Queen Vashti and the #MeToo Movement
But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment…therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.
These silks, and jewels?
He told me to strip them off
and to show myself, naked,
before his friends.
You can only go so long
as obedient servant
when you are a person
with pride, and self-worth.
I was cast out,
the royal stage cleared for another,
whose name would live on in light
while mine receded.
As we approach the Purim holiday—this year, it begins the evening of February 28—Jews around the world will be thinking again of the Book of Esther, which anchors our observance. Credited with saving her fellow Jews from destruction in ancient Persia, Esther, wed to King Ahasuerus, is the traditional heroine of the narrative that bears her name. But as those who are familiar with the story will recall, there was a queen before Esther. Her name was Vashti.
King Ahasuerus, Vashti’s husband, was at a drinking banquet with his men, when he summoned Vashti to stand before them with her crown on her head. He wanted to show her off. She refused, though we do not know why — the rabbis think perhaps she was told to undress — and the king banished her from the kingdom. Then, he set off to find a new wife. Eventually, Esther would become Queen.
I wrote the above poem one year ago, months before the #MeToo movement acquired the momentous meaning it has today. The poem emerged from one of the gatherings of a group of Jewish women with whom I meet regularly to undertake close study of Jewish texts, complemented by rabbinic and other commentaries. All of us are writers; each meeting routinely concludes with a short writing session guided by prompts that connect with the text we’ve examined.
Shortly before Purim 5777/2017, our group revisited the Book of Esther. Our discussion leader for the evening, Sivan Rotholz, shared with us a number of relevant interpretative items, including “The Book of Esther,” a poem by Stacey Zisook Robinson. As we began that session’s writing portion, Sivan suggested that one way to engage further with the story would be to write a poem in the same style—but with Vashti, not Esther, at the center.
So I did.
And then I put the poem away.
All these months later, I have returned to that poem ahead of the Purim holiday. This time, it seems not only embedded in ancient history, but also emblematic of the voices and stories that are surfacing in our own #MeToo moment as well. When I wrote the poem, I was motivated by an impulse to give Vashti—voiceless in the original text—a chance to speak. Now, for reasons that shouldn’t be difficult to grasp given our current climate, I see her as a foremother, her experience echoing in so much of what is being shared today.
Erika Dreifus writes prose and poetry. Visit her online at www.ErikaDreifus.com and/or follow her on Twitter at @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets “on matters bookish and/or Jewish.”