The Avodah Blog

Was Vashti an Organizer?

By: Elise Goldin

This post originally appeared on The SurRealEstate here.

As unnatural as it might sound, as Purim descends upon us, I can’t help but to pull out social justice themes within the holiday and compare it to our work in tenant organizing. I am working at Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) for the year through AVODAH: the Jewish Service Corps, a program that works to explore the connection between Judaism and social justice. A major theme that I see embedded in the story of Purim is the importance of owning your own voice and using it to call out injustice. The most obvious point in the story is Vashti’s act of feminism. (At least, in the way I’ve always heard it in my admittedly lefty Jewish upbringing.) Vashti, the Queen of Shushan, refuses King Achashverosh’s demand for her to dance naked at his party. Fed up with his abuse, Vashti packs her things and leaves Shushan forever.

This deceivingly complicated act of not putting up with crap and learning how to say “no” is something that tenants confront as well. When is enough enough?  Last night, I met with a group of tenants whose building is in foreclosure and is in atrocious condition. One woman has lived with no refrigerator for over a year, while another complains of not being able to drink the water that comes out of the faucets because it makes her sick. Tenants gathered and came to a few agreements: It is unacceptable that they experience harassment and intimidation from their landlord. They cannot continue living without basic services or repairs. Like Vashti, tenants are taking a stand and saying that they will not put up with mistreatment any more.

Another aspect of Purim is the actual celebration. For the most part this means reading the megillah, or the story of Purim. The story includes three important characters: Haman, the meanest guy in town who is plotting the kill the Jews, and Esther and Mordechai, our heroes. Whenever Haman is mentioned, the crowd is supposed to boo, beat drums, and twist graggers. When Esther or Mordechai enter the story, the crowd cheers! Calling out “boo” and “yay” during the megillah reading empowers folks to join in community and name what is right and wrong. While certainly we cannot claim that the story of Purim fully adheres to ideals of social justice, this communal acknowledgment of good and bad, as well as the sheer act of community participation, are important first steps to creating change. Like tenants in foreclosed buildings, the crowd at the reading of megillah sees themselves as important parts of the story, actors that cannot be ignored.

When we organize tenant meetings in distressed, foreclosure buildings, tenants come together to name what is acceptable or not acceptable within their home. It is only after collectively establishing that a problem exists in a building are tenants able to work collectively to improve it. Last night, tenants agreed that security has become a building-wide problem. The front door is always jammed with papers or rugs to keep it open, and strangers come in and out of the building regularly. Now that this issue has been called out collectively, tenants can brainstorm together about how they want to address it.

So, after Purim, when you wake up with a hangover and your face paint still on from the night before, think about how your hoarse voice was a tool in joining as a community to name what is right and wrong in the world.

Elise GoldinElise Goldin is from Evaston, IL and attended Macalester College. As a New York AVODAH Corps member, she is a Tenant Organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which supports self-help housing and community building in low-income neighborhoods by training, organizing, developing, and assisting resident-controlled limited-equity housing co-operatives.

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