The Holiday of Purim Emphasizes the Durability of Jewish Identity That Shakespeare Denied

March 5 2020

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and the biblical book of Esther share a few notable similarities, writes Meir Soloveichik: both feature a disguised heroine, an anti-Semite, and a Jew who tries to take revenge on him. Shakespeare’s play concludes with the erasure of identity: Portia, dressed as a man, persuades the Jew Shylock to convert to Christianity, enacting the apostle Paul’s declaration that “there is neither Jew nor Greek; . . . there is neither male nor female.” Esther, by contrast, is a story of Jewish identity’s abiding persistence and its emergence in life’s most consequential moments. Esther is about Judaism’s endurance:

In Esther, [an] extraordinary phrase appears toward the beginning of the book: “There was a Jew, in the capital of Shushan, and his name was Mordecai.” The modern reader breezes past these words, but the ancient one would have known how shocking they are. For Mordecai was not a Jewish name, nor was Esther. Each is derived from the appellation of a Babylonian god—Esther comes from “Ishtar,” and Mordecai from “Marduk.” These names are a sign of the acculturation of the Jews of Persia.

The very name demands that we ask: what is Mordecai’s true identity? What is Esther’s? Being forced to answer this question openly sets the stage for Esther to embrace her true self and to plead for her people. Esther and Mordecai [eventually] emerge as embodiments of the endurance of Jewish identity and solidarity.

Though marked by levity, Purim is deadly serious: we are reminded that Haman exists in every generation and that we Jews dare not ignore our own identity. Strikingly, it was in the Venice of Shakespeare’s time that history records some of the earliest instances of Jews wearing costumes to commemorate Purim. To this day, you will find Jewish children dressed as Gentiles, taking the trappings of another identity but still reading the book of Esther in Hebrew in the synagogue and distributing Purim gifts to their co-religionists.

It is often said that the reason Jews costume themselves on Purim is to remember Esther’s initial hiding of her own identity. The truth is very nearly the opposite. We wear costumes not to disguise our identity, but rather to emphasize that no superficial sartorial selection can alter our identity—for ultimately, the central defining aspect of ourselves will shine through. On Purim, Jews don costumes and ask Portia’s question: who is the Merchant, and who is the Jew? To this we give a ready answer, as Esther once did: Jews we are, and Jews we still remain.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Commentary

More about: Esther, Judaism, Paul of Tarsus, Purim, The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare

 

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy