Going naked

March 1, 2010 at 12:56 AM 5 comments

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Purim always gets me thinking about going naked.

This carnival holiday begins with the story of a feast in the garden of King Xerxes, or Ahasuerus, as he is known in the Book of Esther. The drunken binge, circa 483 B.C.E.,  takes place in the “third year of his reign for all his officials and his servants.” In the course of this bacchanal, Ahasuerus orders Queen Vashti to appear naked before him and his generals. She’s already been vanquished once before — she came to Ahasuerus as the spoils of war — and she won’t do it. Exit Vashti.

Ahasuerus can’t get over Vashti’s dissing him. He complains that women across his one-hundred and twenty-seven provinces are going to act like Vashti and make “their husbands contemptible in their eyes.” Some commentators suggest that Ahasuerus was so humiliated by Vashti’s “not tonight, honey” that he had her beheaded.

As any self-respecting king would do, Ahasuerus sets out to reseed his harem. From among a fresh crop of virgins, he will seek Vashti’s replacement. Enter the Jewess Esther, who “was taken to King Ahasuerus into his palace in the seventh year of his reign. The King loved Esther more than all the women, and she won more of his grace and favor than all the other girls; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen in place of Vashti.”

Most rabbis argue that Esther remained a virgin in the harem, even after visiting Ahasuerus in the evening. I am only a common reader, but the story makes sense — psychologically, politically or sexually — only if Esther has sex with Ahasuerus and lets him parade her in front of his friends. Otherwise, why go to the trouble of searching the provinces for a beautiful, compliant child unless Ahasuerus could use her to avenge himself against the old queen?

In fact, Ahasuerus loves Esther so much that he even calls off the pogrom that Haman, an Agagite suck-up, planned against all the Jews “from Hodu to Cush.” As a sign of gratitude, he also gives part of his kingdom to Esther. Show me one man from Akron to Zanzibar who would do any of this for a platonic friendship.

Nudity 101

My first encounter with nakedness came in my freshman year at Rutgers University when I tried out for the college play. I don’t remember the name of it anymore, but the lead character was Lady Godiva. The director said he wanted the actress to play the part naked, but he would consider letting her wear a taupe body suit. I was eighteen and I was dying to act. I felt sick at the very thought of taking my clothes off in front of people, but we’re taking about art here — and I was ready to sacrifice all sense and sensibility for it.

I don’t know why. In high school, I hated taking a shower in front of the other girls. Now, three months after graduation, I was willing to shed a taboo I had observed my whole life.

Sometimes life is kind, even though we may not know it at the time, and I didn’t get any part in that play. When the theater (ahem) mounted the play, I went to see it. Turns out there was no literal nude scene. Lady Godiva wore a one-piece body suit. Either the actress refused to go buff or the state university wouldn’t permit it.

I have always regretted my willingness to play that part naked — and not because I am a greatly moral or modest person. I wish I knew that I could have negotiated my own terms. I didn’t want to play that part naked, but I felt I had no choice. The actress who played Godiva knew she had a choice. Even the director was willing to budge. The choice was there for the taking, but I didn’t have the courage to speak up.

An embarrassment of nakedness

One sunny day in my early twenties, I went to a St. Thomas beach with four male friends. The water was full of stingrays. Tourists avoided it, so the five of us had the beach to ourselves. The guys decided to strip down. I wore a bikini in those days and, as far as I was concerned, I was already displaying maximum flesh. They teased me about being a bourgeois but didn’t press me to disrobe.

They sunned themselves. They skinny-dipped. I tried to be casual about the whole thing, but from the corner of my eye, I ogled their fortresses. Some, I noticed, owed their architecture to the church, some to the synagogue. In every case, the drawbridge was down. I didn’t know if I should be thankful or offended.

