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It’s Good to Be the Queen

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02/21/2013

Esther Bergdahl photo

Ah, to be an Esther during Purim. I mean, I’ve always enjoyed my name, but it can be a little lonely. No novelty personalized keepsakes, ever. Not many famous namesakes, beyond a synchronized swimmer and the protagonist of The Bell Jar. No one knowing there’s an “h” in it, so you’re constantly misidentified as some sort of chemical compound.

But at Purim, it didn’t matter that there was never going to be a Disney princess or an American Girl doll with my name. I was a savior of my people, baby! Kings would do anything for me. Beautiful, intelligent and compassionate, the catch of catches—not to mention because of me we have delicious, delicious hamantaschen. How many girls have preventing massacres and inspiring baked goods on their resume?

There are lots of great things about being an Esther on Purim, and as a little girl, I took advantage of most, if not all of them—sparkly costumes, imperious proclamations of greatness, scarfing down the “uglies” that weren’t making it to the hamantaschen tray. But I’ve always been subversive at heart—my favorite Disney princess is actually Scar from The Lion King—and at a certain point, maybe around 8 or 9, I began to wonder what shaking off the shackles of Esther-dom would look like for a day. Who wanted to be a princess every year? And such a goody-goody: at least Vashti had the self-respect and the spine to refuse a dudebro king on her own, without an overprotective brother advising her on every next move.

So the next time our turn came around to put on the Hillel Purim play, I rebelled. I was ready. I wanted to see the other side of the coin. I asked to be Haman.

It was to become an iconic moment in my young life. I had waist-length hair at the time, and had the inspired idea to give myself a beard by tying a ponytail at my chin. I also acted my little heart out in the finest tradition of outrageous film and stage villains the world over. But the crowning glory was the feast scene.

Let me qualify this by saying that first and foremost, it was an artistic choice. Haman is greedy, right? You want to show that not just in his words, but his actions. It’s layering in a subtle commentary on the state of his soul and his character. That’s what actors do, obliquely and skillfully manifesting the internal through the external.

At the time of this performance, I was obsessed with Twinkies. A well-meaning family friend had introduced them to me a few months before, and they were all I wanted out of life. We didn’t have much in the way of costumes or props for this performance, but I was so committed to the role that I very generously had my parents buy a box of Twinkies and arrange them on a fancy plate for the sake of art and transmitting my cultural heritage.

Dear readers, during the feast scene, where Haman believes he’s going to receive a great reward and instead Queen Esther reveals his dastardly plot to exterminate the Jews of Persia, I ate the entire box of Twinkies in front of my whole Sunday school. It was carnage. My ponytail beard was in shambles. Even I broke character enough to realize that I was a little queasy in the stomach, despite the giddy glee of pulling off such a stunt with such an audience. Being the bad guy is clearly a lot more fun on paper.

Eventually I aged out of Purim plays, but it took a few more years before I came around to thinking about Queen Esther again. I still like deconstructing villains and enjoying fine desserts, but the cliché is true: perspective changes everything. Esther is a person who has to confront power and put herself, her family and her entire people at great risk for the sake of justice. That’s a lot of pressure, but in the end, she’s the one who has to rise to the task and follow it through. She’s the one who does the hard thing, and lives to tell the tale. That makes her a great lady in her own right, and I admire her for that. It’s not a bad way to be a princess; in the end, it’s always good to be an Esther.

Have a good holiday, Oy!sters: dress up to the nines, be excellent to each other—and on behalf of my younger self, eat, drink and be merry responsibly.

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