Purim Lesson Plan: “That Vashti Thinks She’s the Queen of the Neighborhood” and Other Hot Purim Topics

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This Purim, consider using the amazing lesson plan designed by Ariana Katz for PunkTorah. Download the PDF here.

Purim combines ritual, costume, profanity, silliness, community, and wildness that speaks to people of all ages. I often introduce Purim to people who are learning about it for the first time as “Jewish Halloween.” While that is in part true, there are so many different directions you can go in when studying Purim, that it expands far beyond that. The Jewish calendar provides so many rich opportunities to pray with our feet, to learn by doing, to follow in the path of the Israelites who say to Moses about God’s laws, “we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 23:7), and learn about tradition and values as we enact those very values. In a roundup of the values we’re learning as we celebrate Purim, I’ve thought about some of the different lenses we may use teach about the holiday. Also check out a proposed lesson plan to teach about Vashti, consent, and reworking of Purim traditions to make space for the women in the story!

Purim is a great way to teach about class
I learned that we wear costumes so that the rich and poor will celebrate together, regardless of class. In the picture books that are seared into my mind, people in costumes dance in concentric circles late into the night, holding hands and getting crunk together. Tradition also teaches us that we all wear costumes so those receiving matanot l’evyonim, charity to the poor that is given out specifically on Purim, are not embarrassed to do so. Purim is a great opportunity to talk about Rambam’s levels of mitzvot.

Purim is an important moment to talk about Orientalism
There is a common misconception that all Jews are white, Eastern European, Yiddish-speakers. The story of Purim, which takes place in Iran, is often depicted as an “exotic” story, full of “savage” Persian oppressors, and Jewish heroes (who always look white.) Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said is “a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts.” Orientalism defines “the Orient” as the opposite of the modern, Western world, and thereby justifies “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”

As we study the story of Purim, why not discuss the “mystical land of Shushan” we read about in the Megillah as the real place of Iran?
Consider eating Persian food, studying about the Jews of Tehran, and thinking about the orientalist tropes many of us may rely on in our coded costumes, drawing, and language. We can counter this narrative with young children with the images we show them and the costumes we choose, and have a larger conversation with older children about the theory and the implications of a story that takes place in Iran in the current context of the US, Israel, Iran, colonization, orientalism, and militarization. This Purim, teach your children about the persecution, faith, bravery, and standing up for your identity we see in Purim, rather than reinforcing Orientalist tropes of evil viziers, unibrows, and exoticism.

Purim encourages us to talk about drinking alcohol and other responsible adult behaviors
Nothing makes you wonder if drinking is alright than seeing your childhood rabbi knock back a few shots with the Purim House Band between readings of the Megillah. Learning by example is something that Judaism does best, and the commandment to get so schwasted you can’t tell the difference between the hero Mordechai and the villain Haman is a great opportunity to talk to your 15 year old about the appropriate times and ages to indeed get thus schwasted.

Purim is a great way to teach feminism
It can’t be said enough: Vashti is a heroine for consent! As we read the opening chapter of the story of Purim, we learn fleetingly about Esther’s predecessor to the crown, a queen who refused to dance naked before her husband, King Ahashverus and his bros after they had been drinking for about 180 days. The Hebrew, mishteh, means a drinking party, basically a gigantic rager, and Vashti refused to leave her party with other righteous babes to go dance in this unsafe environment. And so, her darling husband gives her the ol’ heave ho! Shouldn’t we cheer Vashti’s name as much as we cheer Mordechai?

And Esther! Some may see her as a puppet, some as a sex symbol for Jewish women trying to pass, but she is the heroine of Purim, and has the whole book named after her. Check out some proposed ideas for your lesson plan, to teach the other other stories of Purim to grades 6-12.

Ariana is a religious school educator, PR type, knitter, radical children’s book collector, and activist. Ariana blogs at Vildah Chaya, including weekly Parsha Playlists about each week’s Torah portion. Ariana blushes when someone can work bell hooks theory into a d’var torah.