I had three more invitations to show myself in the altogether:

* At a nudist swimming hole in Dutchess County, New York. I went there with one of my St. Thomas friends. He had invited a couple of his high school students to join us. Within two minutes, the three of them were down to their birthday suits. I sat by the water fully clothed. I wouldn’t even take off my jacket. I mean, these were his students! I must say, I would have forgotten all about Pawel* and Lindsey a long time ago if I couldn’t still picture them looking like Brooke Shields and the guy who plays her boyfriend in Endless Love.

* At Robert Moses State Park, Babylon, New York. Fifteen years ago, I got friendly with a physicist who preferred Robert Moses to Jones Beach because of the park’s nude beach. When I wouldn’t take off my bathing suit, I had to hear once again that I was a slave to my bourgeois training, etc. A sign stuck on a pole in the sand lectured people not to stare — in other words, not to respond naturally to the body in nature. I thought the whole point of going to the beach was to stare.

* Somewhere along the eastern seaboard. I knew Jared Kimmelman one week before he started badgering me to go with him to a nude beach, maybe at the Jersey shore, maybe near Lynn, Massachusetts, where he had a house. It was January and he suspected it would take him until early summer to wear me down. I don’t have space here to enumerate all my reasons for steering clear of Jared, but nagging me about the nude beach was among my top ten complaints. Hey, if that’s what he needed to do, godspeed to him. But if I got through my gorgeous teens and twenties clothed, I sure wasn’t gonna strut my aging stuff now.

I see you

Queen Esther and Lady Godiva were right to go naked.

By giving Ahasuerus what he wanted, Esther undid Haman and his plan to exterminate the Jews of Persia. By riding naked through the streets of Coventry, Lady Godiva convinced her husband to rescind his tax on the impoverished tenants of the town. The Esther and Godiva stories work because neither woman took pleasure in her nakedness. Each one used it courageously as a political tool to arrive at a greater good.

Meanwhile, my friends pestering me to take my clothes off had more to do with the pubic than the public good.  And as for my theatrical ambitions, they had nothing to do with breaking the fourth wall, which I knew nothing about. I was simply ready to do whatever it took to jump-start a career for which I probably had no talent.

The Book of Esther is as famous for what it doesn’t expose as for what it does. The story, for example, never mentions God. Indeed, the name Esther may be derived from the Hebrew hester, which means “hidden.” God is said to have hidden Himself from the Jewish people when they needed Him the most (something of a pattern, as it turns out), and it was up to the Jews to figure out how to survive the latest organized attempt at exterminating them. In a world gone topsy-turvey, good women go naked and ordinary people take up arms.

In ordinary times, though, going naked has nothing of divinity or political greatness about it. It’s one of the crudest signs of conformity and an homage to the puerile idea that the more you show, the more real you are. Jared Kimmelman, my short-lived beau with the nude beach obsession, also told me that sex meant nothing to him. He could sleep with anybody, or rather, any body.

Letting it all hang out appears to have robbed Jared’s life of meaning and mystery, which in this world are hidden from us. What is life about anyway but groping in the dark after meaning and mystery in a search for the naked truth?

* All names in this blog post are fictitious except for the names of public figures.


See also: The problem with Purim by Abby Wisse Schachter

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Entry filed under: Bookpod, college, Judaism, Religion. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Give it to the kids, Erhard! Excitement around every corner

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Urban Renaissance  |  March 1, 2010 at 2:06 PM

    Very funny post (especially the discussion of male architecture).

    I totally believe that Esther could have remained a virgin. She could have satisfied Ahasuerus a la Monica. Or maybe she pulled a Scheherezade and spent the night talking, leaving him wanting more. Or some combination of the above.

    She spent a night with him, she fascinated him enough to make him want to marry her, but it doesn’t seem to me he was that thrilled by her performance; otherwise, why would she not have been called by him for at least 30 days? (Esther, 4: 11)

    I also would doubt that Ahasuerus asked Esther to appear naked before him and his court. That move had backfired once before and left him humiliated. He was savvy enough not to risk it again.

    I guess I see Esther as a master manipulator (in the good sense!) who knew exactly how to make things work out for her without giving up her self respect in the process. She’s the ultimate heroine.

