Monday, May 27, 2013

Queen Esther, The Closeted Iranian Jew

Lord knows I'm no Bible scholar, but the story of Esther has been on my mind.

Queen Esther knew what it meant to hide who she was, and after she came out as a Jew, she knew the fresh air of living her truth.

If you're not familiar with the Biblical story of Esther, please consider finding this ancient and entertaining read online. Besides, it's only ten short chapters.

Basically, my understanding is that Esther, a Jewish orphan, was born and raised in Persia (present day Iran) about 2300 years ago. She was remarkably beautiful so the Persian King wanted to marry her. What made it tough for her was that Iranian Jews, back then, got picked on a lot. Understandably, some of them chose keep their Jewishness on the DL. That was Esther's approach; she got married to the King and for a few years managed to hide the fact that she was Jewish.

An antisemitic jerkwad named Haman persuaded the King to pass a law calling for the death of every Jew in Persia. Esther could either keep her secret and have her people annihilated, or come out as a Jew, plausibly be killed herself, but save all the other Jews.

As you can guess, she told the King she's Jewish, he didn't kill her, Haman was neutralized, and there are a few thousand Jews living in Iran to this day. (NOTE: there is wayyy more to the story.)

I've been thinking about what Esther's life must have been like, prior to coming out as a Jew:

  •  Evidently, she didn't look how Persians expected Jews to look, which allowed her to "pass." Did she feel guilty about that? How did she feel about the Jews she saw who fit the stereotype?
  • Some Jews didn't hide--some practiced their religion right out there in front of God and everybody. How did she feel about them? Was she envious? Wistful? Did she feel threatened?
  • I read that her life was unimaginably luxurious, with seven servants available, 24/7. She enjoyed the finest of everything available on earth, anywhere. I have no doubt that was great, but I also wonder if she had times of wanting to trade it all for a little house in the Jewish Quarter of Susa. 
  • How did hiding affect her relationship with her husband, the King? The version I read suggests that they got along great at first, but after about five years they went a month without speaking. (Uh oh.) How did things in her marriage improve after telling the King the truth? How did the King feel when he learned she had hidden it from him for those years?
  • In a particularly telling verse (Esther 4:4), after she hears about the suffering of her Jewish family members, she "writhed in great anguish." Now I've been at the bottom, for sure, but I've never been in such anguish that I have writhed. That poor girl was feeling it. 
  • At some point, she began to see her very unlikely life story as part of a Divine Plan. Did she see it as coincidence before? Or was she just enjoying her marriage and wild ride of luxury and didn't really think about it?
  • When she finally decides to tell the King, she says to herself "And if I perish, I perish." (Esther 4:16) I love this statement--it speaks of the courage that has kept us telling this story for about 2300 years.

The Jews living in Iran today face similarly confining circumstances. An excellent article, well worth the five minutes it takes to read it, details their current situation:  The Sad Fate of Iran's Jews.