masquerade Persian New Year
of the Jewish Calendar rests
in the arms of Mardi Gras, an
upside down play of masked and
unmasked images dancing
at the party while Purimpshpiel
stages a drama: unfolding
parody, satire, commentary—
the whole Megillah. And
who puts on an Esther mask
on the way to the
Beverly Hills Purim Ball, but Hadassah
herself, on her annual pilgrimage
to the festivities of inversions.
Nu, who do you think inspired
the Rabbis to write in the Gemara
that Jews should get so wasted
that they cannot distinguish
between “Blessed” Haman and
“Cursed” Mordechai, if not Vashti?
Vashti, who released herself
from the lustful gaze
of her husband’s court,
now wears the mask of that
same Ahashuerus who banished
his Queen to her freedom.
The Tel Aviv Opera Purim Ball
rejoices in the refractions
of self and story—politics
of the beauty contest
for the virgin, check or mate.
Revelers cheer an Uncle arrogantly
dressed in mourner’s cloth
who entered her in competition,
then stripped her of her mask
to save their people,
while letting his people massacre
And in Tel Aviv and Beverly Hills,
the masked dancers
drink up the casts
and no longer recall
between good and good,
mask and masque—
so many layers
of truths, peeled
one after another,
as the frenzied forgetting
tears off masks over masks,
layered like ancient rubble
under old cities and their tels,
like history and politics,
like geology and religion,
until what lies beneath
and beneath again
in the eyes
of the masquerade.
And Hadassah laughs,
dancing freely with Vashti,
two lovers at last
hidden and unhidden
at Tel Aviv and Beverly Hills
Balls—globes of pleasure
circling the world
in three complete lines
masks, each one
a part of the whole.
The poet dons the mask of commentator, but the poem always wears at least one mask in the presence of the poet, so beware. And, if the poem reveals (a) different mask(s) to you, dear reader, please explore. The poet does not trust that any poem reveals all of its masks at any one time, especially to the poet.
The Jewish holiday of Purim celebrates the tale told in the Book of Esther, a story that, remarkably, does not once mention G-d. Set in Persia, which rules over the Jews at the time, The Scroll of Esther (or Megillah) layers many levels of deceit and masquerade, and the tale turns on itself in many ways.
Book of Esther
The King of Persia, Ahashuerus, banishes his Queen, Vashti, when she refuses to dance in front of his guests. Mordechai urges his niece to enter the beauty contest held to replace the queen, but to hide that she is Jewish (and probably not eligible to be queen of Persia). So she uses her non-Jewish name, Esther, instead of her Jewish name, Hadassah, wins, and becomes Queen Esther.
Meanwhile, Haman, the viceroy to the King, hates Jews and especially Mordechai, who refused to bow before Haman, and who is in the story honored for revealing (through now Queen Esther) a plot against the king. Haman has to lead him through the streets on a horse, Mordechai dressed as a king, Haman’s own idea of how to be honored—which he is asked to tell the king at a party, perhaps a masque (Haman thinks it’s for himself that the King wants to know how to honor a person).
Haman, whose orders are like the King’s own (another mask), plots the hanging of Mordechai and the genocide of the Jews. While the rest of the city celebrates an occasion of state (the defeat of Jerusalem), Mordechai dresses in mourning because of Haman’s plot against his people. However, this is an act of treason during the celebration. He thus shames Esther into unmasking herself to Ahashuerus, who reverses Haman’s murderous order when he learns his wife is a Jew.
Jews celebrate Purim as a day of deliverance from death (and genocide). However, the rescinding of the order came too late to the walled cities, which had to fight to defend themselves (under dispensation of the king). So, the celebration of Purim as a holiday is one day later for the cities that were walled cities at the time of the story (including Jerusalem and Tiberias—this is called Shoshan Purim). The scroll ends with the recounting of Haman’s hanging and the killing of his kin, the death tolls from the battles at the walled cities, an unmasking, perhaps, of another form of genocide—in the name of defense.
The date of the holiday itself loosely coincides with Carnival (Mardi Gras) and the Persian New Year. Jews celebrate with Purimshpiel (Yiddish for Purim stories, usually in the form of plays—traditionally, parodies and satires on current events using the story of Esther) and by donning costumes and masks, holding parties (balls), and getting drunk. Yes, the Gemara says that Jews should get drunk enough that they no longer know the difference between Haman and Mordechai, respectively, the male villain and hero of the story of Esther. Perhaps it is to make up for Eden and the whole Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil thing. This poem could be read as a sort of Purimshpiel variation.
The donning of masks allows us to hide who we are, but masks also reveal who we are, or an aspect of who we are that is usually hidden. Carnivalesque masquerade allows us to try on aspects of ourselves or display those energies that we normally repress or hide (perhaps in a closet somewhere, with the costume). Drunkenness allows forgetting, but also disinhibition and release. Perhaps we learn of the capacity of good and evil within ourselves, as well as about those other parts of ourselves that would otherwise be “masked” by everyday existence.
So, the poem has Hadassah, the Jewish girl, wearing the mask of her alter ego from the story, Queen Esther. Yet perhaps this is an aspect of her all along? Perhaps we all have hidden “royal” qualities? Esther replaced Vashti, who was banished by King Ahashuerus for refusing to dance (naked) before him and the court. And Queen Vashti, in the poem, wears the mask of the king. He banished her from the court, but to where? Did she stand up for her own self-respect by refusing to succumb to what, centuries later, a feminist film critic would identify as scopophilia, or the male gaze? Was her banishment a freedom? How does gender play through this story, that seems to focus on men, but relies on a woman at its center, perhaps two women, if we look more closely at Vashti?
The poem suggests in its own center that masks unveil as we peel them, but also there is the hint that they reveal at each layer (like the layers of rubble beneath old cities that mound into tels, which hint at the history of the eras of the city; and like the layers of both geology and religion, which are ancient with something hot and molten at the core, like our own psychological being). This move to the psychological enters the mystical, with the masked women, who appear to be King Ahashuerus and Queen Esther now that they wear their masks, dancing together (yet at separate balls, one in Beverly Hills, its own masquerade and center of Hollywood glitz and glamor, and the other in Tel Aviv, the “new city” of Eretz Israel). This is like the Malkhut and Shekhina, or Shabbat (King, or male aspect of G-d) and Bride ( Queen, or feminine aspect of G-d).
And then comes the poem’s mysterious end, which references Exodus 14:19-21 the three lines of Torah that, with 72 letters each, Kabbalists believe can be permuted into the 72 Names of G-d. The poem suggests that these Names are both masked and masks (that hide or reveal?)—their hiddenness echoes the hiddenness of G-d in the text of Esther, and the ineffability of divinity in all of its guises.
The stanzas follow a sequence of line numbers each, counting the first line (which wears the mask of the title). The pattern goes (before the title, think of 0): 0 lines (an extra line break marked with … before the sections that follow after the first one), 1 line, 1 line, 2 lines, 3 lines, 5 lines, 8 lines. This pattern repeats three times (for a total of 60 lines), then goes 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, for a total of 72 lines, like that number of Hidden Names.
The sequence of numbers used (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8) is the first part of an infinite series, known as the Fibonacci sequence, that has many interesting relationships in math and nature, including the pattern of sunflower seeds in their flower, unfurling fern heads, and, significant to Jewish mystical allusions, the branching of trees.
The Hebrew word for life, chai, has the numerical value of 18. Twice chai, or double life, is 36. Double that, and…72. That the number of lines in the poem equals 72 probably doesn’t mean much more than that our lives are not singular, but layered.
Wrestling with Esther: Purim Spiels, Gender, and Political Dissidence by Emily Nepon — a modern Midrash that informs this poem.
Purim and the Masks We Wear by Ari Kahn — a commentary that, while coming from a very different perspective, has some interesting background from traditional Midrash.
This is a lightly edited version of :
Dickel, M. (2013). Drash Meets Mosh: Purim: A Fibonacci Sequence? (Column). Drash Pit . February. Online. Original url: drashpit.com/Main/Drash_Meet_Mosh.htm (no longer active). Archived.