  • 2. modestine  |  March 1, 2010 at 9:25 PM

    Hi “Urban Renaissance,”
    As you rightly suggest, the characters in The Book of Esther deserve further consideration:

    * Esther is a young girl and an orphan, and therefore vulnerable as a subject in the Persian empire. She is fortunate to have the protection of Mordechai — a devout Jew who teaches her to lean on the values embodied in the Torah. Nonetheless, Esther is an orphan and marginal inside the Jewish world. When she enters the king’s harem, she is an alien in an unfamiliar world. The megila gives us a picture of an intelligent, savvy girl who makes strong alliances with Hegai, the guardian of the women, and Hesach, a court chamberlain. Her courage to confront Ahahsuerus comes not only from doing as Mordechai advises but also from the political strategies she has developed in the harem. When she finally rises to the occasion and “speaks truth to power,” we know we are in the presence of an extraordinary individual. She is the hero of the story.

    * Feminist writers have pointed to Vashti as the true heroine in the Book. In my view, the text doesn’t support this claim. We are introduced to Vashti at a “feast for the women in the royal house.” She’s got quite a pedigree: She is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the first Jewish Temple and sent the Jews into exile; and the daughter of Belshazzar, who contemptuously used the temple goblets in a feast for his nobles, wives and concubines. The megila does not say what goblets Vashti was using, but we get the idea that she and her court were not sitting around eating crumpets and playing Twenty Questions. She herself was the degraded spoils of war, a gift from the conquerer Darius to Ahasuerus. Nobody can know why Vashti refused to undress before Ahasuerus and his nobles at that feast, but it’s just as likely that she spurned him to “mess with his mind” as much as to demonstrate self-respect. This woman was a political creature from Day One who despised the captive populations in the empire, with a special antipathy for the Jews. She didn’t deserve to die for dissing Ahasuerus in front of his friends, but anybody who cared about the fate of the Jews would not mourn her passing from Persian politics.

    * Ahashuerus strikes me as the biggest question mark in the story. His “love” for Esther suggests he has a warm, gentle side. His reliance on Haman for political advice suggests otherwise. When Haman badmouths the “certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces” of the realm, Ahasuerus rewards him with the royal signet ring. Now Haman has permission to “do with [the ring] as you see fit.” The decree that Haman had drawn up would have enacted a pogrom against the Jews from India to Sudan. The decree put the machinery of war into motion so effectively that it took a second decree to undo it. Only then could the Jews take up arms to defend themselves. If not for Esther’s courage, Haman would have won the day.

    That brings up the matter of Ahasuerus’ attitude toward Esther. I can’t help but think he was grateful to her for redeeming his manhood in front of his court. You observe insightfully that Ahasuerus wouldn’t have risked humiliation twice. Maybe not. And maybe he had specific reasons for wanting to parade Vashti, and only Vashti, naked at the feast. When she refused to do what he wanted, he painted himself into a corner. Now he had to find a woman who would do as he said. I don’t know if such a brutish man would have responded to Esther with goodness and dignity.

  • 3. sonia  |  March 3, 2010 at 5:56 PM

    I particularly liked the line “I ogled their fortresses. Some, I noticed, owed their architecture to the church, some to the synagogue.” Haha ha!

  • 4. Pesha  |  March 7, 2010 at 10:50 PM

    Nudity was the least of Esther’s problems. The happy ending for the Jewish people in the Purim story equals the tragic story of Esther’s marriage to an idiot and a boor for the rest of her life. If only one night of nudity parading in front of the Persian court could have saved the Jews! I am sure Mordechai would have counseled her to do that…for why else would she have ended up in the court if not to save the people?

    • 5. modestine  |  March 7, 2010 at 10:53 PM

      I agree with you: Nudity was just the beginning of Esther’s martyrdom — if, in fact, she did stay married to Ahasuerus and didn’t marry Mordechai, as the most hopeful rabbis have surmised.


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