes her name to Esther, a name borrowed from the local Persian deity Ishtar. Why? Antisemitism. Her too-Jewish name, Hadassah, would’ve stopped her from even being considered. Or worse.
Our names have, clearly, been problematic for a long time. In “People Love Dead Jews,” author Dara Horn retells the myth of Ellis Island passed down through generations of American Jews: Immigration officers, unable to make sense of Jewish names, gave our ancestors American-sounding ones. The truth is that Jewish immigrants themselves changed their names and, through their shame, invented the mythical story. Why? Antisemitism. If you want to be queen, change your Jewish name to a local one. If you want to get that job, keep that apartment or just avoid violent attacks, change your Jewish name to a local one.
And then there is the evil grand vizier, Haman. In each generation, it seems, there arises a Haman to spread the conspiracy theory that is antisemitism. The story is always a version of: “There arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). There arose a Haman in Persia, a Titus in Rome, a King Ferdinand and his Isabella in Spain, a Cossak – Bogdan Chmielniki – in Ukraine, a tsar in Russia, a führer in Germany, etc.
The conspiracy theory gets updated to match the current context. Today, in America, the far right accuses the Jews of being a fake-white fifth column riling communities of color and advancing non-white immigration in order to destroy white civilization. Hence the Charlottesville cries: “Jews will not replace us!” The far left accuses the Jews of being an all-white fifth column bent on advancing the racist institutions of colonialism and oppression. Both sides accuse us of owning the banks and the media and influencing domestic and foreign policy to achieve our evil goals.
In the Book of Esther, our story has a happy ending. Of course — we wrote it! As antisemitism soars again, we’ll need every ally to help write our story of hope and inclusion.
Will you be our pen pals?
Olivier BenHaim is the Rabbi of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle.
Read more of the Mar. 29-April 4, 2023 issue.