I just saw a truly amazing and profounding moving performance by Derrick DelGaudio in a one-man show, In And Of Itself. We are inviting everyone in the Eshel community and beyond to view it and then to come to a discussion of its meaning alongside a reading of Esther to discern the relationship between mask and meaning. It surely is not the only lens for Esther, but if the story is viewed, as I like to do, from the perspective of the closet, of secrets possessed and not shared, and then later revealed, it shapes an invitation to a deeper sense of how selfhood is lived.
Please watch the film on Hulu and then….. join us! (If you can’t watch it come anyway!…we’ll fill you in! Register here if you haven’t already)
Here is the foundation of this thinking from a piece I wrote a few years ago. Feel free to invite friends and family to the conversation about this amazing show and its relationship to the Book of Esther.
The Book of Esther is a story of political intrigue, spies, revelers, and speedy horsemen. There is a villain, a hero and heroine, and a catastrophe that gets turned upside-down. A Jewish girl becomes the queen of a gentile king, flirts with the villain, makes the king jealous, and saves her people. How religious could the book be without even one mention of the name of God? Not quite appropriate material for a public synagogue reading you would think. The public stage however is just that: an outward presentation aimed inward. The reading of the megillah itself is a mask of deeper dynamic.
At first, everything is a performance. Vashti’s refusal to perform foreshadows all the concealments which are slowly undone as everything moves step by step from the covert to the overt. There is a sustained tension between what characters are and what they seem to be that moves the plot forward. The careful unraveling of disguises is what makes for salvation. The major characters are all Marranos disguised in costume. They all struggle to manage a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that if revealed would seem to undo them. By the end, everyone is unmasked.
King Achashverosh, according to tradition, was not of royal blood; he had married into Persian royalty. Vashti was the true Persian princess and because she refuses to take off her royal robes she is banished or killed. She is the only one who refuses to dress up )) or in this case down )) as something she is not. Achashverosh has risen to royal power, but he is not royal material. He is a foolish, pompous lush dressed in royal robes, unsure of himself and surrounded by counselors. He is terrified of being challenged (by women) or threatened by disloyal servants and of course, this too is how the story unfolds.
Esther and Mordechai are closet Jews. Each is fearful of the consequences of being found out. Mordechai warns Esther not to reveal her identity. The people perceive Esther as a lovely Persian woman who has become a Persian queen. Mordechai is a statesman who is known in the king’s court, but he does not flaunt his Jewish identity.
Haman is the scoundrel who, like Esther, is in the right place at the right time. His secrets are his bloated ego and his hunger for royal power. Haman conceals all this from the king, including his irrational hatred of Mordechai.
The turn in the plot occurs when Mordechai is forced to choose between his inner and outer identities. Is he a Jew or a Persian noble? If he refuses to bow down to Haman, he will almost certainly lose his status among the Persian elite. If he bows he understands that he will lose his inner Jewish self. In this moment of reckoning, Mordechai recognizes himself as a Jew and refuses to bow. The story isn’t clear as to how Mordechai’s secret is found out. Someone tells someone who tells Haman that this rude fellow is a Jew, and Haman begins his plot to revenge himself on Mordechai and his people.
Unmasked, Mordechai realizes that he must turn his secret inside out. He must now bear witness to the inner truths. He sits at the gate of the palace in sackcloth, a congruence between the man and his clothes, a boldly public expression of an internal state of affairs. Mordechai’s naked protest sets in motion the unmasking of Esther, then of Haman, and finally of Achashverosh.
What does all this drama between revealed and concealed selves say to us? Of course, the Book of Esther could be read as a midrash on Jewish life in the diaspora. How we play hide and seek, how we reveal and conceal ourselves as Jews, is a diaspora story.
But there is also a more personal journey described. In many ways we are all Marranos, hiding behind our various masks and robes. What can we glean from Esther to help us manage the interplay between our inner and outer lives? Can Mordechai teach us something about the search for wholeness? At the end of the story, all the inner truths come to light. As the story unfolds, there seems to be a redemptive quality in selfִ expression. When all is revealed, Esther becomes a powerful queen and Mordechai the king’s most trusted counselor. Even Achashverosh seems to achieve a more royal demeanor. Each of these fuller identities was achieved by reconciling the inner and outer persons.
The story is also about the need to protect a life apart from the public eye. As Esther enters the king’s palace Mordechai warns her not to reveal her identity. Later he commands her to do so. It seems that there is a right and wrong time to reveal the self. Perhaps the story is about the dynamics of identity that cannot escape a tension between expression and inhibition. We are who we are not only by our selfִrevelations but by our careful nurturing of a private world.
As well, not all inner lives are equal. Haman uses his disguise for singularly destructive ends and is ultimately destroyed by his inner self. Haman falls on Esther’s couch revealing more than an urge for power. Mordechai is revealed by his principles; Haman by his libido. At the perfect moment, Esther reveals herself as a Jew and saves the Jewish people. Though the war between the inner and outer worlds is over, there is no clear victory of oneself over another. Instead, there is a new and diverse wholeness, an integration of mask and man.
The rabbis describe the God of the Book of Esther as a hidden God, a playful God who dances in between the revealed and the hidden, patient and waiting for the right moment to burst forth. So, we too, find our journey in both inward and outward movements. Often we work behind the scenes nurturing a life apart, a sense of privacy and clarity. And when the moments come to stand for one’s inner truths, for principle, or for one’s people, then we must turn inside out and witness, loud and proud and sure.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg