Monday 18 February 2013

The last of the Purimshpiels!

At the festival of Purim (starting at sundown on Saturday 23 Feb 2013) we read the scroll (megillah) of Esther. We have been encouraged by the rabbinic sages to cast away decorum, put on fancy dress costumes, poke fun at figures of authority and generally adopt a noisy, carnival approach to the celebrations. For centuries we have replayed the events in Shushan in the form of pantomime ‘purimshpiels’. Historically, it was the moment for downtrodden Jewish communities to let off steam and indulge in the fantasy of role reversal.  

Welcome to the last of the Purimshpiels! A Micah’s Paradigm Shift production. Rattle your groggers and let the satire commence.

[The scene: A BBC radio talk-show, London, UK]

[The cast]

Micah – a radio show presenter and Hebrew prophet
Vashti – a psychoanalyst and historian of anti-Semitism
Mordecai – a Jewish hero with an interesting neurosis
Esther – a Jewish heroine with a smart line in community defence

Micah: On today’s programme – fabulous wealth mixes with sex, politics and corruption to create a story of intrigue and role reversal with a wonderful female heroine at its centre.  

Esther [off mic]: I love this story.

Micah: Could it be just another day in the political corridors of London and Washington?

Esther [off mic]: Well, I do still dabble in a bit of lobbying now and again.

Micah: No, this was Shushan, the capital of the Persian Empire which stretched from India to Ethiopia. In Shushan we see the playing out of a cosmically commissioned blood feud that dates back to the Exodus from Egypt. We see one genocide averted, but another carried out. 

Mordecai [off mic]: Is he talking about us?

Esther [off mic]: This is the problem with Hebrew prophets. They get so worked up about everything. Obsessed by the detail.

Micah: In this story we witness yet another massacre in Jewish history. Except this time there’s a twist.

Mordecai [off mic]: I’m starting to go off this man already.

Micah: Here we have the most unexpected of all of the role reversals in the story. This time around it’s the Jews that are the perpetrators and not the victims of the killing.

Esther [off mic]: Right, that’s it. I’m going to be demanding an apology from the BBC Trust. I demand a fair and balanced presentation of the facts. Jewish innocence is non-negotiable.

Micah: To discuss all of this and more, I’m joined in the studio by Professor Vashti, former Queen of Persia, former wife of King Ahasuerus, and indeed the ancient world’s foremost proto-feminist.

Esther [off mic]: Everyone knows she was ugly as sin. Why else did she want to cover herself up in front of the King’s guests?

Micah: Dr. Vashti has since retrained and is now an eminent psychoanalyst and a leading historian of anti-Semitism. Her latest book is called ‘Amalek Syndrome’ which we’ll talk more about in a moment. Professor Vashti, welcome to the show.

Vashti: Delighted to be here Micah….and may all of your swords become ploughshares!

Micah: Thanks for the endorsement. Can I also welcome two of your current patients whose medical conditions have done much to inform your latest research. Queen Esther, who controversially succeeded you as Queen of Persia, and her cousin Mordecai whose refusal to bow down to Haman sparked the story in the first place. Thanks both for joining us.

Mordacai: Is this the BBC?

Micah: Yes, and you’re most welcome.

Mordecai: BBC – Amalek!!

Esther: Calm down cousin. Let me do the talking, you get over excited.

Mordecai: Jeremy Bowen – Amalek!!

Micah: Dr. Vashti, is the Book of Esther the quintessential story of Jewish experience in the Diaspora?

Vashti: Well apart from the role-reversal massacre at the end, you could certainly argue that. All the ingredients are there for sure. A Jewish minority living somewhat precariously alongside a majority, dominant culture, who then find themselves accused of disloyalty and are targeted for the benefit of a particular elite. In this case, the elite is embodied by the politically ambitious Haman who claims the Jews are out of place, have no true links to the land and will never fit in with the real owners of the empire. It’s the classic anti-Semitic proposition.

