Guest Post by Debbie Wolen: Ta’anit Esther and Mardge Cohen

March 17, 2008 § 1 Comment

Guest Post by Debbie Wolen*: Ta’anit Esther and Mardge Cohen

I had never heard of the holiday [Ta'anit Esther] until one year ago, when Rabbi Brant said that the JRF and the RRC wanted to honor Dr. Mardge Cohen for Ta’anit Esther. Mardge asked me what Ta’anit Esther was. I had never heard of it, and I have been Jewish all my life.

Isaac Saposnik is working on the Philadelphia side of this RRC/Kolot “reconstruction” of Ta’anit Esther as a Jewish Day of Justice. Ta’anit Esther is described in the Book of Esther (which I did actually read for the first time, in preparation for organizing this event. It describes Esther’s initial reluctance to get involved with advocating for her people. When Mordicai first told Esther about the plot, she was afraid to intervene. Apparently, her conscience and sense of justice/solidarity/responsibility was stronger than her fear, and gave her the energy and courage to intervene. Her struggle is interesting and a process that I know I face often in my life, so I can really identify with Esther’s struggle. Prior to her intervention, Esther fasted, and asked the whole Jewish community to fast with her in solidarity. Thus, the Fast of Esther is one of several Jewish fast days. (It lasts from sunrise to sundown on March 20. That is why we are having East African (Ethiopian) hors d’ouerves at the March 19 observance.)

I bought an Art Scroll prayer book recently, so I looked, and sure enough, Ta’anit Esther is listed as a fast day. It is not described as a Jewish day of justice, however. This is the new reconstruction of it. I also mentioned it to an Israeli fellow, and he said, “Oh, yes, sure, Ta’anit Esther, of course.” But, I have asked other people who are much more knowledgeable and involved Jewish people than I, and they had not heard of Ta’anit Esther previously.

When I read the Book of Esther, I was somewhat concerned about the justice described there and the assumptions I made about what the reconstructionists meant by “Jewish day for justice.” The justice in Esther is revengeful and quite bloody! I asked Isaac about this. He said this Jewish Day for Justice implies social justice, the type of justice that Mardge Cohen and others in Rwanda are working for, making the lives of the survivors of the 1994 genocide better, making the lives of the poor and powerless more empowered. Well, it was obvious, but the bloody revenge in Esther is called justice, too.

Mardge Cohen, MD, is a woman who has struggled with social injustice during her whole medical career. She is really a remarkable woman, and her work is on the level of Paul Farmer, in my opinion. I saw some slides she showed at our workplace in 8/2000, of her tour of HIV projects in South Africa after the 2000 International AIDS conference. I was inspired by her slides so that I started trying to educate folks at JRC about AIDS in Africa, and to raise funds for HIV projects there. I am just one of many she has inspired by her example.

Here is a jewish text study by Jordan Appel Ta’anit Esther text study

Thanks a lot for your interest and support

Debbie Wolen

*About Debbi:

I’m a family nurse practitioner, have worked in HIV primary care at Cook County Hospital for nearly 17 years with people who are medically indigent and suffer the indignities of poverty. I was a public health nurse before that. I have sought inspiration from many sources. My first source of inspiration was my childhood rabbi, Leonard Mervis, who gave sermons on social justice, anti-war and in support of the civil rights movement (like you, my parents insisted on my attendance through high school, every single Friday evening! So, rather than be bored, I listened to the interesting sermons.) I am a product of Cicero, Illinois. My cousins marched against Martin Luther King when I was 15. That was a radicalizing experience that affects me even today, in my middle age. Also, your mother [Tina Escobar] was the only teacher I could really relate to in my two years at Rush College of Nursing, and she only taught our class for 2 weeks!

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