Today is Purim
Note: Cross-posted from my newspaper blog.
Today is Purim, a Jewish festival celebrated on the 14th day of the month of Adar in the Hebrew calendar. This year it runs from sunset on Wednesday, March 7, 2012, and ends sunset Thursday, March 8, 2012.
The Purim holy day celebrates the salvation of the Jews of ancient Persia from a plot to annihilate them by Haman, prime minister of King Ahasuerus in the 4th century BC.
The word “Purim” comes from a word meaning “lots,” because Haman picked the day of the massacre by drawing lots.
Haman’s plot was dramatically exposed when Ahasuerus’ new Queen Esther revealed at a feast that she was Jewish. The planned annihilation was canceled, Haman was hanged, and Esther’s cousin Mordechai replaced him as prime minister.
There was once a colorful expression that came from this when hanging was still used as a method of execution, to be “hanged higher than Haman.”
There was a later historical parallel that seems too good to be true, except that it is reasonably well attested to. In the 14th century King Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir the Great) of Poland, the last of the Piast Dynasty, invited Jews from all over Europe to settle in Poland. They eventually constituted about 15 percent of the population before the Holocaust.
Legend has it that Kazimierz had a Jewish mistress he loved greatly, who influenced him for the benefit of her people. Her name was Esterka – or in English, Esther.
Persia is of course, modern day Iran. The name “Iran” means “Aryan” and is a modern invention. I have had Iranian friends who still prefer to call themselves Persians though.
The parallels between the story of Esther and the boasts of the leaders of Iran that they will annihilate the Jews today are not lost on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who earlier this week presented President Obama with a copy of the “Megillah of Esther,” the Purim story.
However there’s an interesting historical factoid that nobody seems to notice, perhaps because we think of the stories in the Bible as myths, rather than history. The King of Persia’s name is recorded in the Book of Esther as Ahasuerus, but when studying history from a more secular point of view we use the Greek rendering of his name, Xerxes.
Xerxes was of course the Persian emperor who led the invasion of Greece that was delayed for a crucial time by the 300 Spartans and their allies at the Battle of Thermopylae, then defeated decisively at the naval battle of Salamis and the land battle at Plataea.
And if that’s not enough historical trivia, does anybody remember Grade B movie actor Richard Egan (1921-1987)?
In 1960 and 1962 Egan made two movies in a row. The first was “Esther and the King,” co-staring Joan Collins, where he played King Ahasuerus/Xerxes. In the second, “The 300 Spartans” he played King Leonidas of Sparta.
It’s still around on DVD in cheap movie bins and well worth the trip down memory lane. Egan had a style of acting that was a tad wooden, but I don’t think they ever got a better performance out of him.