Feminist Esther: A Retelling of the Purim Story

Heads-up, for the benefit of my frum readers (which as far as I know is only one) – there’s some vulgar language and profanity in this story.

Also heads-up, there’s some possibly triggering rape discussion in here.

 וַיְהִי, בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

And so it was in the days of Achashverosh –

Wait, why are we marking time by Achashverosh? I mean, I know he was the king, but just because he wrested and maintained power doesn’t mean we have to weave his wrongful power into the fabric of time itself.

Gurl, nah. Let’s start over.

And so it was in the days of Vashti.

Yes, that Vashti, you know the one who everyone says was so vain that she refused to come at her husband’s command because she had a zit or two?

Well, why on earth should she come running because her husband called? Why shouldn’t she refuse to be paraded around like a prize pig?

So anyway, so it was in the days of Vashti.

Her power-hungry misogynist husband called her to his party so he could show her off to the whole kingdom and brag about his beautiful royal-born wife.

Vashti wasn’t having it.

She knew how little being royal means when you’re a woman. She knew how degraded she would be, paraded around as if her only qualities were her beautiful face and beautiful body.

So she refused.

And Achashverosh had her executed for disobedience.

Boy, if he’d only known.

Because that cute little women’s party he thought his wife was hosting while he bro-partied? It wasn’t a party. It was the beginning of an uprising.

The women had had enough.

When the poor little misogynist king realized he had no wife – because it had somehow eluded him that killing a woman means he won’t have access to her anymore, with or without her consent – he sent out search parties for the most beautiful woman in his empire.

This was their chance, the women of the world. Their chance to continue the resistance that Vashti had started. And they seized it.

They streamed in from all over the empire, had their names stamped in the harem book, and began their preparations.

The king appointed Heigai to tend to the women, thinking that as a eunuch, Heigai would be unable to tamper with the products he was tasked with guarding.

Oh, if only Achashverosh had known! Heigai was a trans woman, and she was now in the perfect position to help the other women with their insurrection.

Now, Esther, who lived somewhere in the empire, was a sweet young girl. She wasn’t a feminist. She didn’t want to fight. She just wanted to marry a nice young man, have some nice kids, and take care of her nice home. She wanted a nice quiet life.

It wasn’t to be.

The king’s soldiers found her hiding in her uncle’s closet. They took one look at her and knew the king would want to see such a beautiful woman.

There was a brief moment when they debated taking their turns with her and leaving her, broken and used – the king would never know, after all.

Esther listened to their deliberations, terrified and trembling.

But bro-culture – sorry, I mean chivalry – won out, and their loyalty to the king prevented them from having their way with the lovely Esther.

They took her to the harem, where she refused all of Heigai’s offers of baths and perfumes and makeup and accessories.

“But honey, how will you accomplish your purpose if you don’t pretty yourself up?” Heigai cajoled.

“Is this what you think my purpose is?” Esther lashed out. “Being pretty, selling myself to the king? Is that all I’m worth?”

Heigai laughed. “Oh honey, no. Don’t you know what’s happening here? Didn’t you come to join the resistance?”

“Resistance? No!” Esther cried. “I just want to go home!”

Heigai put her arm around Esther. “It’s okay, darling,” she said. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay. Here, let me draw you a nice warm bath. You’ll feel much better after you’ve relaxed. I’ll add a bath bomb too…”

“No. I don’t want anything,” Esther insisted with principled resolve. “I will not pretty myself up to make myself more desirable to the king.”

“That’s not – oh, okay,” Heigai sighed. “Just let me know if I can do anything for you.”

Esther watched as girl after girl was taken to the king, one girl each night. None of them came back, and Esther knew it was because they had been claimed as the king’s property, to live in his harem of concubines for the rest of their lives.

Esther wept and prayed for herself to be released from their fate, to be able to go home and settle down with a nice young man and their kids, not to spend the rest of her days as these girls would, locked away behind palace walls.

The girls didn’t seem at all upset that they were being treated like playthings for the king. Each afternoon, they gathered in groups, with Heigai circulating among them, grooming themselves and chattering excitedly.

