They’re hidden. In the movie, Hidden Figures, the African American women of NASA are hidden. Even though they do the calculations that allow America to get its astronauts into space, the woman are hidden in a back room until three of them stand up for themselves. Katherine Johnson, the most talented of all, doesn’t stop until the men who run NASA recognize that they literally can’t get John Glenn into orbit without her. Because of their courage, pride, and brains, the hidden women step out of the shadows by movie’s end.
The story is a perfect backdrop as Purim arrives. That is because many of us will be “hidden” by the masks we wear during the Megillah reading. More than that, in this day and age we have rediscovered one character in the Megillah who has been “hidden” for too long.
I’m thinking of Vashti, who for much of Jewish history was dismissed as a serious character. She was the cranky queen who defied her husband, King Achashverosh, and got her just desserts by being removed from the palace.
But that’s not the way we need to read the Megillah in 2017. Rather than dismiss Vashti as an angry woman, it makes sense nowadays to take her far more seriously. Vashti was ahead of her time. In the Megillah, she dares to speak truth to power. She doesn’t appear at the King’s whim because she refuses to be put on display for the men of the court. Vashti isn’t petulant; she is proud. She is a woman expecting to be treated with respect.
Something similar is taking place these days in an unexpected way. Women in America, Canada, and Israel are being recognized as they never have been before. Vashti would delight in knowing that woman’s images are being placed for all to see on each country’s new currency.
Harriet Tubman, who played a central role in the Underground Railroad, will soon be on America’s $20 bill. Viola Davis, who dared to sit where only whites were supposed to sit in a Nova Scotia movie theater, will appear on the Canadian $10 bill.
Both women are, of course, black so that their recognition represents an important step in the history of civil rights. Since Viola Davis made her historic gesture in 1946, you might even say she laid the groundwork for Rosa Parks to make her stand in 1955.
Women refusing to hold back; women stepping into the light of day.
And then there is Israel where the currency is also being redesigned. In this case, two of Israel’s four paper banknotes will soon honor female poets. Rachel Bluwstein will highlight the 20-shekel note; Leah Goldberg will be the focus of the 100-shekel note.
This is history in a special way. First, it represents a break with the images previously on Israeli currency. When the State was founded generic images of a farmer, fisherman, and scientist were placed on the currency. Over the years, the palette included mostly political figures from Theodor Herzl to Chaim Weizman, David ben Gurion, and others.
But what’s really new here is the decision to honor Israel’s literary tradition. Rachel (she’s generally known by her first name alone) plus Leah Goldberg will be joined on Israeli currency by poets Saul Tchernichovsky and Natan Alterman.
Four poets – two of them women – will go through the hands of Israelis and visitors to Israel to underscore something critical about Israel and Zionism. That’s the notion that, as important as politics and military matters are for Israel 2017, they are not the bedrock of Zionism. Israel as it is experienced by the people who really live there is a mix of music, theater, dance, art, Bible, history, and literature.
In fact, some of the earliest expressions of Zionism were created by Jewish poets who wrote in Hebrew.
Men were among the first to use Hebrew poetry to express themselves, but they were not the only ones doing so. Rachel and Leah Goldberg were at the center of it all as well.
Both women were born in Eastern Europe. Rachel made aliyah in 1909; Goldberg in 1935. Rachel made her first home in the Galilee, worked hard to make Hebrew her spoken tongue, and then became the first woman to publish a poem in Hebrew. Leah had received a Ph.D. from the Universities of Berlin and Bonn by the time she arrived in Israel. She worked as a high school teacher to begin with and later became a Professor of Comparative Literature at Hebrew University. Along the way, she became the first woman to publish a novel in Hebrew.
Most of all, both women are distinguished for their poetry. Rachel’s signature poem is a declaration of love for the sun and soil of Israel. She wistfully recalls the beauty of her earliest days on her kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee. She calls that body of water, “My Kineret,” and remembers “the long blazing days of harvest on top of the wagon laden with sheaves.” Everything about the land “made my voice ring with song.”
Leah Goldberg draws on a similar love of the land to create this beautiful vision:
“Will there yet come days of forgiveness and grace,
When you will walk in the field as the innocent wayfarer walks?
And the soles of your feet caress the clover leaves,
Though stubble will sting you, sweet will be their stalks…
And you will breath the odor of furrow…
And you will see mirrored in the gold puddle the sun above,
And simple will be these things and life, permitted to touch,
Permitted to love.
Slowly you will walk in the field. ..
Unscorched by flame of conflagrations on roads
That bristled with horror and blood.
Again you will be peaceful in heart, humble and bending,
Like one of the grasses, like one of creation.
It’s a long way from Vashti to Rachel and Leah Goldberg. As Purim arrives, however, how good it is to have these poets in our lives. They’re not hidden away at all. Each reminds us that Zionism is built on feeling a deep connection to Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel. It truly is a homeland. It is a place that rightly gives rise to great poetry.