Shushan had no Sherlock Holmes

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah.

By Rabbi Noah Arnow

Sherlock Holmes is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. The detective’s uncanny observational and deductive powers allow him to see so much about a person, and not merely what’s on the surface.  

He can tell that you’re a pediatric dentist with three cocker spaniels who recently had a bicycle accident, that you live in Chesterfield but work in Clayton, and that you have a new grandchild who lives out of town whom you just came back from visiting.  

But most mere mortals, including me, can’t do that. We can go only on the outward signs that a person displays. Clothing, for example, whether Cardinals, kippah, a cross or couture, communicates information. I wear a kippah most of the time, for example. But if I take off my kippah, the obviousness of my Jewish identity melts away.  

I can “pass” as a regular, white person. Just like Aryan-looking Jews in Nazi Germany were able to pass. Just as Queen Esther was able to pass as Persian in Shushan. When Esther is in the king’s harem, going through the beautifying process prior to auditioning for queen, the Book of Esther tells us, “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it.” (Esther 2:10)

Even though, according to some legends, she kept kosher and kept Shabbat in the harem, somehow, no one caught on, and her secret remained safe. Shushan had no Sherlock.  


Why did Esther need to keep her Jewish heritage a secret? The natural assumption is anti-Semitism: No Jew could possibly be an acceptable marriage partner and queen.  

But our tradition also has some other explanations. Rashi suggests that because she (and Mordechai) were descended from Kish, the father of King Saul, who was supposed to kill Agag, the Amalekite (and an ancestor of Haman), if Haman found out Esther was from Saul’s lineage, she’d be imprisoned.  

Or, Rabbi Isaiah of Trani says, because Esther had great yichus, a great lineage, she was actually entirely appropriate marriage material for a king. But Mordechai was worried that if her people and lineage were revealed, she would actually marry Achashverosh and become assimilated among the Persians.  

Sometimes, we hide our Jewishness to protect ourselves, like Esther does to perhaps protect herself from imprisonment. We might hide our Judaism to protect the Jewish people, so that we won’t be an embarrassment to them, or so that we might be able, like Esther, to accomplish something important that we could not do if our identity were known.  

But there are also times when we hide our Judaism because we don’t want to get special privileges or be put on the spot, whether by Jews or others, because we’re Jewish. When have you pretended not to be Jewish? What motivated you?  

Esther and we have the choice about whether to make our Jewishness known or to keep it hidden. But as we know, there have been times when Jews have not had that choice. And as we also know, we cannot easily hide parts of our identities when encountering others: our gender; the color of our skin; certain physical disabilities; even, to some extent, our age.  

Living in a world filled with prejudice is so hard. And to be able to hide from that prejudice, when we choose to, is a privilege, that we should acknowledge.  

Esther keeps her identity hidden until the moment when she reveals herself as among the people Haman would destroy.  When it matters for her people, Esther speaks up and speaks out  strongly. I hope that we would all do the same, even when we might otherwise be flying under the radar as Jews.  

But this takes a toll on Esther, I think, and on us, too. In the climactic revelation, she tells the king, “Let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request, for we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated.” (Esther 7:3-4)

Later, Mordechai comes before the king because, as Megillat Esther tells us, “Esther had revealed how she was related to Mordechai.” (8:1) 

But note that Esther never says she’s Jewish, she never describes herself publicly as a Yehudit, a Jew.  

Hiding our identity distances us from our identity and can make it so hard to really own our Jewishness.  

Esther saved her people. But she had to sacrifice a part of herself. And we do the same every time we pretend, every time we hide our Jewishness.  

May we feel safe and proud to be publicly Jewish. And may we be aware always of the privilege of choosing when to be publicly Jewish.