Mordecai [off mic]: I said the same thing about the Palestinians only last week.

Micah: And of course Haman is much more than a petty political thug. He has historical form. 

Vashti: Absolutely, and this is vital to our understanding of the story. For the Jewish people, Haman projects both backwards and forwards in time. 

Esther [with a deep sigh]: It’s true, our troubles are never ending.

Vashti: We are told that he is descended from the Amalekite King, Agag, who you will no doubt recall Micah, attacked the Children of Israel in the desert soon after their escape from slavery in Egypt.

Micah: Indeed, the battle at Rephidim in which Joshua chalks up his first major military victory in the Sinai desert.

Mordecai: Gamal Abdel Nasser – Amalek!!

Vashti: Moses tells the people that the Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages, generation after generation.

Mordecai: Edward 1st of England – Amalek!!

Vashti: In fact Amalek has interesting antecedents even before this point.

Micah: Go on.

Mordecai: Ahmadinajad – Amalek!! 

Micah: No, not you! Dr. Vashti.

Esther: My cousin is just trying to explain that even to this day we remain a people living in the shadow of a second Holocaust.

Micah: Indeed, and let’s come back to that point about eternal threat in a moment.

Vashti: Well, we are told the Amalek tribe is descended from one of the sons of Esau, the brother of the Jewish Patriarch, Jacob.

Mordecai: Everyone has family they don’t talk to anymore.

Vashti: So, interestingly, from a psychological point of view, these two peoples, who appear to be at war for ever more, are in fact distant cousins. You could of course draw some parallels to the modern day conflict in the Middle East.             

Esther: Let’s not!

Mordecai: Chuck Hagel – Amalek!!

Micah: And from generation to generation we see the Jewish/Amalek encounter played out?

Vashti: Absolutely. Amalek, via Haman, becomes the archetype of the always returning, and never quite vanquished, anti-Semite. In European history the Church takes on the Haman persona in Jewish thinking. With Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany, he naturally takes on the ‘mask’ of Haman in the Jewish imagination. Except this time his plans to destroy the Jewish people are actually carried out. There was no Esther to save the day.

Esther: Precisely! I hope your listeners are taking note. We still hear the flutter of the Swastika even to this day! 

Mordecai: John Kerry – Amalek!!

Micah: Dr Vashti, you’ve been making a careful study of Mordecai and Esther in recent years and as a result you’ve developed the theory of Amalek Syndrome. What precisely do you mean by that?

Mordecai: Gerald Scarfe – Amalek!! David Ward – Amalek!! Liberal Democrats – Friends of Amalek!! Roger Waters – Amalek!!

Vashti: Well I think Mordecai may be making the point for me right now.

Esther: My cousin’s view of the situation is being deliberately misrepresented.

Micah: I think we can let the listeners decide if they feel there’s been any misrepresentation. 

Esther: There’s a lot of history here. It’s hard for ordinary people to appreciate the relevant facts.

Micah: Let’s come back to the infamous Jewish instigated massacre that takes place after Haman’s downfall. His ten sons are hanged, 500 are killed in Shushan and 75,000 across the provinces of Persia, including women and children. And all within two days. Quite a blood bath. It’s the bit of the story that tends to get played down, understandably. 

Esther: I’m getting on the phone to Chris Patten right now. You can’t keep talking about this. This is a blood libel against the Jewish people.

Micah: But it’s there in the story! 

Vashti: Well, you do have to remember that the massacre never actually happened. 

Esther: There you are! I told you so. Even she knows it didn’t happen.

Vashti: It was all a rather unpleasant kind of wishful thinking by an oppressed people. Think of it as the literary equivalent of ‘letting off steam’.

Mordecai: BBC Middle East Bureau – Amalek!!

Vashti: What’s interesting, considering the story was written around 400 BCE, is that this was a people that already felt the need to imagine bloody revenge…playing out through a folktale their darkest fantasies.

Esther: I’m on Twitter right now about this…

Vashti: It’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of psychological scarring that must drive this type of behaviour. 

