Ever since I was young, I have always felt a strong connection to Purim. For most girls at that age, the focus was dressing up as princesses and making lots of noise at appropriate moments during the Megillah reading, but for me there was something about the courage of our heroine Esther that made her stand out as a true role model. It was always refreshing to celebrate the actions of this extremely brave young woman, who I interpreted to be rather unassuming and from a regular background just like you or me.
As an Orthodox girl who attended a non-Jewish school throughout my education, I understood to some extent how it felt to be in the minority but, unlike Esther, I was able to be outwardly proud of my Jewish identity, and never once considered hiding it. I used it as an opportunity to educate my fellow students about a religion with which most of them had no previous experience.
My teenage self found special affinity with Esther over the fact that we were both vegetarians, something which I still am to this day. According to the Talmud, Esther was a vegetarian while she lived in the palace of King Ahasuerus, Vegetarianism would have allowed Esther to have avoided violating the kosher dietary laws while keeping her Jewish identity secret. Not necessarily my reasoning for abstaining from eating meat but, in my eyes, it was another factor that contributed to my personal understanding of Esther’s character and conduct.
When I moved to my community of Borehamwood and Elstree a few years ago and discovered that there was a women’s Megillah group, I was immediately drawn to it and felt I must try to be a part of it in some way. However, as much as I was extremely keen to learn to recite a part of the Megillah, this decision came with a great deal of fear and trepidation. Would my Hebrew be good enough to allow me to learn my section accurately? Would I be able to conquer the tune, reading Hebrew without vowels, and overcome my stage fright? And, perhaps bizarrely, would the other women in the group accept me with open arms? I remember turning up to the first meeting with a huge sense of intimidation and worry – was I really capable of this or was I aiming a bit too far out of my comfort zone?
In contrast, what I discovered was a group of like-minded, supportive and dedicated women, all with their own reasons for wanting to read the Megillah, which made me realize that I actually hoped to gain more from this experience than I initially thought. Yes, there was the obvious challenge of tackling something new and becoming more involved in my community but also, when offered the chance to be a public voice in a festival that exists as a result of one woman having the strength to stand up for what she believed in, and when halakha permits all of this, how could I take a passive seat? It made me start thinking about my two-year-old daughter, the image of women in Judaism that I wanted to project, and the opportunities that I hoped would be available to her in the future.
The women’s Megillah reading in Borehamwood is such a special event in my calendar and, as a result, Purim holds more meaning for me than it ever has before. Listening to the clear and beautiful voices of all those women who strive to recite their portions without error and knowing the hard work that has gone into it, especially when we all have our own pressures from our family and professional lives, makes me very proud to be among them. It is a very emotional experience for many of us – the sense of achievement and camaraderie is hard to put into words. It is something that I hope I will continue to share with my daughter in the years to come. While not all of us are faced with obstacles as extreme as Esther’s, Purim allows us to reflect on the fact that each of us is capable of making a difference in this world in our own unique way.
Crying isn’t supposed to be part of Purim. Maybe it’s okay if you’re six and having a sugar-induced meltdown right when your parents tell you that, no, you can’t have another can of soda and fruit roll up for your seudah. But you’re not supposed to cry on Purim if you’re a grown woman and mother of children yourself.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened to me one year right before our seudah, Purim day feast. We had decided to participate in a community seudah at synagogue, which would allow us to enjoy the day without worrying about food preparation. And, super conveniently, there would be a Megillah reading right before sunset for those who would be attending the meal.
So imagine my horror when I sat down to hear the Megillah, and a few moments later, the live music in the adjacent room started up, loud enough for us to hear the music clearly through the walls. And then, when the young Megillah reader started a fast and mumbled reading of the Megillah, I knew it was going to be a challenge to hear every word and fulfill my obligation of hearing the Megillah read on Purim day.
Just a few verses in, I realized that I had already missed a few words. The reading was too difficult to hear, and the music was too loud, and it was too late to find another reading. For the first time ever, I was forced to forfeit the mitzvah of hearing every word of the Megillah.
