The Purim Pgeant
By Lynn Ruth Miller
The Jewish holiday Purim celebrates the triumph of the beautiful Queen Esther of Persia who risked her life to save the Jewish people. Esther was married to King Ahasuerus. When her husband's minister, Haman, was insulted by her uncle Mordecai. Haman who did not realize that Mordecai was Esther's uncle, retaliated by convincing King Ahasuerus that all Jews were lawbreakers and should be destroyed. Esther had not discussed her religious beliefs with her husband and when she heard this news, she knew she was in deep trouble. Instead of confronting her husband and begging him to spare her people, she invited both him and Haman to a sumptuous banquet so elaborate it took two days to consume. The king obviously loved her cooking because by the time they got to dessert he told her that she had won his heart and anything else she wanted. "You don't owe me a thing, darling," said the clever Queen Esther. "It's always a pleasure to cook for good eaters. But if you want more dinners like this, you will have to reverse your order to slaughter the Jews because I am Jewish."
King Ahasuerus was no one's fool. He knew that charming, beautiful wives who were artists in the kitchen were definitely not a dime a dozen and he wasn't going to lose the one he had. He executed Haman, saved the Jews and made Uncle Mordecai the big shot in the community.
A decision like that deserves a celebration, and the Jewish people honor Esther's victory with lavish feasts, hot music and masquerades. They give food and gifts to the poor, and serve three cornered cookies named after the villain Haman, filled with laxative fruits like prunes and raisins.
I have always loved the panache and carnival atmosphere of the holiday but I never understood how clever and strong Esther was until the year my fifth grade Sunday school class reconstructed the Bible story in a pageant that we presented to the entire congregation.
The obvious choice to be Queen Esther was Dolores Shapiro, the most beautiful girl in our class. Freddie Okun was King Ahasuerus because he was so adorable, no one could resist him. Larry Zaft got to be Mordecai because he was painfully shy and the teacher thought it would be good for his ego to play the nice guy. Buddy Glasier was chosen to be Haman because he was the tallest boy in our class and leered ominously if no one made him laugh. I adored him but he never even noticed me because he was in love with Dolores Shapiro.
We started rehearsing our play the beginning of February but right after Valentine's Day, Dolores caught the mumps. That was when I got my big chance. The teacher decided that I could be the courageous queen because no one else could memorize all the lines fast enough.
The parents were in charge of costuming their children. My mother wanted me to be presentable when I appeared on stage but that would not be an easy task. At that time in my life, there was very little that was regal about me. I wore braces on my teeth and outsized orthopedic oxfords because my arches had collapsed in ballet class. I was painfully thin and my mother tried to build me up by feeding me high calorie foods that gave me terrible gas and an uncertain complexion. My hair was very fine, and the only way my mother could keep it under control was to braid it so tightly that my eyes developed an oriental slant.
She couldn't find a crown that would stay on my head and finally resorted to taping a rubber band on one she found in a costume shop that was obviously made to fit Humpty Dumpty. The only gown that would cover my bloated middle was one of her old maternity dresses. "Queens are supposed to wear velvet robes," I told my mother. "Not cotton prints with expandable waists."
"You will look very regal, Lynnie Ruth," she assured me. "As long as you don't smile. Those braces tend to catch the light."
The night of the performance, I stood center stage with my crown resting precariously on my eyebrows and tried not to trip on the sagging hem of my dress. I wore an apron over it and carried a cooking spoon to indicate that I had spent hours over a hot stove creating the dinner that would turn the tide for my people. Freddie wiped his mouth on one of his mother's damask napkins and decided to improvise his lines. "What a marvelous dinner, honey!" he declared. "Where did you get all those recipes?"
I didn't remember that cue when we rehearsed the play and I had to think very fast. "I always use the Hadassah cookbook," I told him. "And I'm glad you like dinner because this one will have to be your last."
Freddie was really into the mood of the piece by this time and he shook his head dramatically. "Oh no!" he exclaimed. "I was counting on apple knishes for next Friday night."
"Well," I said. "You will have to order some from Brauer's Delicatessen because next Thursday, a bunch of thugs are going to do me in."
Freddie paused and tried to remember what to say next. There was some rustling of programs and then Larry Zaft, his face beet red, whispered something in Freddie's ear. "My God!" said Freddie. "Are you Jewish? No wonder you're such a good cook! Why would anyone want to finish you off? That doesn't make sense. Who is going to do such a thing to you?"
I paused and took a deep breath. This was the moment that would make me famous and save the day for all the Jews. I pushed my crown out of my eyes and I turned to face Haman. The audience was silent and I squared my shoulders. Buddy Glasier leered at me in his very best manner and I faltered. He was really very handsome and I adored him. I just couldn't say the words that would send him to the gallows and make the audience boo him off the stage.
I swiveled around and pointed my finger at Larry Zaft. "He is the villain!" I hissed.
"I am not!" cried Larry and his eyes filled with tears. "I'm your uncle!"
By this time, Buddy had recovered from his shock at being saved. "You're not even Jewish, you fraud," he said and he leered in his most ferocious manner. "You have been hatching a secret plot to destroy all the Jews around here and I'm going to help Esther save them."
The shock was too much for Larry and he wet his pants. The teacher side stepped the puddle that was spreading into the footlights and smiled at the astonished congregation. "Wonderful improvisation, boys and girls!" she exclaimed. "And now it's time for our parade. Let's have everyone join hands and dance around the auditorium while our hospitality mothers put out the hamantaschen."
The audience applauded and Buddy Glasier took my hand for the curtain call. "You were really clever," he said. "That ending was a wonderful surprise."
I blushed. "Why thank you!" I said, "But it was your quick thinking that stole the show."
"Happy Purim, Queen Esther," he said and he kissed me.
And indeed it was the happiest Purim I ever had.
from the February 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine