Erev erev Purim,
And its all about queens and ladies and women in the margins and at the center
And women again, and slaves, and the little guy, the criminals, the freaks and dreamers, and the great rabbis and poets too, reorienting periphery and center, all happening at Stern College
In my Inquisition course we read a tightly conceived essay by Emily Colbert Cairns about the figure of Esther among the conversos; with my course on Jewish Travelers we read about women in the Geniza through the letters between women and their husbands, sons, brothers, business partners and rabbis. I did not plan to have these two gender-heavy classes on the same date but I enjoyed the synergy between both classes and I hope to tap some of that energy in this brief post.
Lope de Vega, the most prolific, popular and accomplished dramatist of the Spanish Golden Age put on a play inspired by the story of the Biblical Esther in Madrid in 1610, La hermosa Ester. Emily Colbert Cairns led us through the transformation of the Jewish heroine from a quiet, obedient and objectified woman, conforming to the ideals of femininity put forth by the great ethicists of the day- Luis Vives and Luis de León (yes they are both well known conversos! But what of it?) – into a heroine who courageously upturns the social order, dares to speak up, reveals her Judaism and saves her people.
The basic Christological reading of the Book of Esther sees the Hebrew queen as a victorious Mary crushing the temptation of the satanic Haman. See the resplendent Virgin Mother crushing the serpent underfoot in this panting by Tiepolo:
Or in this not too subtle detail from a fleshy statue:
Surely much of Lope’s audience saw that standard narrative unfold in his play, but could they have missed the dangerous identity games at the heart of the story, the need for secrecy and the subversive assertion of Jewish identity at a moment where Spain’s Jews have been long converted or expelled, where just a year earlier the Moriscos were expelled from Aragón and Valencia, where blood purity statutes were still the norm? Lope de Vega himself was a “familiar” of the Inquisition, a lay spy in service of the Holy Office. In general it is hard to describe Lope as a radical playwright and yet his art in this instance gives voice to a polyvocal celebration of the many Spains- the deeply Catholic, the Triumphant Global Empire as well as the multi-cultural substratum that pulses under everything from flamenco guitar to paella.
The essay counterposes the Canonical Ester as reworked in its early modern Spanish cast with the Esther of the Marranos, the underground Esther, specifically with her image and allure within the intense religiosity of Isabel de Carvajal as recorded in her Inquisitorial trial. Colbert weaves diverse practices together to show how Isabel and her wider circle of conversa women in Mexico used the model of Esther, the pious, prayerful and heroic woman in their own secret religious life.
A student commented that she was happy to be reminded of the centrality of Esther as the heroine of the story because for her the holiday is so male-focused? I foolishly responded with surprise- how is Purim a man’s holiday? After all woman are obligated in the mitzvoth of the day- “Af Hem Hayu be Oto Ha Nes”! “In my house my father and my brothers exchange divrei torah and drink at the table while the women serve them” I am still shaken by this image which should not surprise me. I hope Isabel de Carvajal and Vega’s La Hermosa Ester can offer an alternative path to an empowered and energizing Purim!
In my course on Jewish travellers we read a variety of sources such as the rather fantastical text of Eldad HaDani, the short, dark skinned member of the tribe of Dan who wends his way to Tunis in the 9th century and regaled his fellow Israelites with tales of his fierce and free fellow tribesmen living beyond the Sambatyon river to the more fact heavy account of Benjamin of Tudela who described his journey from Northern Spain to the Middle East. We also took some generic detours. We spent two wonderful classes on Yehuda HaLevi’s poems about his dreams of pilgrimage and his actual journey to the land of Israel. Yesterday we used Joel Kraemer’s engaging and comprehensive essay “Women Speak for themselves”” to rescue the voices of travellers and those they left behind as traced in the letters of the Cairo Geniza. It is hard to really appreciate the intellectual, psychic and cultural loss Jewish Mediterranean society incurred by deciding to not educate their daughters. For the most part Jewish women were illiterate while most men were not. (I pointed out that the situation was not the same in Ashkenaz where women worked along side their husbands and had to keep business records and thus could read and write. This also carried over to a concern for religious literacy.)The letters we have from women and to women were always mediated by a scribe and a reader- they could dictate and be read to and thus it is a small miracle to find expressions of intimacy in these exchanges between husbands and wives. A merchant far from home writes his wife: “the most difficult thing for me is every Friday night when I light the candle and put it on whatever table God provides, then think of you. God only knows what comes over me”
The texts are brimming with psychological and social details that bring the day to day life of the past into relief: mothers complaining about their sons' neglect –“you never write”, women seeking the aid of great rabbis to protect them from deadbeat or abusive husbands; passive-aggressive litanies of sacrifices made for the other, the challenges of medieval travel- pirates, storms, bad food, boredom.
I asked the students why I would have chosen this collection of texts for a class on travel? A sharp-witted student in the back quipped- “So we don’t feel left out?” It got a laugh and it opened up a good discussion. I was asking about how these letters fit into the genre of travel literature but she picked up on the more overt reality of a class of bright women reading about their past and not hearing of a single woman until today.
We talked about the treasure that is the Geniza and the way it allows us to find out about the everyday lives of so many of the people of the past that we would never have the faintest trace of without this bizarre and miraculous collection.
The Geniza gives us access to the details of the lives of the little people- not only the “Great Men” of history- the scholars, the leaders, the heroic scoundrels and false messiahs. We see what type of business contracts people made, their shopping lists and account books, and of course their letters! We can even capture some of their unadorned, colloquial voices as recorded without the artifice of refined pens. The study of women’s history is not just about women, just like the study of Jewish history is not just about Jews; whenever we engage the periphery, the center comes into better focus, all things are interconnected. I did not choose Kraemer’s article because I was teaching at Stern; I chose it because I want us to get as much of the picture as we can and I think the best way to do that is to enrich and complicate and decenter our narratives. In this dynamic reordering we can rethink our assumptions and see more clearly.
And on that note, Purim Alegre! May we tap into the sea of clarity and confusion that is this carnival we call life.