I was totally helpless. I don’t know how to read the Megillah. I couldn’t obtain a Megillah and fulfill the obligation of reading the Megillah out loud to myself. I felt powerless to do anything, and all that was left for me to do at that point was cry. So I did.
After calming down (it was Purim, after all!) and reflecting a bit, I thought about how great it would be if I learned how to leyn the Megillah myself. I’m part of a more conservative Orthodox community, and a women’s reading wouldn’t be acceptable. And, honestly, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with it anyway. I’ve studied the sources and know that it’s a halakhically valid progression that’s been made in some communities, but I prefer a more traditional environment.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn to leyn and do so privately, for myself. It would ensure that I’d alway be able to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Megillah, and I could read it whenever I wanted to during the day. All of that would really enhance my joy on Purim.
I still haven’t made the time to learn how to leyn. It’s still on my “bucket list.” But it’s there. And I know that not too many years ago, it never would have occurred to me to put it there. But the knowledge that I can make that choice to add it to my bucket list always makes me smile.
It is funny to celebrate the 120th anniversary of our synagogue when Judaism tells us that 120 years should mark the completion of a lifetime. Yet, at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, as we embark upon the celebration of our 120th year, we are not only far from completion, but rather, find ourselves at the cutting edge of issues facing women and Judaism.
It surprises people to learn that a 120-year-old synagogue in the Midwest is on the forefront of Orthodox feminism.
Bais Abraham Congregation hosted one of the first women’s tefillah (prayer) groups in the country, a group that still continues to this day, nearly forty years later. The tefillah (prayer) group has been a venue for countless Bat Mitzvahs across the community – including welcoming young women who were not permitted to speak from the bimah (stage) in their own synagogues. Moreover, for as long as I can remember, Bat Mitzvah girls have been invited to give the sermon before the entire congregation.
Many of the programs that we organize at “Bais Abe,” as we affectionately call our synagogue, integrate women into the community in innovative and comprehensive ways. In 2010, when a group of Orthodox women in St. Louis decided to scribe a Megillat Esther, it was Bais Abe’s Rabbi Hyim Shafner who encouraged the women to pursue the project. He created a series of classes to teach the women the halakhot (Jewish laws) of writing megillot and served as a rabbinic advisor and champion throughout the process. In 2013, Bais Abe took on the cause of agunot at its major fundraising event. From that campaign emerged a community-wide post-nup signing event, spearheaded by Bais Abe and co-sponsored by all the Modern Orthodox congregations in St. Louis. Nearly forty couples signed the RCA post-nup agreement, raising awareness of the plight of agunot. The national publicity from this event created a spark and we now see dozens of other synagogues planning similar events.
I was proud to serve as president of Bais Abe (2010-2012), the first female president of an Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis, and possibly even across the Midwest. Most striking to me about the experience is that the election was not seen as part of a feminist agenda or viewed as controversial; it was simply finding the right person for the job, and at the time, the right person was female.
Even more revolutionary is that our little synagogue in St. Louis – we boast less than one hundred families as members – is one of only a handful across the globe that has hired a woman to join its Orthodox clergy team. In 2013 we hired Rori Picker Neiss, soon to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat, to serve as our Director of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement, a clergy-level position. Rori delivers drashot (sermons) from the pulpit, teaches in the religious schools, answers questions on halakhic (Jewish legal) matters, and offers pastoral counsel. She is changing the face of Orthodox Judaism in St. Louis.
Bais Abe has been a partner with JOFA on many programs over the years. The next time you find yourself in the Midwest, please come and visit. You will find yourself right at home at Bais Abe!
The story of Esther teaches us many things, amongst them, that timing is everything.
This year, the women’s Megillat Esther reading in Sydney, Australia marks its fifteenth year! We began in a private home with about thirty women. As the years went on and our numbers grew, we read the Megillah each year in various communal halls in Sydney. In 2013, for the very first time, we held our women’s Megillah reading in the main sanctuary of a Modern Orthodox synagogue! Over 25 women read from the Megillah for a total of 110 women in attendance.
This year we will have more women reading than ever before and, please God, a record number of women attending in celebration.
What can we, a group of women who have been gathering to read the Megillah for fifteen years, learn from the story of Esther? When we are looking for Hashem’s hand in Jewish history, we must take a long-term perspective.
The story of Esther seems like an unlikely, outrageous chain of events that follow one after another. During the course of the hour-long reading, the Jews go from the verge of annihilation to miraculous redemption. The events seem to occur in immediate succession, but actually Achashverosh ascended the throne a full twelve years before Mordechai and Esther step up and consolidate their political power.
In our twelfth year of reading Megillah – our “Bat Mitzvah” year – we gathered in a hall at the oldest and largest Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School in Sydney. It took some discussion, but we successfully gained permission from the rabbi of the school to hold the reading on the premises.
A young woman’s Bat Mitzvah is the point in her life when she enters adulthood and assumes responsibility for her own spirituality. As a consequence, the community takes her seriously. And so it was with our women’s Megillah reading. Our Bat Mitzvah year was a turning point – it was the year that the mainstream Orthodox community began to “take us seriously.”
We were excited to be in this new phase. Since then, we have gone from strength to strength. In year thirteen, we held two readings: The first was in the Jewish Day School, at which some of the readers were students of the school and the attendees included female students and teachers. For many women, this was the first time they had even heard of a women’s Megillah reading. The second reading that morning was held in the hall of a Modern Orthodox synagogue. Last year, we read the Megillah inside the sanctuary of that same synagogue. We are grateful to be meeting in the main sanctuary again this year.
We have followed the example of Queen Esther in working with some of the Modern Orthodox rabbis in our city: we ask for what we want, respectfully, assertively, and persistently. In this way, we have been able to grow and inspire more women to become involved.
A women’s Megillah reading celebrates Jewish women as the source of redemption and continuity. We hope that through our reading we can pass on to our daughters and to the next generation, our passion and enthusiasm for the story of Esther, our enhanced connection with the festival of Purim and the text of the Megillah and our love for and commitment to Judaism.
This year on Purim, several minyanim in the U.S. and in Israel will be reading the Megillah with a twist. The congregations will recite aloud communally, not only the traditional sentences about Mordechai, but an additional sentence about Esther as well. If that doesn’t sound radical to you, you haven’t been around an Orthodox synagogue lately.
Carol Newman, JOFA’s past president, has long been amazed and frustrated at how women have been taken out of everything in Orthodox Judaism. When she talks about the absence of mothers’ names in ketubot, on gravestones, and during aliyot, she can get pretty “fahitzed” (worked up). But until this year, she couldn’t figure out how to put Esther back in the Book of Esther (waving fabric flags with Esther’s likeness on them when Esther’s name was mentioned didn’t really do it for her). Until she saw a source sheet identifying verses about Esther that are parallel to those we read aloud about Mordecai. And so a personal campaign was born.
After many passionate phone calls and email chains over the past few weeks, two partnership minyanim have decided to recite a verse about Esther aloud during their megillah reading this year. According to Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, “There is absolutely no halakhic problem for the congregation to pre-read a verse which will then be repeated by the megillah reader. Therefore all the verses about Esther can be read in that way.”
Darkhei Noam, a partnership minyan in New York, will repeat the verse introducing Esther, “He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was striking and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordechai adopted her as his own daughter” (Esther 2:7).
Shira Hadasha, a partnership minyan in Jerusalem, will repeat the verse where Esther establishes Purim as a holiday for the Jewish people, “And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll” (Esther 9:32).
Mordy Hurwich-Kehat, a member of Shira Hadasha who was instrumental in creating this change, says, “I like Darkhei Noam’s practice, as it parallels Mordechai’s dramatic introduction, and Shira Hadasha’s too–as we learn in the Talmud tractate Megillah that Esther pushed for ‘her’ megillah’s inclusion within the Biblical Canon. Maybe, next year each of the two congregations will adopt the other’s practice.”
