Culture

A Journey Across the Ages: Esther in America

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Jennifer Caplan

 

Book Review of Esther in America, ed. Stuart W. Halpern (Jerusalem, Israel: Maggid Books, 2020).

The story of Esther could be considered an anomaly. Its content and worldview are different than almost everything else in the Tanakh. Its bawdy and sometimes humorous tone is out of step with the poetry and pain of the other megillot. It lacks the florid depictions of love found in The Song of Songs, even though it is a love story. Although, like Lamentations, it is a story of post-exilic Jewish life, in Esther the diaspora is just a fact, not a tragedy. Ruth and Esther may share the most similarities, focused as they are on heroines with a surety of purpose and sense of honor that drive them to make dramatic, sometimes dangerous choices, but the stakes of Ruth’s life are small and immediate compared to the geopolitical tightrope Esther walks. Esther is, in short, not like anything else.

It makes sense, then, that Esther would be a text that has had a peculiar and resonant life in the United States, a country that has often been unlike anything else. Like Esther, America proved that it was possible to stand up to a seemingly all-powerful ruler and survive. Like Esther, America has been the upstart newcomer, rejecting traditions that may have seemed immutable. In the new volume Esther in America editor Stuart W. Halpern writes that the themes of the Book of Esther, “freedom, power, fraught sexual dynamics, ethnicity, and peoplehood…define American identity,” which goes a long way toward explaining why there is enough of a history of this book in this land for more than two dozen scholarly essays, ranging from the earliest days of Puritan New England to 21st century popular media. Many of the essays probe the complicated relationship between the biblical text and American Protestantism—a relationship made even more unexpected when you recall that Esther is the only book in the Bible never to mention God. How did the land of Manifest Destiny, the land of “In God We Trust” that sees itself as “One Nation, under God,” become so fascinated with, and even identified with, a book in which God is effectively absent and humans have to save themselves? There are myriad other questions to ask about Esther’s long history in North America, and Halpern has collected a panoply of analyses from a broad range of sources.

Esther in America is a book that both transcends historical categorization and is at the same time of the moment. It begins, as the reader would expect, with the earliest Americans and Cotton Mather’s “proto-feminist Esther.” It continues semi-chronologically into essays about Emancipation, but the remaining five sections are organized thematically, not chronologically, and the book resists easy classification into a particular genre or audience. At a time when America is wrestling with its identity and working to find a balance between religion and secularism, academic expertise and expertise gained in the field, a volume that brings together religious leaders, educators, writers, and academics understands the need to be able to speak to wide audiences, and to appeal beyond a narrow circles of interlocutors. 

There are themes that are woven into the fabric of the project, both within and beyond the thematic delineations imposed by the editor. “Feminism” and gender studies looms large throughout the volume, as befits a set of essays dedicated to one of the Bible’s most prominent women. While Vashti is often seen as more of a crusader for women’s rights (addressed in Tzvi Sinensky’s chapter “Vashti Comes to America”, see also his Lehrhaus piece “Vashti: Feminist or Foe”), Esther is nonetheless depicted as a woman who risked much for a cause and for her people. The gender analysis is hit and miss, however. Only about a third of the contributors to the volume are women, which perhaps leaves room for improvement, but at the same time more than half of the essays to address gender directly are by men, which is a fantastic indication that we are well past the days when it was assumed that an analysis of gender would be of interest only to women.

One of the strongest elements of the volume as a whole is that it leaves the reader wanting more and opens myriad avenues for conversation. There are sometimes connections that seem to be missing or points left unexplored, but in most cases those are things that were avoided because the scope of a particular essay did not allow for broader conversation, and rather than being lacunae these moments represent opportunities for discussion and for the reader to do her own thinking. Stuart Halpern’s essay on Cotton Mather, for example, is a compelling look at the rhetoric of one of America’s most divisive religious figures (an earlier version of his essay appeared in Lehrhaus, “Puritan Purim”). A reader who is primarily an Americanist (as this reader is) would want to discuss Mather’s “vision for womanhood” in terms of his role in the Salem Witch Trials (3). Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World was the staunchest support for the Salem trials, and his pronouncements about spectral evidence led to the convictions. The trials are mentioned only very briefly and note that Mather “played a role,” but falls short of interrogating how this impacts an analysis of his vision for womanhood (6). But Salem is not Halpern’s focus, and while Mather’s involvement in Salem was based on Mather’s interpretation of many scriptural sources, it was not based on Esther. Halpern’s essay, as it comes first in the volume, therefore establishes the excellent precedent that this is not a volume that is going to hand the reader all the answers, but instead one that is going to present certain ideas and allow those to open new questions in the mind of the reader.

Similarly, Shaina Trapedo’s essay on beauty pageants and the “Esther aesthetic” offers a lively and engaging look into the hugely popular world of interwar beauty pageants and traces the connections from an annual “Queen Esther contest” to find the “Prettiest US Jewess” through the complicated relationship between American Jewry and Palestine in the 1930s and eventually to Bess Myerson’s selection as the first (and as of 2021 still only) Jewish Miss America. This suggests myriad questions about how such pageants related to (or even attempted to dismantle) the more prominent images of Jewish American women. Trapedo tells us that 22,000 people (about the full seating capacity of Madison Square Garden) watched the 1933 Queen Esther contest, but in 1934 Fanny Brice filmed a comedic act poking fun at the idea that she (and her nose) could ever compete for the title of Prettiest Follies Girl of 1934. What was the “Esther aesthetic” in a larger American context if these two visions of Jewish beauty could exist simultaneously? As with Halpern’s essay, broader questions about Jewish American womanhood was not Trapedo’s focus, so it is not a criticism of her work but only another of the moments within the volume that suggest to a reader other connections to the larger scholarly conversation around a certain topic. 

The volume has many strengths—more than could possibly be enumerated in a single review. Two sections, however, stand out as being especially fruitful for future study. The section devoted to “Pop Culture Purim” contains essays about Queen Esther in children’s books, Esther in American Art, and Esther in film. The latter chapter, by Yosef Lindell, may have had the most arduous task in the volume because his was the essay that had to include the inimitable One Night With the King. First a glossy romance/adventure novel by Tommy Tenney (2004) and turned into a film of the same name in 2006, it is perhaps the nadir of the relationship between Esther and American popular culture. There is little justice in a world in which this film is one of the last appearances of Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole, reunited here in a strange simulacrum of Lawrence of Arabia. Lindell, however, is able to begin with the film, but then move it into a conversation about the broader issues around adaptations of Esther on screen, most of which have had a decidedly Christian agenda. Lindell exhaustively chronicles everything from big-budget Hollywood to Veggie Tales and from evangelical propaganda to Orthodox Jewish reclamations of the story. 

Lindell’s essay works extremely well with the essay that precedes it: “Esther in American Art” by Samantha Baskind. Baskind takes the reader through centuries of depictions of Esther in fine art (complete with beautiful visual aids, many of which are in color) and her ability to contextualize not only the elements of the American psyche that seem to be drawn toward Esther, but also the innovations in American art that contributed to an ever-evolving visual representation of the queen makes this chapter stand out. In particular it was wonderful to see J.T. Waldman’s tour de force graphic novel Megillat Esther represented as part of a continuum of American artists using the motifs and themes of Esther in their work. Waldman’s novel is one of the most visually complicated graphic novels ever produced and it is unfortunate that it went out of print rather quickly, but in Baskind’s analysis we have at least some lasting record of how Waldman (and dozens of other artists) have seen Esther as “ripe material” for investigating questions of identity, belonging, and Otherness (219).

The volume (and this essay) saved the best for last. The section entitled “The Megilla and Modern Morality” is in some ways the catch-all section for the essays that did not fit elsewhere. In that way it is a perfect vehicle for discussing a book found in the catch-all section of the Bible for books that did not fit elsewhere. But while the essays in this section may not have a unifying theme (beyond the sort of vague “morality” designation) these also offer some of the most forward-looking analyses. Will everyone agree with Liel Leibovitz equating conservatives being “cancelled” in 21st century America to the Jews who were tyrannized by Haman in 5th c. BCE Shushan? Certainly not. But that is why the essay is so good; it is not because everyone will agree, but it is because it is such a good microcosm of American public intellectual life. All the essays in this section take on some element of 20th and 21st century discourse and they work, both as a set and individually, as excellent jumping-off points for discussion that is accessible to nearly every audience. 

These comments are several of the many reasons why this volume is going to be valuable to academics, clergy, and laypeople alike. Multiple authors in the volume refer to Esther as a “blank canvas;” one of the overall arguments of the collection is that Esther has had such a rich and dynamic life in the American context because it is a story onto which a wide variety of meanings can be attached and which is open to interpretation in all sorts of situations. Esther is a book in which many people can see themselves, and the characters are larger-than-life, allowing people to see themselves in the broad and brash actions of Esther, Mordecai, Vashti, Ahasuerus, and even Haman. Esther in America functions in a similar way. In many ways it is also a blank canvas, allowing each reader to put in or take out whatever they need.

There is very little value in a work that does not spark conversation or inspire further research. Any book that someone reads and thinks “well, that’s nice” has done nothing to further our collective engagement with a subject. A book like this will have a long life, inspiring academics to think critically about why they agree or disagree with the various essays. It will inspire clergy to take a new look at the deeper meanings of the text and allow them to expand their understanding of how to apply diverse hermeneutics to the biblical text. Laypeople will find almost all of the essays accessible and interesting and can use them to foster their own interest in the text or give them a roadmap for what it looks like to think about a biblical text from every angle.

21st century America needs this book. Leibovitz called this America’s “Hamanite Moment,” and while not all readers will agree with who he casts as Haman, the idea that we are currently in the throes of a divisive political moment in which “us” and “them” are becoming ever more starkly divided categories in many situations rings very true. While we may all hope (and trust) that we are not headed for anything as brutal as the Revolutionary or Civil Wars there is nevertheless much to be gained from thinking about the way Esther helped Americans in those fractured societies navigate their world, and we can all take lessons away from the desire of Americans of earlier times to return to scripture to find meaning. Esther in America has appeared at the perfect moment, and is certain to inspire conversation, debate, argument, and rebuttal for years to come.

Jennifer Caplan
Jennifer Caplan is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Program Director of Jewish Studies at Towson University. Her forthcoming book on American Jewish humor will be published with Wayne State University Press, and she has published widely on topics related to Judaism, popular culture, gender, comics and graphic novels, and pedagogy. She has always seen herself as more of a Vashti.