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Costumes, Identity, and Jewish Women’s History - Lesson Plan for Adult Women

This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “Queen Esther and Bella Abzug: Costumes, leadership, and identity.”

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Introduction

As women, we grow up surrounded by messages about how we are expected to act and look. Both the biblical story of Purim and the historical narrative of Bella Abzug raise important questions about our appearance, our personas, our costumes and our dress—and how we make choices of how to project ourselves to the society in which we live.

The Purim story is rich with messages about women and their roles. Esther is a powerful woman who designs and implements a plan for saving her people. Esther’s persona of being an obedient beauty helps her to attain success. Vashti is also a powerful woman, but she has a different narrative. She openly defies the king, refusing to let her body be used to please the whims of her husband and his court. She holds on to her integrity, but she must suffer the consequences. Both women have made choices in difficult circumstances.

Bella Abzug’s life story also teaches us lessons about women’s roles in society. Bella Abzug was a central figure in the emergence of second wave US feminism. Abzug contested society’s expectations for women in order to battle for justice directly and publicly. Her appearance, manner, and words all communicate a message of liberation. She refused to hide her strength, intelligence, love of life, and fury.

The biblical stories of Esther and Vashti, and the biographical story of Bella Abzug, raise multilayered questions about how we choose to dress and the roles we adopt for ourselves as women living in today’s society. In this lesson we will explore some of these questions and see what these stories have to teach us.

Reading Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther)

Read the excerpts from the megillah together.

Discuss:

  • What did Vashti do that got her deposed?
  • How did King Ahasuerus use Vashti’s punishment as an example for all the wives of his kingdom?
  • Why do you think Esther decided to enter the king’s beauty contest?
  • What does Esther do to merit becoming the queen?
  • Is Esther’s appearing before the king without being summoned in chapter 5 courageous?
  • Is Esther manipulative or is she strategic? 
  • If discrimination against women didn’t exist, would women need to be manipulative?
  • Do you identify with either woman?

Clothing and Identity

Consider the following questions:

  • What is the role of clothing in masking and revealing identity in the book of Esther?
  • The midrash (a reinterpretation of a biblical story) explains that Vashti refused to appear before the king at his party “in her crown and displaying her beauty,” because that meant in her crown and nothing else. Is being naked more or less revealing of our true selves than being clothed? How does our clothing help us to become ourselves, or to promote an image of ourselves which we like?
  • Vashti challenged the belief that women’s value is in their looks. Have you ever challenged this belief? What costs did Vashti pay? What do you imagine are the costs of challenging this idea today?
  • In Persia, in the 5th Century BCE, women could be banished or killed for not obeying their husbands. What similar injustices do women face today, either in the US or around the world? Do you see domestic violence and trafficking in women as part of the same continuum of issues that Esther and Vashti faced in the megillah? Why or why not?

Introduce Bella Abzug

Review Bella Abzug’s biography and read the introductory essay for this Go & Learn guide. You can either read these two pieces together as a group or the leader do the reading in advance and share findings with the group.

Together, read the story of how Bella Abzug began to wear hats.

Compare Esther and Bella Abzug’s models of leadership. Esther uses her beauty to attain her position, and does not directly state her needs. Rather, she manipulates the king into seeing Haman for who he is, in order to get the evil decree repealed. Abzug, on the other hand, stated her goals loudly and clearly, and accomplished a lot through her own direct actions. However, she was often called "irritating" and "brash."

As a woman in the 21st century, you have a choice of what model to follow. For centuries, most women employed Esther-type strategies. Now there are many women in public who follow Bella Abzug’s model, but many of them are still plagued by the same negative adjectives following them around.

  • Which model speaks to you, if any? Have you encountered any other models which are more appealing?
  • How do you think women who are currently in politics are characterized in the media?

Answer the following questions about how this all relates to each of your lives:

  • What’s your history of clothing choices?
  • What is your relationship with wearing makeup?
  • How does your age affect your choices in how you dress?
  • How does dress allow you to accomplish your goals?
  • Do you ever choose to visibly identify as a Jew or to hide that identity?
  • Have you ever had a similar experience to Abzug, in which you had to put on a particular costume in order to be taken seriously as a professional? How did that feel?
  • What are the different roles you play in your life today, and what are your costumes for each one? (i.e. mom, executive, young professional, etc).
  • When does choosing an appearance of conformity support your bigger goals?
  • What clothes would a female liberation leader wear today?
  • If you did not have to worry about what others thought about you, what would you wear?

Bess Myerson: Jewish Miss America

Read this story about Bess Myerson, the only Jewish Miss America to date. Just months after the shocking revelations of the Holocaust's devastation of European Jewry, Bess Myerson was crowned the first (and still only) Jewish Miss America on September 8, 1945.

Her victory was seen by many as a symbolic statement of America's post-war rejection of the crimes and prejudices that ravaged Europe as well as a representation of the vitality of the American Jewish community. Raised in a Jewish cooperative in the Bronx, Myerson was unfamiliar with the anti-Semitism that confronted her throughout the pageant. Myerson refused to adopt the suggested less-ethnic pseudonym, Beth Merrick. "It was the most important decision I ever made," she recalled. "It told me who I was, that I was first and foremost a Jew."

Myerson received a scholarship award accompanying her title, but she did not receive automatic acceptance. Three of five sponsoring companies withdrew their support from her post-pageant tour, and there was little demand for Myerson on the speaker circuit frequented by past winners. When an invitation to speak at a country club was revoked because of her religion, Myerson began to distance herself from the usual pageant scene, and instead began lecturing at schools and other venues about discrimination and the consequences of prejudice, under the sponsorship of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

  • How does it make you feel to know that there was a Jewish Miss America?
  • How do you think Jewish women are seen today in the United States?
  • Are Jewish looks seen as beautiful?
  • What do the biblical character Esther and Bess Myerson have in common and how are they different?

Conclusion

The megillah and the biographical stories of Bella Abzug and Bess Myerson, raise questions that help us examine our own identities, roles, and choices of dress. As we read about these powerful women, we can consider our current roles as women in contemporary society and how we want to project ourselves. We can think about how to reveal our true selves in different ways and at different times, as we also think about the real challenges that women face in society today.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Costumes, Identity, and Jewish Women’s History - Lesson Plan for Adult Women." (Viewed on August 30, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/golearn/feb07/adult>.

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