You might think it would be easy to convince people to repeat these little sentences but most rabbis and most synagogues, no matter how well intentioned, are not comfortable with change even when, as in this case, there is good support for it.
After all, who wouldn’t want to viscerally celebrate with Esther when she finally takes matters into her own hands and musters up her courage to save her people? So, this year, we take one small step for womankind… Next Sukkot maybe Miriam will show up in the prayer for rain!
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Every year costumed women and children arrive from communities across the island, all aglow and abuzz with great anticipation. Purim with the MWTG is truly a happening here in Montreal. The Montreal Women’s Tefillah Group (MWTG) was founded in 1982 under the direction and leadership of Dr. Norma Baumel Joseph and our halakhic advisor, Rabbi Howard S. Joseph of Canada’s oldest congregation (1768), the Spanish and Portuguese. At the time our mandate was to provide a venue wherein women, citywide, could gather in prayer, complete with Torah service on Rosh Chodesh. Years later we were able to realize Norma’s goal of conducting our very own reading of Megillat Esther by and for women. I believe we may now claim to be another of the treasured fixtures on the Montreal Jewish scene.
Montreal is also home to the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get, a body created to advocate on behalf of the agunot in our midst. The Coalition deals with agunot, rabbis, and government. In 1990, the Coalition succeeded in having Bill 21.1 amended to the Canadian Divorce Act, which removed any barriers to religious remarriage.
The Coalition had held its first Vigil for Agunot on the evening before Ta’anit Esther. After another year with a small turnout, the vigil was moved to Purim day, just before Megillah reading. It was quite a success! As Purim is our most well-attended event of the year, averaging one hundred participants, it is our best opportunity to inform and update our community on this most shameful and deplorable status.
We have led workshops on agunot, held art displays, watched Israel’s Savta Bikorta videos followed by group discussion, and listened to a
very moving address and plea from a local agunah of six years now. Last year seven women scattered and seated throughout the chapel read brief, scripted accounts of local agunot. This action had quite an impact on attendees, as a voice was suddenly heard from one side of the room, followed by another from the opposite side and so on. These added activities have fostered much creativity in our community and I heartily suggest that other groups follow suit.
CHAG PURIM SAMEACH!
Click here to read more about International Agunah Day, which is on Ta’anit Esther (March 13, 2014).
Purim for Jews is a public riot, but in our family we celebrate Purim quietly. My brother Daniel can’t hear and our parents bought him a beautiful megillah so he could read it to himself. I volunteer to listen to his perfect tuneless reading, thrilled to skip the chaos in shul.
I try to stay home from work on Purim, but one year I was the lead lawyer in a litigation, and I had to be at our Manhattan offices by 9:00am on Purim morning. We brainstormed and decided my brother could read the megillah on the road between our Brooklyn home and my Manhattan office.
I dressed for work, davened, and watched for Daniel to come from shul. He arrived, we jumped into a black limousine, and Daniel unfurled the scroll to begin the story of Esther.
I get dizzy in cars, but not that morning. Holding the megillah in my hands, I thought only of black ink on white parchment. We meandered through the narrow streets of Sheepshead Bay through Ahasuerus’s party, and as he called for his wife Vashti to dance before him, we spun into Ocean Parkway, jugular of Flatbush, Babylon of the Diaspora. The road was clear, and we sailed through the execution of Vashti, the search for her successor, and Esther’s coronation. At a red light, Mordecai’s denunciation of the murderous stewards was recorded in the king’s archives.
Ocean Parkway merged with the Belt Parkway when Haman appeared, grinding his teeth over Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him. Traffic is always heavy there because many roads join, and perennial construction puts several lanes out of use. We were grateful for the time. Haman cooked up his evil plot, chose the day to annihilate the Jews, and made his case to the king. We moved at a snail’s pace, Mordecai tore his clothes, and Esther ordered her people to fast three days.
