Women Speak: V is for Vashti
An increasingly popular program transforms Vashti from vilified to vindicated
by Lisa Kogen
Once upon a time - not so long ago – early in the month of
Adar little Jewish girls would eagerly
await Purim when they could dress
up in glittery costumes and crowns,
dripping in their mothers’ jewelry. Each
envisioned herself as the ravishing
Queen Esther whose unparalleled
courage saved the Jews of Persia from
annihilation. At the reading of the
Megillah, they joined in drowning out
the name of the wicked, wicked Haman
and cheered for the noble Mordechai.
Esther’s presence was felt only through
the colorful and glittery array of her
Little girls know the story well.
Queen Vashti refuses to appear before
the drunken king and his court. The
biblical text reports sparingly about this
episode except that the king, spurred
on by his courtiers, is outraged by his
wife’s defiance. Vashti is either expelled
or killed (the text does not say which)
and the king commences a search for
a more docile wife. Esther, concealing
her Jewish identity, becomes queen.
Notwithstanding the king’s fury, the
text offers no value judgment about
Vashti as queen or wife.
Esther – clever, pious, charming, and
beautiful – ascends the throne,
enshrined forever as the female hero of
the Purim story. Vashti, whose behavior
might be viewed as equally heroic,
does not enjoy the same fate. On the
contrary. Hundreds of years later, when
the rabbis begin to spin their own versions
of the story, Vashti joins Haman
as a villain of the Purim story. She
becomes Esther’s evil counterpart. As
Esther is beautiful, Vashti is leprous and
has donkey ears and a tail. As Esther
is compassionate, Vashti is mean-spirited.
And worst of all, as Esther is Torah
true and pious, Vashti delights in blasphemy.
And thus Vashti remained – the leprous,
conniving, Shabbat-defiling harridan
– whose only crime was her refusal
to be humiliated publicly. Her rehabilitation
came only (and finally!) with
the rise of Jewish feminism in the latter
half of the 20th century. An initial
salvo was fired in a provocative essay
by Mary Gendler in Response (Summer,
1973), a counter-culture journal
of the 1970s. In “The Vindication
of Vashti,” Gendler suggests “women
begin to identify also with Vashti … to
discover [their] own sources of dignity,
pride and independence.” More
recently, Ma’ayan, the Jewish feminist
resource center, created
Esther/Vashti flags – vividly colored
and decorated with bells – to be waved
whenever Esther and Vashti’s names are
heard during the reading of the
As women redefined their roles in
both the synagogue and communal life,
they also began to seek new and imaginative ways to create meaningful rituals and
celebrations. Among some of the most
prominent and popular are the baby naming
ceremony for girls, rosh chodesh study
groups and the women’s seder.
Historically, the Purim celebration has centered
around men. Graggers drown out
Haman’s name, we cheer for Mordecai, Purim
delicacies are hamentaschen, or for Sephardim
‘oznei Haman. Even during the reading of
the Megillah, the Talmud prescribes that a
person is to drink ad lo yada, until he doesn’t
know the difference between “cursed be
Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” It is
unlikely that this mitzvah was intended for
women. The only opportunity for women
was to make the hamentaschen and mishloach
manot. The holiday cried out for a more
appropriate women’s observance.
And so Women’s League for Conservative
Judaism created the female-centered
Purim celebration we call Vashti’s Banquet.
The first banquet was held in New York City
in March of 2008 with 240 participants.
A second took place in 2010 at the biennial
convention in Baltimore with more than
500 women enjoying dancing, Middle Eastern
foods, music, crafts, and more.
Our Vashti’s Banquet was designed to capture
the joyful and triumphal atmosphere
of Purim, as well as to allow women to experience
a taste of the sisterhood within an
imagined Persian harem of long ago. The
harem is one of the great institutional enigmas
of antiquity. We all harbor our own
fantasies about the exotic and mysterious
harem – with images popularized by The
Arabian Nights and the films of Cecile B.
DeMille. While there are accounts of life in
the harem from as early as the 18th century,
there is no written account from the ancient
world of life in the segregated women’s quarters.
In designing the Vashti’s Banquet, Women’s League chose to present the harem
as the quintessential woman’s space, where
they lived together, mourned together and
danced together, rather than a vestige of
women’s subjugation by men.
Vashti’s Banquet included activities that
we know of from anthropology and literature:
the foods, music, belly (and other)
dancing, storytelling, and, of course, all manner
of beautifying secrets such as cosmetics,
perfumes and henna. Not to lose sight of
the religious importance of the holiday, a
short study session highlighted the relevant
parts of the Esther story in the Bible and
some of the later, more colorful midrashim.
(Not all that different from the fantasies
of Cecil B. DeMille!) The first Vashti’s Banquet
featured special guest Dr. Ruth Westheimer,
who offered sterling advice about
Then, like the women’s seder that grew
exponentially after the first one at Ma’ayan,
Vashti’s Banquets have taken root in communities
across the continent, offering workshops
and activities reflecting the
communities that host them.
Nearly 100 women in sisterhoods from
East and North Brunswick, New Jersey,
attended a Vashti’s Banquet at the Highland
Park Conservative Temple-Congregation
Anshe Emeth, which included aroma therapy
and mask making. At the banquet in
Jacksonville, Florida, the chazzan, day school
principal and ritual director vied for the title
of Queen Vashti. Each displayed “her” own
talent and answered provocative questions
– no swimsuits. The winner was crowned
by the assistant rabbi.
The Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel
of Riverdale, New York, established the
appropriate mood with extravagant decorations
of billowing fabrics, pillows, and
tables draped with runners, sparkles, and
colorful strings of beads.
The Vashti’s Banquet in Las Vegas (Temple
Beth Shalom) raised an enormous
amount of money for the synagogue while
three co-sponsoring Philadelphia area sisterhoods
(Tifereth Israel of Lower Bucks
County, Beth El, Yardley, and Ohev Shalom,
Bucks County) donated their profits to
Gilda’s Club, which houses men, women
and children battling cancer.
Over 150 women attended a banquet
in West Hartford, Connecticut, where four
sisterhoods joined together and offered study
sessions by female rabbis, zumba and yoga
It is clear that Vashti’s Banquet’s entertaining
female-centered celebration of a Jewish
holiday has struck a chord. As women
recover their experiences and voices from
the past, we continue to create new forms
of celebration, bonding with each other
in the very real present.
Want to create your own Vashti’s banquet? You can find inspiration and ideas on the Women’s League website at www.wlcj.org.
Lisa Kogen is program/education director of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.