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.