At the end of the Belt Parkway we had to make a choice: to enter Manhattan from the bridge or through the tunnel. The bridge is free but takes forever; the tunnel is fast and smooth and quiet, but dark. The driver turned to ask, and Daniel and I looked at each other. Would we make it in time if we took the bridge? Would we be able to continue in the dark?
We handed over the tunnel fee and entered a darkness strobing with orange lights. Our queen weighed her options and was convinced that Haman’s decree of death would condemn her too. Approaching Ahasuerus uninvited would be less dangerous than sitting still. Daniel kept his face close to the parchment through the pulsing light; we were feasting at Esther’s first party. By the time we reached daylight, Haman had built the gallows for Mordecai and the king was disturbed in his sleep.
Out of the tunnel, the limo made a parabolic turn toward the West Side Highway. The route is clogged with traffic lights but has a majestic view of New Jersey and the waterfront. As we lurched along the highway, the king was reminded of Mordecai’s loyalty in the matter of the treasonous stewards. Dressed in royal robes, Mordecai was led through the streets of Shushan by the man who had authored a death warrant against him and his people. Haman’s wife knew her mate was doomed. We passed the museum-battleship Intrepid, anchored at the pier on 46th Street.
My office was between 45th and 46th Streets on Sixth Avenue. To get there from the West Side Highway, we had to drive through Hell’s Kitchen, filled with elegant restaurants and catchy awnings. The drive is at walking pace when all the lights are against you, but once we turned onto 46th Street my stomach unknotted: the final stretch.
Passing Manhattanites brunching outside in early Spring, we launched into Esther’s second party, with the risky revelation she made to Ahasuerus of the decree against the Jews and her inclusion in it. The king was inflamed; Haman & Sons were hanged. We reached Times Square. The assault on the senses is extreme, with flashing lights, gigantic images of naked humans, steam floating from a hot cocoa ad, whole movies running atop buildings. We sped through the multimedia into the block that housed my office. Almost done.
Esther and Mordecai reversed Haman’s decree, and the Jews were given the green light to murder their murderous neighbors. A feast was declared for all generations, friends gave gifts to friends, and Mordecai wrote the story we held in our hands. Our driver found a spot outside my building for the brief last chapter. The king levied a tax, and Mordecai became the prime minister, spokesman for the peace of his people.
I rewound the scroll back to the days of Vashti, ready for next year. Our driver turned and grasped my brother’s hands between his.
“Purim sameah!” he said. “I am Jewish also, from Persia. We sing a different megillah tune. Thank you so much, I am so happy you sang it for me too.”
I stepped out, smoothed my skirt, and adjusted my thoughts. Ready for business.
Two summers ago I was having a relaxed conversation with Judy Heicklen, the president of JOFA. She mentioned to me that JOFA decided to upgrade its old Megillat Esther CD to a user-friendly, interactive smartphone app. I particularly liked that they wanted to use a single voice for all the chapters and that it would be built as a tool for learning how to leyn.
“Of course,” she said, “we’ll need someone whose voice is easy to follow and who will be precise and consistent in her recordings.”
“Yup, I agree.”
Then the kicker: “So we thought of asking you.”
I was blown away. Me? JOFA was asking me to record the whole Megillah? Wow!
I learned to leyn over ten years ago. Previously, in my secular, hi-tech world I found moments of spirituality in Shabbat and chagim (holidays), and in taking an active role in my synagogue, going to shiurim (classes), and giving divrei Torah. But when I learned how to leyn, it filled empty spaces in my soul.
After months of practicing every night and loving the involvement in something so intensely Jewish, the leyning course ended. But I didn’t want to step away from this spiritual experience!
I had heard stories about Esther Farber A”H who taught many, many girls to read for their Bat Mitzvah. Her sons Steven and Seth told me they couldn’t remember a Shabbat without a girl coming to practice her leyning. Stories about Esther shone a light on the path I wanted to take: sharing my passion by teaching others.
