Antisemitism Then & Now: “The Downfall of Haman”

Peter Young, Rabbinic Intern

Carnivals, costumes, and comedy highlight Purim. The month of Adar in which Purim falls is meant to be a time of increased happiness. The Purim Shpiel, a dramatic reinterpretation of the Purim story, has become a staple of Jewish tradition. We borrow from modern culture and combine it with the story of Shushan to bring life to the story and infuse it with humor and joy. 

While Purim fits in with the standard Jewish holiday trope (“they tried to kill us; we survived, let’s eat”), in many ways Purim stands alone. First, Purim is the singular diasporic Jewish holiday. That is to say, Purim is unique in that the story takes place outside the land of Israel. It inherently confronts issues of identity that we continue to struggle with as Jews here today. Like Esther (Hadassah), many of us are privileged to choose what and when we share about ourselves. We wear costumes on Purim to mimic Hadassah’s hiding when she changes her name to Esther and conceals her identity. The name Esther literally means “hidden”!  Ironically, in doing so we draw attention to the very same Jewish identity she chose to conceal. 

The Purim story is also unique in that the whole Megillah includes no mention of God. Purim appeals to the core theological question that we confront when we are faced with the dark facts of history: where was God? 

Yet, the levity with which we approach the genocidal narrative of Purim is startling. I think of a viral tweet that appears on my feed each High Holy Day season, comedically renaming each holiday with a hyper-literal explanation including, “Jewish Apology Day (Yom Kippur) and Nomadic Hut Appreciation Week (Sukkot)”. But the list also includes “Genocide Remembrance Day 1 (silly, whimsical) and Genocide Remembrance Day 2 (recent, solemn)”. The comparison of Purim to Yom HaShoah is shocking. However, in 1940, just before the Germans entered Paris, Haim Sloves, an Eastern European Jewish intellectual, finished writing a play in Yiddish, Homens Mapole, or The Downfall of Haman. It was an act of resistance, a transparent reference to Hitler. This Shpiel includes characters jokingly denying relation to a Jewish grandparent, subverting antisemitic stereotypes, and singing about the Aryan race in Persia. Infusing the Purim story with the events of the time, at the low point of Jewish history, is precisely what Purim is all about. 

Purim is a subversive story about how Jews reversed the destructive decree against them. The intended victims became the victors. It’s a holiday known for the expression “nahafochu,” which is Hebrew for “to be turned on its head.” The Megillah, or Scroll of Esther, reads, “the month Adar… was turned (nahafokh) for them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to holiday: that they should make the days of feasting and joy, and of sending choice portions to one another and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:21-23)

Especially in times of darkness, when we are confronted by hatred, Purim calls on us to flip the script and turn our mourning into dancing. Our history is so full of victimization and hiding. The recent days feel as though they fit that same rhythm. We see the antisemitic rhetoric, we hear the threats of organized hate, and we constantly confront the distinct aspects of our identities. What might it look like this Purim to actively choose to laugh in the face of antisemitism? How often do we choose joy amidst the darkness of hate? What might you turn upside down to see from a new perspective? 

“The Downfall of Haman”  1940

PARSHANDATA. Sh! Quiet! For God’s sake, have a heart! The walls have ears around here! (Looks around furtively.) That’s a damn lie!

MORDECAI. What’s a damn lie?

PARSHANDATA. My grandmother, my Jewish grandmother, wasn’t even my real grandmother. She was my stepgrandmother!

MORDECAI. You don’t say!

PARSHANDATA. Sure! My grandfather, olov hasholem, had three wives: One from Persia, one from India, and one from Eretz Yisroel, her name was Zalpha. And when Haman decreed against Jewish grandmothers, we proved with witnesses that Zalpha had been childless.

MORDECAI. And who were the witnesses?

PARSHANDATA. All of Zalpha’s children! Including my father. So my grandmother didn’t come from Eretz Yisroel but from Persia and we all belong to the race of purest Aryans.

MORDECAI. You don’t say! …

…HAMAN. Come closer, Motya, and I’ll tell you the secret of my success. (Opens his mouth wide.)… My voice, Motya, my voice! How do you think I became the greatest statesman of all time? How do you think I got next to Alexander of Macedonia, or Hannibal of Carthage, or Caesar of Rome, or Napoleon of Josephine? How do you think I won the greatest battles of history without a single shot? With my voice! A lion’s roar! (Roars.) A tiger’s scream! (Screams.) A jackal’s wail. (Wails.) The enemy gets scared to death. Then my army marches in and just blows–poof!-and it’s all over. That’s how I built the biggest empire in the world. That’s how I took Assyria and Babylonia and Egypt and–that’s what will happen to Greece. You don’t believe me?… I’ll show you… Tremble, you scoffers, you wisenheimers, you eggheads, you intellectuals! My patience is at an end! I’ll step on you like cockroaches, you worms, you traitors, you pinkos!

…MORDECAI. Maybe through you will come our salvation. Maybe because of you, Jewish children will no longer have to hide their names to stay alive. God be with you always, Esther the Queen. (Kisses her.) I hear the King approaching. Be a brave girl. (Exits.)

From this moment forward, in all the King’s provinces from India to Ethiopia, there is no superior race! All are equal! Anyone caught mistreating a Hebrew will follow Haman to his ancestors! I promise our glorious armies–you will never again go out to war! (Cheers.) Citizens! Our country will again be a land of milk and honey, dates and figs, bread and meat, and plenty to eat!

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