How can they not see how wrong this is? Esther wondered.

And then it happened.

Despite her prayers to be spared what the others had to endure, Esther was called to the king’s bedchambers. Heigai plied her with makeup and perfumes again, but Esther continued to refuse.

“Just remember – you have one night with the king. You have a chance to make a difference. Do this, for all women!”

“How will being forced to lose my virginity to a tyrant make a difference to all women?” Esther asked, puzzled. “And why do you care so much? You’re not even a woman.”

“Okay, hold up,” Heigai said, holding up a finger. “All this time you spent in here and you still don’t know what’s going on? It’s one thing to know what’s happening and still choose to live your own quiet life. Still wrong, but okay, I can understand. But you didn’t even bother to find out what you’re opting out of?”

“But I -”

“Not done!” Heigai wagged her finger and held up a second one. “Second point: Not only women care about women getting their freedom. There are plenty of feminist allies out there, men who want to help us. And third point!” She raised a third finger. “I may not dress as one, in order to maintain my cover. But I am most definitely a woman. Sure, they chopped off my balls for their own fucked up reasons when I was a kid. But hey, thanks to them, because I am in fact not the man they thought I would be! Not a fucking eunuch either, thank you very fucking much! I’m a woman, through and fucking through.”

Esther blinked back the tears that had sprung to her eyes. “You don’t have to yell,” she said, chin and voice trembling, “or curse!”

“Oh grow up,” Heigai said. “I’m allowed a little anger and cursing now and then. We all are. Including you – you should try it sometime.”

Esther gaped, dumbfounded.

“Look,” Heigai said in a gentler tone, “I have to take you to the king now. But promise me one thing: when you get to the harem of concubines, talk to the others, okay? Just – talk to them. Okay? And if you decide not to join the resistance after that, that’s fine. And another thing – so okay, I’m asking you to promise two things – don’t undermine the queen when the king finally chooses someone. Okay?”

Esther nodded, eyes wide. Maybe the girls weren’t all looking forward to their night with the king, after all. There was something else going on here, a dream bigger than any individual person.

And she had been so focused on her own plight and her own shattered dreams that she had almost missed out on it.

Well, at least I’m not wearing makeup or anything, she consoled herself as Heigai marched her silently down the long corridors to the king’s bedchambers. Achashverosh will never choose me to be his queen the way I look now. I’ll suffer through this night and then speak to the women tomorrow. There’s still time for me to fix this.

Unfortunately, to the dismay of both Esther and Heigai, the king was immensely and obviously pleased with the girl. He sprawled on his bed, completely naked, and his immediate arousal as she entered the room was impossible to miss.

From her demure stance in the doorway, Esther darted a glance at Heigai. Maybe he reacts like this to every girl, she thought. Heigai’s expression told her otherwise.

“Go now,” the king said to Heigai, waving a hand lazily in their general direction.

Heigai bowed to the king and muttered to Esther. “Looks like it’s all you, darling. Talk to the other women.”

Esther reached out to her desperately, but Heigai slipped away.

“You got this, gurl,” she whispered, and was gone.

Sure enough, after a night of constant sex, Esther was declared queen.

וַיֶּאֱהַב הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת-אֶסְתֵּר מִכָּל-הַנָּשִׁים, וַתִּשָּׂא-חֵן וָחֶסֶד לְפָנָיו מִכָּל-הַבְּתוּלוֹת; וַיָּשֶׂם כֶּתֶר-מַלְכוּת בְּרֹאשָׁהּ, וַיַּמְלִיכֶהָ תַּחַת וַשְׁתִּי

She was transferred to the harem of concubines, all of whom now had to wait on her and keep her always at the ready for the king’s summons.

“Teach me!” Esther begged the women. “Please, please, I beg you – teach me what your plans are!”

The women laughed. “Oh, darling, you don’t need to beg! We’ll teach you everything.”

Months went by and Esther was not called to the king again. He had gotten used to a series of one-night-stands, a new girl to fuck every night. Just because he had found the most beautiful girl to show off as his queen, that shouldn’t mean he should stop fucking around, now, should it? He didn’t think so, nor did his advisors. Why send the other girls home when he could fuck them and collect them in his harem?

Esther was a quick learner. Within almost no time at all, she had grasped the aim of the group, their complaints against the patriarchy, their mission, their plans. And she was on board.

She still hoped the women would be able to accomplish their goals without using her position as queen. They all assured her that was impossible, but still she hoped.

One day Hasach rushed in with a wild look in his eyes. (Hasach was the eunuch in charge of the post-fucked harem. He was non-binary, but preferred he/his pronouns, which he shamelessly and guiltlessly admitted was probably compensation for his stolen testicles.) Anyway, that wild look in his eyes.

“Esther!” he gasped. “Your uncle, Mordechai, you know, the one who sits in the palace courtyard every day?”

“Yes, Hasach,” Esther said gently. “I only have one uncle.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Hasach waved a hand and then took a deep breath to steady himself. “He’s all dressed in, like, sackcloth and ashes!”

Esther shook her head. “Typical male melodrama,” she muttered.

Then her eyes widened and she gasped. She had always respected her uncle and treated him with the utmost honor! Had the feminists so deeply influenced her that she could no longer think of even her uncle in kind terms?

“Go to him,” she told Hasach. “Give him decent clothes, and ask him what’s going on.”

Hasach hurried off, but came back twenty minutes later still carrying a set of clean clothing.

“He won’t take them. He says he’s in mourning. He says the king ordered all the Jews killed, so he’s in mourning.”

“Preemptive mourning?” Esther said archly, then gasped again at her newfound levels of snark and shade.

Hasach laughed. “Good one. No, well, he says you can do something to help. He wants you to go to the king and beg him to repeal the decree.”

“Okay, hold up,” Esther held up a finger. “First of all, I won’t beg for anything. If I go to the king, it will be with the strength of my womanhood and the strength of all these women–”

“–and non-binary folk,” Hasach interjected.

“And non-binary folk. And bitches don’t beg.”

“Hell no, we don’t!”

Esther turned to see a roomful of women listening attentively to her. She faltered a moment, then went on.

“Second, remind my uncle that anyone who goes to the king without a summons is killed. Achashverosh hasn’t summoned me in months. My uncle is essentially asking me to give up my life.”

Hasach looked at Esther with admiring eyes and a little smirk. “Right on, gurl.”

He saluted and, with over-dramatized pomp, executed an about-face and left.

Esther breathed past the sudden tightness in her chest. She felt a little lightheaded. Her vision blurred, and she was grateful to feel a hand on her arm.

“Come on, Esther, let’s sit down.” Cassandra’s familiar voice was a balm to Esther’s ringing ears. She let Cassandra lead her to a couch and press a glass of water into her hands. Esther drank deeply as Cassandra stroked her hair.

“Darling Esther,” she said in her low, soothing voice. “We need you in the resistance, and we are so happy to have you fighting with us. But you don’t need to become someone you’re not. You don’t need to shout ‘bitches don’t beg’ in order to speak truth to power!”

“How do I do it, then?” Esther clasped her hands around the glass in her lap and turned to face Cassandra.

Cassandra looked into her eyes and continued stroking her hair. “Just be yourself, dear. Be your best self, and you’ll know what to do.” She moved her hand from Esther’s hair to her cheek. “Be the you we’ve all come to love.”

Esther was suddenly aware of Cassandra’s hip and thigh pressing against hers. She felt something stirring inside her and nearly stopped breathing as she returned Cassandra’s intense gaze.

“Your uncle’s for real, though.” Hasach’s serious tone broke into Esther’s consciousness and she jumped up.

“What – what did he say?” she asked, smoothing the front of her skirt and trying not to sound too flustered. She decided to ignore the amused look Hasach shot at Cassandra.

כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת–רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ–אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת

“Your uncle says, if you don’t do this now, salvation will find the Jews from another source, and you and your father’s house will be lost.”

