Sometime around March each year – the date varies according to the Hebrew calendar – strange goings-on take hold of Jewish communities around the world. Children don costumes as if it were Halloween, minus the monsters and ghosts. With their parents, they march off to synagogue, sitting raptly at attention to the sing-song intoning of the Book of Esther. Each time the reader happens upon the name Haman, the youngsters awake from their silence and raucously wave noisemakers – called groggers – in the air.
To the casual observer, the scene makes no sense, though the part with the groggers, at least, can be easily explained. In the story, Haman is the King’s assistant who almost succeeds in his plot to wipe out the Jews of the kingdom. He is the story’s personification of evil, and so his name must be symbolically erased.
But what of the rest – the costumes and why this obscure Biblical story is publicly read in the first place? Purim – the name of this Jewish holiday – is all about what we can’t see, what hides beneath the surface just beyond our vision. The book of Esther tells a story of undiscovered identities, dual roles, words that take on meanings beyond the obvious. The book struggles between the poles of fate and destiny, what life thrusts on us versus the choices we make. In the story, God never makes a direct appearance, yet is always present. Underneath the surface, this is no children’s holiday.
Even the book’s name is a hint – in Hebrew, Megilat Esther simply means the Scroll of Esther. But the words Megilat Esther yield another meaning: to reveal that which is hidden. The Book of Esther is a book of secrets.
Esther is also a book of interfaith marriage, one of the secrets the story’s heroine keeps even from her husband. Esther, the Jew, marries the Gentile King Ahasuerus, putting her in the ideal position to save her people from the wicked Haman. Some have interpreted the story as a Biblical endorsement, offering ancient proof that two faiths within one marriage not only works, but can be a positive societal force.
To stop there, however, is to linger on the surface as the real story unfolds beneath. Interfaith marriage is more than shuttling back and forth between two sets of holidays. It is about coming to terms with who you are – in public, in private, and in those deep recesses of the soul you may not acknowledge even to yourself. It is about understanding where your partner is coming from, and then trying to understand where she is really coming from. It is about the unspoken chasm that exists, and how to bridge it, or not.
The story of Esther is not merely a Biblical relic, but a story of today. In America, of those Jews who marry, one in every two intermarry. Nearly 40% of all married Americans wed someone of another religion, while nearly 30% of American adults are practicing a different religion from the one of their childhood.
Behind these mammoth statistics lay stories – stories of faith lost and found, of hope abandoned and reclaimed, of confusion and clarity, of boundaries shattered and brick walls hit. Attached to the statistics, of course, are the obvious stories, the kind the media likes to tell – how to negotiate Christmas and Chanukah, Easter and Passover, and the like. And then there are the stories underneath the stories, the hidden secrets, the people behind the costumes.
These stories are not merely about the individual, but about the paths the couple does – and does not – walk down together. Many of these stories – the stories underneath the stories – are not unique. They are merely untold.
Everyone has a story. This is ours.