(This post is an edited version of one that was originally posted on Wordsmoker on February 25, 2010, but as that site will soon be going down for good, and tonight is Purim, this seemed the perfect time to shift it over.)
Like all the other wacky stuff we Jews do, the Purim traditions are steeped in the Bible–in this case, that little book at the back called The Book of Esther. The gist of the story in said book is this: A billion years ago in the exotic land of Persia, there lived a king named Akhashverosh (usually transliterated as Ahasuerus but I’m not sure why) and his wife, this chick named Vashti. One day, Akhashverosh got plastered during one of his parties and demanded that Vashti be paraded in front of everyone but she refused. (There are a couple of legends here–that he wanted her to come out naked, that she had a tail, etc.) As a result, she got banished and Akhashverosh began the search for a new queen vis a vis a beauty contest between all the hotties of the kingdom.
Now, in the kingdom there was a Jewish guy named Mordechai whose orphaned cousin Hadassah was a total babe. Hadassah, who then became Esther, which I guess is more Persian (like Ishtar) and also means something about hiding yourself in Hebrew, has no choice but to offer herself up. Now, I know what you’re thinking–no chick named Esther can be hot. I mean, maybe she was hot 80 years ago, but now she just sits in Miami and plays Mah-Jongg. But you’re wrong! Esther can be a super hot name, and is in fact my middle name, and so, obviously, she’s a babe.
But I digress.
Esther entered the contest, and due to her total babe-ocity, she kicked ass and became queen, all the while hiding her horns underneath that lustrous Persian hair of hers.
And now, flash to a random scene where Mordechai overhears two guys plotting to kill Akhashverosh and tells him. Akhashverosh is very grateful and writes it in his diary like the good teenage girl he is. And now, flash back!
Now, while this stuff is going down, Akhashverosh gets himself a new vizier, who’s a total prick. Picture Jafar with a three-cornered hat. (Yes, for some reason we decided that his hat has three corners. Both our traditional Purim cookie, Hamantaschen, and one of the traditional Purim songs are based on this fact.) Anyway, Jafar, whose name was actually Haman, instituted a law that everyone had to bow down to him, but we Jews are stubborn and Mordechai, who’s basically chilling in the courtyard of the palace 24/7 to babysit his cuz, refused.
This pissed Haman off immensely and he decided to kill all the Jews, because that’s obviously the natural reaction.
So, he cast a lottery (i.e. a Pur in Hebrew, hence “Purim,” which is the plural) and the 13th of the month of Adar came up the winner of Holocaust Day Bingo. He tells the whole capital city of Shushan and it results total chaos. Somehow, Esther remains totally clueless as to what’s going on until she hears that Mordechai is publicly mourning in the courtyard, but she goes out to ask what’s up and he tells her that they’re all gonna die and she needs to save all their asses.
He tells her she has to go to the king, but she’s all “uh, he’ll kill me.” Whatevs. Anyway, she finally decides yeah, what the hell, my life blows anyway. She fasts for three days and gets all the other Jews to do it too and then goes to the king. Turns out, he’s totally jazzed to see her even though he hasn’t summoned her to his bedside in like a month and tells her she can have whatever she wants. Perfect opening for her to be like “stop this decree and cut off Haman’s nuts,” right? WRONG. Instead, she invites him and Haman to a private party.
ZOMG totally unexpected.
Anyway, Esther clearly throws a rockin’ shindig because Akhashverosh tells her she can have whatever she wants. Again, perfect opening, right? Which, of course, just means Esther invites them to another party.
So Haman is feeling like more awesome than Regina George before she got hit by that bus, and when he feels awesome, it means Mordechai really needs to die, so he erects a 50-foot gallows on which to hang him because, sure, why not. That night, Akhashverosh gets insomnia, and I guess warm milk and porn weren’t invented yet because instead he asks for his diary. While reading it, he realizes that Mordechai saved his life and he never did crap for him. Then, he basically freaks out because he hears someone in the courtyard, but it turns out it’s just Haman and instead asks him how he can honor someone awesome. Haman, thinking he’s going to be the subject of the king’s honor, suggests that the honoree get all bedazzled in royal clothing and paraded around on a horse.
I will not address how incredibly lame it is that Robin Williams basically popped out of a lamp and offered Jafar anything he wanted and this is what he chose, but really, come on. Anyway, the king likes this idea, probably because it’s cheaper than the all-expenses paid trip to Disneyworld Haman should’ve asked for, and says “Sweet, go do this crap for Mordechai, Sucka!”
Anyway, the second party happens, and Esther finally tells Akhashverosh that there’s a guy in his kingdom who’s looking to destroy her people. The king, who possessed the insight and leadership qualities of a Middle-Eastern Dubya, asked WTF she was talking about, at which point she pulled a whole dramatic “what has two index fingers and is trying to kill the Jews? That guy!” move and Akhashverosh got so pissed off he…went for a walk.
Haman and Esther are alone so in all his manly manliness, Haman decides to beg like a seven-year-old girl who’s just discovered a Dora backpack at Wal-Mart, literally throwing himself on her, uh, mercy. The king returns, thinks Haman was trying to bang his wife (which, maybe he was? Who knows), and orders him killed. Enter the eunuch Charvona, whose only role in this book is to conveniently inform Akhashverosh that hey! There’s actually already a perfectly good gallows out there!
That’s right; karma’s a bitch. Haman and his ten sons totally got hanged on Mordechai’s gallows. Game over.
Only not! Because the decree still existed and apparently signet ring ink is not erasable. So instead of taking it back, it’s decreed that the Jews are now allowed to gather up and defend themselves, so they basically spent two days kicking all sorts of ass and now we’re still alive. As a result, we do a bunch of things to celebrate, including:
1. Get plastered. The official custom is to get drunk “Ad D’Lo Yadah” which literally means “until you don’t know,” and refers to getting so wasted that you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. Why you wouldn’t want to be able to distinguish the difference between the two is a little beyond me, but whatever.
2. Give people packages of food. These are called “Mishlo’ach Manot” and they’re freakin awesome. Traditionally, these are generally full of some combo of candy, the traditional Purim cookie called “Hamantaschen”, and maybe wine, although people really love doing themes. “Breakfast” is one that’s wildly popular with people who think they’re wildly original, which gets me a lot of single-serving coffee bags I don’t really want.
3. Give money to poor people, aka “Matanot L’Evyonim.”
4. Get dressed up in costume. When the Jews are fighting back, kicking ass, and taking names on the very day they were supposed to be exterminated, it says “V’Nahafokh Hu,” which basically means “Switcheroo!” And so, topsy-turveyness ensues and I proceed to wear the same Queen Esther costume for many, many years.
5. Have a big meal, aka “Purim Se’udah.”
There’s also the less fun part where you fast for a day in commemoration of Esther’s fast. (Fun facts: Ta’anit Esther, which is the name of this particular fast, is the only one of the six annual fasts that is in commemoration of a happy occasion. I suspect that this is why many people ignore it. Traditionally, it falls out the day before Purim, but because fasting is forbidden on the Sabbath, when Purim falls out on a Sunday as it does this year, the fast is the Thursday before.) But then when you eat it is glorious, so.
Anyway, obviously, I think this story is awesome, because I went ahead and wrote a whole contemporary YA retelling of it – yay! Hope you all get to read it someday, and until then, learn how to make hamentaschen! They’re delicious.