What Queen Esther Taught Me

March 20, 2024

By Talia Makowsky

Growing up, I wanted to be like Queen Esther. She’s an inspiration to many little Jewish kids. She’s described as so beautiful and brave, and these inherent traits allowed her to be queen and save the Jewish people. She was an #Icon well before social media.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself in other characters in the story. Mordechai reminds me of the times I’ve struggled to do the right thing. Mordechai asks Esther to speak for the Jewish people because she has the king’s ear and heart, but also because Mordechai is scared to lose his job — and probably his life — if he speaks up. Jewish professionals, including myself, are grappling with how to fight for justice when it feels impossible to say the perfect thing at this moment. Mordechai reminds me that there are always ways to seek justice, no matter my position.

I also saw a lot of myself in Vashti growing up, the woman who refuses to display herself for her husband and his guests. Vashti couldn’t have been new to this kind of treatment, as she had been queen for a while, but she decided at that moment to stand her ground. I always preferred Purim retellings that depicted Vashti leaving the palace to live a new life beyond the king’s control. She taught me that it is never too late to resist unfairness and inequality. 

I even learned from Haman (boo!) and King Ahasuerus (who I think deserves a little booing, too). I learned humility when Haman described the elaborate rewards he expected from the king, only for the king to force Haman to give them all to Mordechai. And I learned to listen with an open heart, as the king did when Esther pleaded with him to save the Jewish People.

This year, I’ve returned to Esther, the closet-case Jew, trapped in Shushan, a world governed by people hostile to her very existence. Her experience is familiar to anyone who’s been marginalized: for being a person of color, for being a Jew, for being a woman. For LGBTQ+ people, Esther’s situation is all too relatable, as we face continuous legal attacks targeting us.

The ACLU cites 479 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced this year alone (at the time of writing). We know that we can expect more vitriol and hate as we barrel toward the election. The Equality Act still flounders in committee, despite the promise of the President to sign the bill into law. And trans kids are dying from anti-LGBTQ+ bullying from fellow students.

We are in Shushan right now, alongside Esther, watching Haman and his children hammer the nails into the gallows.

In the Purim story, Esther is forced to act on her own to save her people. We’re encouraged to be like Esther and put on a brave face. “Perhaps this is the moment you were made for.” This year, I read this verse from the Book of Esther differently. I don’t think anyone should have to be like Esther, acting alone to save an entire people. When we expect a solitary Esther to come and save us all, we have failed in our work to make the world better. Such moments require collective action, joining together so that no one person is forced to act alone like Esther. When we act together, we liberate ourselves from isolation and we can act with greater power: “This is the moment we were made for.”

This Purim, I invite you to create a new setting for the Purim story. A place and time still filled with plenty of hamantaschen and graggers, with laughter, carnivals, and costumes. But one where every single person already belongs. Building an entire Shushan like this is hard, I know. At Keshet, we strive every day, trying to carve out the spaces where our LGBTQ+ youth feel affirmed being exactly who they are, making our Jewish communities places to celebrate and affirm LGBTQ+ members, creating opportunities for queer Jews of Color to connect, and mobilizing Jews nationwide to take action together to protect and advance our rights. 

It’s a lot of work. But Purim reminds us that along with the work we deserve to experience joy and silliness. By joining together with my Keshet colleagues, friends, and community, the work feels less hard, especially when we can laugh together and support one another. My hope this Purim is that each of you taste that joy and feel inspired to act so that we can make that world of liberation a reality. I think, in the end, we’ll find we’ve made a world we can be truly proud of, together.