Friday, March 18, 2011

In Honor of Purim: My Favorite *Fantasy*

No, it's not 'that' kind of fantasy, but it's one that has recurred regularly since I was a teenager. I'm sharing this on the eve of Purim, a holiday that commemorates yet another occasion on which the Jewish people weren't annihilated. (Joke:  The Entirely of Jewish History can be Summed Up in Ten Words: "They tried to kill us all; they failed, let's eat.")

Our story begins in the court of King Ahasuerus (aka Xerxes) of Persia, who summoned his wife, Queen Vashti (the Biblical version of the Trophy Wife), to display her beauty to the guests he was entertaining, but she refused. Fearing that women throughout his kingdom would interpret this as permission to defy their own husbands if he didn't make an example of Vashti, Ahasuerus removed (executed?) her from her position as Queen. Before the sheets even cooled, the King summoned all beautiful maidens in the kingdom to present themselves as candidates for her replacement.

As it happened, a young Jewish woman named Esther was determined to be the fairest of them all and became Ahasuerus' new bride. Around this time, her cousin, Mordechai, overheard of a plot to assassinate the King. He reported the plot through Esther, thus saving the King's life. (Don't worry if you have no idea how any of this plays into my fantasy, but hang in there).

Also around this time-- a busy week in Persia -- Haman was promoted to be the King's Vizier, his right-hand man. Incensed that one man, Mordechai, a Jew, didn't bow down to him as he felt befitted his station, Haman told the King that the Jews didn't obey the King's laws, and therefore they should all be destroyed. The King agreed, and issued the decree to annihilate all the Jews of Persia on the date that Haman had chosen. 
('Purim' comes from the Hebrew word for 'lottery' as Haman drew lots to determine the date on which to wipe out the Jews of Persia.)

I'll finish the story briefly because, after a long buildup, this where my fantasy comes in (and it has nothing to do with wanting to be Queen or dancing in harem pants).

Whether or not it was the decision to annihilate an entire race, the King couldn't sleep -- "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" (Shakespeare, "Henry IV"), as well it should be for someone in a position to destroy an entire nation. He called for his favorite reading material, a chronicle of past events in his Kingdom, and discovered that the man who had saved his life, Mordechai, was never rewarded for doing so.

Mordechai told Esther of Haman's plot and implored her to beg the King for a reprieve for the Jews. Skipping more details to get to the point, Esther did so, thus saving the lives of her people. And at the King's insistence, she revealed that it was none other than Haman who had wanted to destroy the Jews. Being no fool (this time), the King had Haman and his 10 sons executed.

So what does this have to do with me? When I was a teenager, I had an idea for an episode of Star Trek (the original -- that's how long ago I was a teen) that would be loosely based on the story of "Hamlet." I wrote it up and mailed it to Gene Roddenberry, though I knew his assistant would merely toss the script outline into the slush pile.

But in my fantasy, Roddenberry can't sleep, and since no one has been writing a history of Star Trek (at that time), he reaches for -- you guessed it -- the slush pile, reads my story idea, thinks it's brilliant, and the rest is history. Or rather, the rest is a version of history that never happened. But every so often, when I submit an article, a manuscript, an idea, etc., especially one with high reward potential, his fantasy returns but now it's an editor/actor/producer/etc. who reads my tossed-aside submission, and you know the rest. I don't think this fantasy is unique; every writer probably harbors some version of it, even ones who don't know the story of Purim.

So the joke from the beginning of this piece ends with eating three-cornered pastries filled with fruit that are called Hamantashen, symbolizing Haman's favored, tri-corned headgear.

I hope this wasn't too much of a let-down from the build-up, but the following definitely is: While checking certain details of the Purim story, I came across new information that I had not learned in Hebrew School. In January of this year, the Iranian government downgraded the status of Mordechai and Esther's tomb (not a World Heritage Site but a pilgrimage destination for Jews and Muslims), which is located in the somewhat ironically named city of Hamedan. This was because 250 militant students threatened to destroy the tomb in retaliation for Israeli archaeological excavation beneath the Al-Aksa Mosque. The Mosque, an Islamic Holy Site, is located in the Old City of Jerusalem (adjacent to the  Western, or Wailing, Wall) where archaeological digs have been going on for many years.

But the consequences of removing the sign that identifies the tomb are greater than confounding pilgrims. Fars, an Iranian news agency, is promoting the idea of Purim as a day of mourning for Muslims, blaming Mordechai and Esther for calling for the massacre of 75,000 Persians on the date when all Persian Jews were supposed to have been destroyed. 

In my recollection, the Book of Esther that tells the events of Purim ends not long after Haman and his sons were executed. But what I read about the 'Purim Massacre' is this: Ahasuerus agreed to spare the Jewish people at Esther's request. Unfortunately, the King was not permitted to reverse a royal decree, even his own, so he gave his signet ring to Mordechai, who declared that the Jews of Persia should defend themselves from their pending destruction. Even this doesn't sound so terrible, but it goes further: Mordechai didn't merely tell Jews to defend themselves -- he told them to massacre the Persians who would have killed them. Purim, then, in Iran, is known as the "Iranian Holocaust," and there are calls to make it a day of mourning.

An excellent article in The Guardian traced the source of the story to a 1934 article "imitating German anti-semitism, fabricated sensational reports of Jewish plots." The explanation of how this led to the declaration of the "Iranian Holocause" is described far better in The Guardian article than I could summarize it here, so I suggest reading it.

What these events show is that racism is, as we know, alive and well, it also demonstrates that hatred can always find a 'reliable' basis. It's sad to see that in a time and place in which there is already enough persecution, there are people actively looking to stir the pot of hatred until it is roiling.

Happy Purim, and please pledge to be tolerant even of those who hate us.
(Dedicated to Rachelle Pachtman)

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