Purim is traditionally celebrated with great merriment, including a costume party, where people wear masks and dress up as characters in the Esther story. A traditional Purim food is hamantaschen—triangular cookies with poppy seeds or other sweet fillings, in the shape of Haman's hat. Crawford compares the Purim masquerade to the physical manifestation of Esther and Mordecai's actions. "They took on the outer trappings of the gentile world they lived in, but they never forgot that they were Jewish," she says.
Crawford sees the story as teaching readers how to live as a minority within a gentile society, by cooperating with others but also by protecting and lifting up the Jews. "The Esther story is a warning that anti-Semitism exists; it's a real danger; but as a Jew, you must be prepared to react to it," she notes. Another underlying message is of the dangers of stereotyping. Not all the gentiles in the story are evil like Haman, Crawford points out. Many of them liked the Jews and came to their defense.
Historically, Esther has been a controversial figure. Some rabbis and others have criticized her for being a bad Jew. She didn't observe kosher dietary laws, she married a gentile, and she was vengeful and bloodthirsty; she had Haman's 10 sons hanged, after all. Some feminists scold Esther for accomplishing her goals through her beauty and feminine wiles—by giving dinner parties, manipulating her husband, and taking orders from him and Mordecai. Vashti, they say, is the real feminist heroine, the strong, honorable woman who was unjustly punished for refusing to be degraded by her oafish husband.
Still, the traditional view of Esther as the brave heroine prevails. "Esther embodies feminist ideals: She was brave, courageous, tough, with an imagination equal to the task of saving the Jews," says Moore. Adds Adelman: "Esther had the wisdom to get what she wanted from the king, not by being strident or adversarial, which doesn't get you too far. She succeeded where Vashti failed."
And of all the women of the Bible, Esther recently received the best publicity boost, from pop star Madonna. When the Material Girl became enamored of Jewish mysticism—kabbalah—she changed her name to Esther.