April 2015 has been on my mind for a while. Since last September, to be exact, when I began counting the weeks to estimate a due date for my first child.
For the past several months,I have been reading the books, cleaning the house, painting the room, purchasing the gear, making checklists at work, all in anticipation for this impending April deadline. It wasn’t until last week as I was strolling through the grocery store past the matzah display that I realized I had left something off the to-do list: Passover.
As I cracked open one of those tiny bottles of Kedem grape juice (hey, it’s almost a satisfying treat after a long, dry, 8 months), I thought about our annual seder in Jackson, Mississippi, that I’ve come to love so much.
Every year, my husband and I host thirty-plus people, packed in our small home. It’s a special time of sharing my favorite traditions, enjoying the meal I spent two days preparing using old family recipes, sharing my Jewish culture with my mostly non-Jewish friends.
But this year… could we pull it off?
Three years ago my husband and I decided to forego hosting the event, seeing as it was so close to our wedding, but this year I’m feeling like it needs to be a priority. I’ve been getting a lot of great advice about parenthood, but one thing I can’t seem to swallow is when experienced parents give me that stern warning about how my life will never be the same. I really like the way life has been going so far; do I really have to give it all up? Thinking about Passover, and other Jewish holidays , I’m reminded that they serve as important touchstones throughout the year and how ritual and tradition helps focus and redirect a sometimes challenging or overwhelming time in our lives. They aren’t something having a child will take away – they are something I’ll want to share with the new addition to our family.
And so, seder is a go!
Sure, there’s going to be a third person living in my house soon, but right now it’s time to make the charoset. Sure, I’ve got to finish my spring semester assignments before I go into labor, but this is the time to read the story of Exodus in funny voices with my favorite friends. Sure, I’ve got piles of baby clothes to wash, but this is time to search for the afikomen (bonus if someone finds tiny socks during the process!).
I’ve tried to soften my stubborn habits during this pregnancy and as I entered my third trimester I began accepting my limitations. My body is working on a major project that needs special care and attention. But on the days when my mind starts racing about all the things I can’t do or the things that are about to change, I find comfort in the yearly traditions that won’t change. I don’t have to host the seder, but this year part of me really needs to. The Kedem grape juice doesn’t quite hit the spot as much as its Manischewitz cousin, but in the grocery aisle that day, the sugar provided just enough energy to throw some matzah in my cart and commit to making this a very pregnant Passover to remember, with maybe a few extra helpings of “matzah crack” for the mom to be!
Little girls don’t usually dress up as Vashti for Purim. Esther is the heroine, after all, and those poofy princess dresses that went on sale after Easter last year make the perfect Esther costume. But we shouldn’t be writing off Vashti so quickly—she’s just as much of a hero as Esther is, albeit for different reasons.
The set-up for the Purim story is a familiar one: Queen Vashti’s expulsion from the palace that creates the demand for a new queen and ultimately puts Esther in a place to be able to save the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of the king’s evil adviser, Haman.
But that’s not why Vashti is a hero. It’s the details of the set-up—the downfall of Queen Vashti—that are too often overlooked that make her a hero. By skimming through the first chapter of Meglilat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) so we can get to the grogger-inducing, Haman-filled chapters later in the scroll, we miss a valuable opportunity to see an unprecedentedly early example of feminism. This idea has picked up some traction, and I tend to agree with where these ideas land.
So let’s take a look.
We meet King Ahashveros just as he’s finishing up a 180-day long party and beginning another “feast,” this time for all the citizens of Shushan, the capital. By the seventh day of this second round of parties, the king’s heart is “merry with wine”; in this drunk state, he sends for his wife Vashti, wanting to show off her beauty to all those in attendance. Vashti refuses. The king is furious– so furious he gets rid of her and seeks a new queen.
And that’s where the heroism begins, right there when Vashti says “no.” Rejecting the king’s request was a big deal—so big, in fact, that one of Ahashveros’ councilmen warned that it would have ripple effects across the entire kingdom. Vashti’s refusal was a stain upon the perceived control of the king over his kingdom. What was worse, the king’s adviser noted, was that other women would follow by example and use Vashti’s refusal as authorization to disobey their own husbands.
As a woman in a position of power, Vashti did exactly what she should have: she used her public status to lead by example, empowering citizens against abuse. It’s not just that Vashti took a stand against the objectification of her own body. Vashti served as a role model for the entirety of the female population of the kingdom… and for girls today looking for strong female role models. Two thousand years later, women’s rights advocate and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti’s radical refusal the “first stand for women’s rights.”
So maybe it’s time to re-think our costume choices. When we dress up as Vashti, we should do so with pride and not derision—after all, while Esther nobly stood up on behalf of Jewish people, Vashti stood up just as nobly for womankind.
Here’s a lesson for Jewish kids I came across this December — which is a pretty good lesson for adults, too.
One of my favorite things about teaching young children is watching their faces relax into a trance when they are absorbed in a read-aloud storybook. The dreamy look on a child’s face as they listen to a story read is amazing. It’s unlike any kind of entertainment a mere screen can provide, new doors opening as a child is completely absorbed into the story.
At our last Children’s Shabbat at Temple Sinai in New Orleans, I was privileged to read aloud the wonderful book, The Only One Club by Jane Naliboff. This book tells a story that begins with a Jewish child sitting in a classroom as the teacher announces that for that day, they will be making Christmas decorations. From there, the child decides to create a new club called “The Only One Club,” as she is the only Jewish child in her class. One by one, each of the children join The Only One Club as they each have something unique and special about themselves that qualifies them for the club.
After reading this charming story, we went on to create our own unique Hanukkah wrapping paper with hand and foot prints which of course the kids loved!
At this time of year, it’s a nice reminder that we are indeed unique — and that we should celebrate not only what makes us special, but also what makes everyone else special. It’s like the Margaret Mead quote: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”
Wouldn’t it be amazing if all of us adults looked in the face of “the other” and marveled at their own uniqueness instead of fearing the differences between us? That’s a lesson I think we can take from Hanukkah and carry right on forward with us into the new year. Here’s to a great 2015!