Esther: I’m mobilizing my Facebook followers…

Vashti: In a story full of role reversal, this is the biggest and scariest reversal of all. The shift from victim to victimiser.     

Esther: I’m emailing the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle right now. It’s totally unacceptable to portray the Jewish people as victimizers under any circumstances.

Micah: And how has all of this affected Mordecai?

Vashti: Well, he’s internalised the story of course. The whole fight against Amalek, from generation to generation, has created a paradigm of eternal persecution in his mind. I call it Amalek syndrome. Although others call it Zionism. 

Mordecai: This woman is mad! I used to be a noble hero and she’s destroying my reputation.

Esther: Can I just point out that Zionism is the legitimate expression of Jewish self-determination and is rooted in a profound 5,000 year cultural and religious association with the Land of Israel.

Micah: Can you just unpack the Syndrome a little more for us Dr. Vashti?

Vashti: Basically, it’s the belief that Jews have no future in the community of nations because Amalek/Haman will always rise up against them. It’s the eternal fear of ‘the other’. In some ways it’s a mirror image of the original anti-Semitic proposition itself. 

Mordecai: Psychoanalysts – Amalek!! 

Esther: I’m sending a text to Melanie Phillips. This programme needs exposing as a rats nest of anti-Jewish, anti-Israel propaganda.    

Micah: Surely, Dr. Vashti, you’re not trying to claim that thousands of years of Anti-Semitism is just all in the mind?

Vashti: Of course not! Racism is racism and it must be fought against. I’m just making the case that anti-Semitism, if thought of as cosmically decreed, can lead to a very dangerous kind of nationalism that cannot cope with ‘the other’ and leads to its own form of racism that feeds on paranoia. 

Micah: A fascinating theory.

Esther: She’s deluded. No wonder she was booted out of the palace. 

Micah: And Esther?

Vashti: Now this really is interesting. What Esther has observed and internalised is again a reversal of Jewish fortunes. 

Esther: You can say that again.

Vashti: The State of Israel, once held up as a modern miracle and the rebirth of a people is now being described as a colonialist enterprise and a sham ethno-centric democracy. For Esther, Amalek has arisen once again this time in the guise of the Palestinians, in particular Hamas. Although of course, Haman can turn up simultaneously in multiple locations.

Mordecai: Gaza City, Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron, Nazareth…

Esther: So everyone else gets to be a nation but not us who need it most of all!

Micah: The Talmud recommends that as part of the Purim observance that we celebrate to such a level of intoxication that we can no longer differentiate between the phrase “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai”. Is that also one of the consequences of Amalek Syndrome?

Vashti: In extreme cases this can appear to happen.

Micah: And thereby trapping the moral compass into a spasm. Is there any hope of a cure?

Vashti: A few hundred years of psychotherapy and mind-body healing may help. But in the meantime my approach would be complete abstinence from the festival of Purim. Start the detoxification regime now and start to sober up.

Micah: So our radio show today ought to be the last Purimshpiel for a while?

Esther: I see, now you want to destroy our religious festivals. Unbelievable! This programme is a disgrace. As are you Micah!

Micah: But I’m a Hebrew prophet!

Esther: You are just another self-hating Jew! 

Mordecai: Micah – Amalek!!

Micah: Justice, kindness, humility…does this mean nothing anymore? 

Mordecai: Hebrew prophets – Amalek!! 

Esther: I want the plug pulled on this show right now!! I want Chris Patten here right now!! I want an on-air apology and a rebate on my BBC license fee right now!!

Micah: I’m not surprised that God is nowhere to be found in your story. He’s neither seen nor mentioned. Perhaps he has disowned it?

Mordecai: God – Amalek!!

Micah: Well on that note, I think it’s best to close the show and say goodnight to our listeners. Thanks to Dr. Vashti, Esther and Mordecai. It’s been a truly insightful discussion.

[Cast take a bow. Applause. Groggers. Noise]


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