Esther gasped and clutched her chest, but Hasach help up a hand. “And he says this is probably the reason you became queen in the first place – to be in a position to save the Jews.”

“Now he cares!” Esther cried. “Now he wants me to sacrifice myself! When hundreds of girls had to give up their lives to be locked away as the king’s property, he says nothing! But for this, it’s important enough to dress in sackcloth and ask me to risk my life!”

“To be fair,” Cassandra murmured, “people will literally die if the decree is carried out.”

Esther whirled to face her. “Whose side are you on, anyway!”

“Whoa, whoa, okay,” Cassandra held up her hands and backed away.

Esther burst into tears. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I just – this is so unfair! So wrong!”

“Ah, doesn’t every little feminist flower have this moment,” Hasach said nostalgically.

“Stop it! Stop it!” Esther stamped her foot. “I need to figure out what to do!”

“You will, dear,” Cassandra said. “Take some time, think this through, speak to us if you need to – you’ll figure out what to do.”

“One thing I know for sure,” Esther said sullenly.

“What’s that?” Hasach and Cassandra asked simultaneously.

“If there’s a reason for me being queen, if there’s a reason for anything at all in this messed-up world, this isn’t it. I will do what I can to save as many people as I can, but the idea that I was put here for some reason is bullshit. I create my own destiny and my own purpose.”

Cassandra began a slow clap, looking directly at Esther with a huge smile on her face, just clapping and clapping, slowly and forcefully.

Esther blushed and ducked her head. She had a sudden flash of a vision of that nice home and kids, but this time it wasn’t a nice young man with her – it was Cassandra.

She shook her head and set the thought aside for later.

“Okay, I’m going to think.”

The plan Esther came up with was brilliant – it used the femininity the king would expect from her, along with a good dose of hidden brains that he would not expect from her.

It used empathy and emotional intelligence, a display of emotion the king would expect and an emotional manipulation he would never see coming.

Cassandra and the others loved her plan, and laughed at the sarcastic touch of asking Mordechai to gather all the Jews to pray for her before she attempted her plan.

They knew that when Esther used her influence to save the Jews from genocide, they would be set back back in their plans to fight the patriarchy , at least a little bit. But they all agreed – including Esther, after she calmed down a bit – that it was the right thing to do in the moment.

 וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי, אָבָדְתִּי

The plan worked in the short run. Esther got the king to repeal the decree against the Jews.

In the long run, the run turned out to be much longer than Esther and the other women would have preferred.

They didn’t overthrow the patriarchy.

When Mordechai wanted to write the story of what happened, Esther insisted that she be a co-author, and she included subtle hints throughout.

She knew that the patriarchal mode of exegesis would ignore her clues, but she hoped that someday the feminist movement would enable women to study the text and interpret it in their own way.

And she was sure that once that happened, her efforts would not be in vain.

She was sure the women would see the clues she had left and would know that despite the appearance of compliance with the patriarchy, she worked to bring it down as much as she could.

For herself, she lived a good life, even though she was contained to the palace. Sure, she had to go get fucked by the king every so often, and she had to bear his children. But she had hope for the future.

And she raised her children from infancy to adolescence in a society of women, with Cassandra by her side (and in other parts of her) all the while.

Image from International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism

2 thoughts on “Feminist Esther: A Retelling of the Purim Story

  1. It’s clever, if terribly anachronistic.

    I made me think about how the rights revolutions were/are dependent on wider societal changes that allowed people to protest without being killed wholesale. Bad things happened to protesters, and some even died, but by then the times when soldiers intentionally fired volleys into crowds of protesters was long gone.

    1. Indeed, terribly anachronistic 😉 It’s an attempt in the genre of fairy-tale retelling, which doesn’t care about historical accuracy at all 😁

      And yes, a large part of the inspiration for this story is what’s going on with the teens standing up for gun control now, and a number of tweets and Facebook posts talking about the generational divide / unity that is almost certainly a significant contributing factor to enabling this moment.

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