LOS ANGELES (JTA) — With Purim just a grogger’s turn away on March 19, it’s time to reroll the scroll of Esther and take another look at the whole megillah. It’s a story with characters so lifelike, I should quote them. That would be news.
But lacking a time machine, I was still able to go to the source to hear what Mordecai, Esther, Haman and Vashti have to say: I interviewed prominent people — Jews and a non-Jew — whose names either come from the Megillah or sound like they are straight from the scroll:
* Rabbi Mordechai Liebling serves as director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. He is known, too, as being the father of Leor Liebling, a child with Down syndrome in the documentary film “Praying With Leor.”
* Vashtie Kola is an artistic contributor to New York City’s music and fashion worlds. She directs music videos, including one with Justin Bieber, and designs a line of streetwear called Violette. She is not Jewish.
* Pinchas Hayman, an Orthodox rabbi and formerly the dean of students at Bar-Ilan University, is the owner of Bonayich, an Israeli company that specializes in Jewish studies, especially the Oral Tradition.
* Esther Jungreis, an eminent author and inspirational teacher and speaker, is the founder of Hineni, a worldwide organization that educates Jews about their traditional roots.
JTA: How did you get your Purim name?
Mordechai: I was originally named Marvin, after my grandfather Mordechai Aider who was killed in the Shoah. He was a farmer in Galicia.
Vashtie: I am of Indian-African descent; my parents are from Trinidad. Vashtie is an Indian name, though I know it’s also the name of a person in the Bible.
Hayman: Hayman is a variation of Chaim originally from Lithuania.
Esther: I am named for my great-grandmother from Hungary who was also a rebbetzin.
JTA: What influence or effect has the name had on you?
Mordechai: In my mid-20s, on July 4, 1976, I changed my name to Mordechai after the Socialist Zionist Mordecai Anielewicz, who led the fight in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Vashtie: The Israeli kids I went to school with told me all about Vashti. She seems like a powerful woman who holds her own, someone I could connect to. I am very independent. I direct music videos, and once when I showed up for a shoot, the assistant director asked me, “Are you here to dance?” I told him I was there to direct.
Hayman: In my work I visit a lot of schools. When the teacher introduces me as Rabbi Hayman, the students do look up from what they are studying. At Purim, I don’t like getting hung.
Esther: The letters for the name come from the Torah. Names are very holy. The neshama (soul) is connected to the name. Our name is given to us by Hashem.
JTA: Have you ever dressed up like your namesake?
Mordechai: Yes. I wore a serious robe and a hat. I come with my own beard.
Vashtie: Never have dressed as Vashti. But now that I think of it, I might have to.
Hayman: In Israel, as is the custom for rabbis on Purim, I wear a long black coat and a black fedora, it’s as close to dressing as Haman as I get.
Esther: No, I am not a costume person.
JTA: Who is your favorite character from the Book of Esther?
Mordechai: Mordechai, of course, you have to allow me some chauvinism. Second favorite is Vashti.
Vashtie: I would pick my name. Subconsciously maybe I am similar to that character.
Hayman: My favorite character is Charbonah, the king’s eunuch. He has the key line in the Megillah when he says, “Why don’t we use the gallows to hang Haman?” During the reading of the Megillah, when they get to the name of Charbonah, I say, “Hurray.”
Esther: I don’t have a favorite. Everyone has a special role, a unique mission given to us by Hashem.
JTA: How do you think your character is perceived today?
Mordechai: Mordechai is perceived as an unusually wise man who knew how to support and mentor a young woman in her rise to power.
Vashtie: Some people get really excited when they hear my name is Vashtie. They tell me their take on the story. The women are very pro but the guys say, “She’s not a good kid.”
Hayman: When they talk about Haman, they’re talking about the Amalek, Palestinians, Iranians, the Nazis.
Esther: Esther is a role model; her name means “hidden,” as “the light of God is hidden.”
JTA: Any thoughts on how we can relate today to the Purim story?
Mordechai: The message of Purim is one of rebalancing the energy in the world between gevurah and chesed — between judgment and compassion — the wisdom of Mordechai and the compassion of Esther. The story shows the importance of having women in leadership positions.
Vashtie: The story has a classic theme of good overcoming evil. It’s a story everyone can connect to regardless of religion or culture.
Hayman: Purim is the single most important holiday today, when assimilation is rampant. We are all Esther. We hide our identity until reality forces us to realize that it’s the only important thing we really have.
Esther: The story of Esther tells us you can change destiny. A royal decree is given and even written in stone, and Esther turns everything around. Haman’s plot was foiled. Darkness becomes light, sadness becomes joy, a curse becomes a blessing. What Esther did, we have to do now.
JTA: And most important, what is your favorite flavor of hamantaschen?
Mordechai: Poppy seed. In the famous Purim latkes-hamantashen debate, I side with hamantashen.
Vashtie: I remember tasting one that was apple flavored. It reminded me of something from Trinidad.
Hayman: Not a doubt, poppy seed, with whole wheat flower and honey for sugar — and as many as possible.
Esther: I don’t focus on that. Through Hineni, we have a Purim feast; people come from all over. We celebrate, read the Megillah, eat delicious food.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)