In an incredible twist of events, my first student was Esther’s granddaughter Eliana. Sadly, Esther passed away only a few months before Eliana’s Bat Mitzvah. They had been studying together in the pre-Skype era through video-conferencing and they hadn’t quite finished. When Eliana heard my story, she chose to finish her learning with me. Although I had never met Esther, it somehow felt like she was giving me her blessing by passing the baton on to me.
Slowly I became identified as a “go-to” woman for issues connected with leyning, davening (praying) and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. I felt my involvement deepen and broaden: I ran a weekly Torah leyning class for women at my dining room table. I learned the trop for megillot Ruth, Eicha (Lamentations), and Esther. One exhilarating Purim I read Esther in front of five hundred women and girls! I thought that I had reached my personal pinnacle, and yet, to my delight, there was even more waiting just around the corner.
So here was Judy’s offer and my heart was beating fast as I considered it. Did I have time to record the whole thing? No! Could I possibly turn it down? No way! God gives each of us special gifts. It is our responsibility to use these gifts to give back to the world and make it a better place.
I turned my study into a mini-recording studio, lining the walls with cardboard and packing material to absorb the echo. I upgraded my microphone and created a makeshift stand on a tissue box – just the right height and distance from my mouth. The app required countless hours of recording, listening, re-recording. My gentle yet exacting editors taught me to be extremely consistent and did not allow for any sloppiness in the pronunciation or the tune. My husband said that he heard more Megillat Esther during those months than he ever wanted to hear in his entire life!
The app is truly an all-in-one guide. Its interface is so easy to follow that I continue to use it myself when I practice (think: follow the bouncing ball). It’s also great when listening to the Megillah – just make sure the voice is turned off! I was delighted to find JOFA hadn’t stopped there. There are extra articles on the app about Halakha, tips on how to organize a reading, and more.
Recording the app required a lot of time and hard work. Yet the memory of all that melted away when men and women excitedly told me how they learned to leyn the Megillah using only the app! How amazing for me to go from teaching one-on-one to touching the souls of so many. Countless people have said to me: “I’ve been listening to your voice for the last two months. This app enabled me to realize my dream to read the Megillah on Purim.”
This past December I was honored to lead an introductory leyning workshop at the international JOFA conference. Leyning In has been an extraordinary journey of passion and connection with my Jewish roots and my soul. I invite you to come along with me.
I’ve always really liked Purim. When I was younger, my main interest in the holiday was dressing up in fun costumes and eating hamentaschen. Although I still enjoy those aspects, I now appreciate Purim because it brings two independent women, Vashti and Esther, into focus. I’m certainly not the only one who has noticed Purim’s feminist quality; for decades, Orthodox women and men who are sensitive to gender issues have rallied around the holiday, taking Ta’anit Esther as an opportunity to talk about agunah and using Esther as an example of why Jewish women’s voices must be heard.
Although Mordecai is an integral part of the Purim story, Esther is undoubtedly the main character. However, based on the communal recitation of pesukim (verses) during the Megillah reading, one might think that Mordecai is the more important figure: of the four verses recited aloud by the congregation, three are specifically about Mordecai, and none invoke Esther. This erasure of Esther’s contributions to the story seems oddly dissonant with the overall feminist slant of the holiday. Consequently, some Orthodox feminists have begun to right this wrong and recite pesukim about Esther aloud as well.
Reciting pesukim out loud during Megillah reading is a minhag (practice) that dates back to the Gaonic period, although the verses of choice were not settled upon for another few centuries. Because the practice is purely minhag, there is no halakhic reason congregations can’t say additional pesukim about Esther out loud. Although reciting the four traditional pesukim has been part of the mesorah (tradition) for centuries, Judaism is a living religion that can and should be tweaked within the framework of halakha to remain contemporary.
For communities interested in introducing more gender parity to their Megillah readings, Kehillat Hadar has identified pesukim about Esther that are roughly parallel to those recited aloud about Mordecai. The first pasuk that we recite aloud, “In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Yair son of Shimi son of Kish, a Benjaminite” (2:5), can be accompanied by, “He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was striking and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter” (2:7).
As a parallel to 8:15, “Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries,” perhaps recite Esther’s petition to Mordecai in 4:16, “‘Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!’”
In connection to “For Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Ahaseurus and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred” (10:3) can come “And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll” (9:32).
If you would like to recite pesukim about Esther aloud, but you can’t find a Megillah reading in your area that does, you should organize your own! You can register your reading on JOFA’s Project Esther directory. If you’ve never leyned before, you can also learn how to do so by using JOFA’s Megillah leyning app. Whatever sort of reading you end up attending or organizing, the important thing to remember is to enjoy it! Purim is a time of unadulterated simcha, and we can’t let anything – even frustrating little bits of perceived sexism – to take away from our joy.
I could never have anticipated the impact that reading Perek Daled (chapter four) of Megillat Esther would have on my life. In 2008, I was a student at Cambridge University, and what had started as a shyly mooted idea to organise a women’s megillah reading had been taken up enthusiastically. After some reluctance, our student chaplain acquiesced, and even beneath the boys’ standard jokes was an undeniable note of respect.
With last-minute timing typical of students, we split up the ten chapters, found recordings to learn from, and learnt our parts. I don’t think I realised at the time that learning leyn Megillat Esther would transform my understanding of the book, and deepen my relationship with Judaism.
Applying notes to the text has been a key part of this experience – the leyning trop (cantillation) really does mirror the mood and pace of the story. I had always loved the bits of Megillat Esther which were sung to the Eicha (Lamentations) tune: remembering the exile of Mordechai’s family from Jerusalem, and as Esther prepares to approach the King uninvited, and face the same fate as Vashti. Until I learnt to read them myself, I hadn’t appreciated the depths of the words beneath them.
Each time I’ve leyned the megillah since then, and there have been five occasions (and counting!), I have felt my bond grow with these ancient, beloved words. Esther’s story has come alive in new and astounding – and sometimes disturbing – ways. I’ve discovered new characters I never realised were there (they never mentioned Hatach or Hegai in cheder [Jewish elementary school]) and I’ve noticed nuances in the narrative. The words and phrases and their tunes have stayed with me, popping up at surprising times. They inform my study of other parts of the Tanakh, enabling
new cross-readings and echoes between stories. (And I felt rather smug on one occasion when a rabbi quoted a phrase from “my perek,” and I noticed that he missed out a word!)
Reading Megillat Esther has been an enriching experience in so many other ways. In the community where I live now, it has brought together a wonderful group of like-minded friends with a variety of ages and backgrounds – some of whom I may never have spoken to otherwise. While some are deeply involved in our community, others feel alienated by Judaism, and yet reading the megillah has been a source of connection and meaning for them. To anybody who says that women’s megillah readings are a “slippery slope” away from “authentic Judaism,” I would encourage them to consider the women whom it has inspired to greater levels of Jewish knowledge, spirituality, and engagement. In addition to my feelings of connection with the text, my Hebrew skills have improved significantly, and I am finally mastering the difference between pronouncing a heh and a chet, something, embarrassingly, that I never properly achieved in cheder or even in seminary.
The readings themselves have always been memorable, both for their good decorum and clarity of reading – and simply for being fun occasions. It is incredibly refreshing to be a part of a reading where you can hear every word, when each leyner brings a unique voice to her section, and when you can feel the hours of work, effort, and worry that has gone into preparing each chapter. And we have fun! Each year, our group has picked a dressing up theme, from wigs and wings to silly hats. We also give tzedakah as a group each year, picking both a local cause and one further away.
Reading megillah has changed and enriched my Jewish life. I hope that both women who choose to leyn and those who don’t have only respect for one another. Ultimately, I see participation in reading the megillah as taking one of the many opportunities that life throws at us to bless God – to do something positive, active and public that connects us with our spiritual heritage. It makes me proud to know that I have been part of the growing movement of women’s megillah readings, and that the young girls – and boys – in our community will grow up seeing it as a normal and beautiful part of the Jewish year.
Are you organizing a megillah reading this year? Add it to JOFA’s international directory.