A Purim Phantasmagoria

Esther Altshul Helfgott

Last Purim was one of the strangest nights of my life. I was at Chabad House. Two hundred people were clapping and stomping in celebration of Mordecai's victory over Haman. The sound of the klezmer band beat against the walls, the ceiling, the floors. It traveled out the windows and doors, tickling the stars and shaking the night.

I had been dancing in a circle of women for over an hour. All of a sudden, at the height of the evening, in the middle of "My Yiddishe Mama," I heard a woman cackling high above the crowd. I looked up at the ceiling and, there, perched on a chandelier, swinging her legs and chomping on an apple, was Vashti.

No one else knew she was there. That meant she had come for me. What could she want? I must tell you, I was scared. To be singled out in a crowd is bad enough; but to be singled out by the woman who was replaced by your namesake is too much.

The dancing continued. Hava Nagila smacked against my ears. Hamans were all around, Mordecais paced the floor, Queen Esthers, draped in silk, laughed triumphantly. Reader, this was insane. How could no one, including the rebbes, know that Vashti was hovering above us, laughing, literally, to beat the band.

Someone pulled on my arm to dance the Hora, but I yanked it away. By now I was getting edgy. I thought of running but figured if this woman scorned could climb up and sit cross-legged on a chandelier she could probably chase me across the street into the university parking lot, and I did not feel like being cornered there by somebody out of the Book of Esther.

I sucked in my breath and waited. By the way, in case you have forgotten who Vashti is, let me refresh your memory. This is not the time of year to forget her, believe me.

Vashti was Ahasuerus' queen. One night, Ahasuerus was showing off his castle and treasures to the princes who inhabited his lands. After much food, drink and debauchery, the king summoned Vashti to show the men her beauty.

She refused! Amazing. Back then when heads rolled at the drop of a pin, Vashti, independent and proud, thumbed her nose at the king and told his guests to get lost.

Of course, there were consequences. Imagine what would have happened if ordinary women followed Vashti's example and defied their husbands. If the queen could get away with saying no to the king, every wench in the kingdom might start mouthing off to her husband. Natural Law would have been reversed. Ahasuerus' wise men would have dangled on ropes. The entire kingdom would have turned upside down all on account of the queen's disobedience.

So Vashti was replaced with the young, virginal, Esther, fairer and more beautiful than all the damsels in Ahasuerus' kingdom. Esther, the first Cinderella, was crowned queen, while Vashti, haughty as usual, was banished, if not erased, from history.

Slowly, I edged my way out of the circle. I felt as if someone were pulling me. Before I knew it, I found myself blocks away at the corner of Forty-fifth and Fifteenth. There, dressed in knickers, an orange shirt, old green shoes and a funny hat, was Vashti's chamberlain, Perkins.

He bowed courteously. The magic carpet which had been suspended above his head lifted me up, and in a second or less, I was sailing over the Pacific. The Mazeltone Klezmer Band was a distant memory by the time I saw Vashti leaning against the Big Dipper sipping a strawberry moon shake.

I was glad to see her. And though I was enjoying the ride around the universe, my confidence in Perkins began to wane when we bumped into Orion's sword nearly slicing our transportation in two. Besides, it was obvious by now that Vashti was the only one who could get me out of this mess.

"Yoo Hoo," she yelled. "Do you like my world?"

"Yes," I answered, "but where are you taking me?"

"To my queendom, of course. Follow me." The carpet took off, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on a plush silver divan sipping nectar out of a gold goblet.

In walked Vashti and Esther. Yes, Reader; I, too, was surprised. I watched them in disbelief.

They sat down on the velvet couch across from me, curled their footsies up under their tushes and had a ball laughing and yakking all over the place. They completely ignored me. I might as well have not been there, and who is to say I was?

When I just about gave up believing in anything, Esther handed me a pen and a blank sheet of paper. "Write," she said. "Tell your readers that Vashti got a raw deal." My fingers were shaking. I had forgotten how to write without my computer. Besides, I suspected that this woman was not really Queen Esther, but how could one tell?

I did what she said and wrote this story. The next I knew I was flying across the night. In no time flat, I was back in the circle of women dancing and singing as if nothing happened. Perhaps nothing did. Who can be sure. Only this Purim, WATCH OUT!

copyright 1986, 2002 Esther Altshul Helfgott,
originally published in Syracuse The Jewish Observer