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March 4, 2004

Pages Reveal a Whole New Esther

http://www.jewishjournal.com/celebrations_simchas/article/pages_reveal_a_whole_new_esther_20040305

As far as narrative goes, Megillat Esther is one of the most exciting parts of the Tanach. It is rich in religious significance and considered a seminal text on the miracle of Jewish survival, the story of Esther, the orphan girl who is chosen in a nationwide beauty contest to become the queen and ends up saving the Jewish people from the evil machinations of Haman the Wicked, has all the elements of a good potboiler. Played out under the specter of Armageddon for the Jewish people are great and lavish displays of wealth, a mighty king who is duped by his nefarious adviser, scheming chamberlains, a harem full of nubile virgins, power plays among the king's underlings and enough surprising plot twists to keep the pages -- or the scroll itself -- turning.

Megillat Esther is perennial -- it is read every year on Purim in synagogues and homes all over the world accompanied by a cacophonous soundtrack of grogger noise -- but the story itself has recently inspired a number of contemporary authors to spin their own versions of Esther's compelling tale.

While two novels published in the last year take a new look at the beautiful queen, another self-help book uses the megillah as a source of business advice to young women.

In "The Gilded Chamber" (Rugged Land, 2003), author Rebbeca Kohn tells the story of Esther's pauper-to-princess journey in way that evokes Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent" in style and Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" in setting. Much of the narrative in "The Gilded Chamber" is devoted to life in the harem, a setting that develops intrigues of its own between the girls themselves. There are many lush descriptions of the girls trading secrets and gossiping while reclining on couches and being fed and tended to by eunuchs. The eunuchs also instruct the girls how to pleasure the king, and the book is full of flowery and euphemistic sex prose, like, "My body opened to him like a rose in bloom, each soft petal unfolding until the final burst of color and fragrance."

The story of Purim is the backdrop of the "The Gilded Chamber," but the book is not a retelling of the megillah. Mordechai's role, for example, is greatly reduced. He is Esther's unrequited love interest and, taking great liberties with the source text, he emerges in "The Gilded Chamber" as a man largely estranged from traditional Judaism. Esther pines for him, all the while trying to figure out how she can protect herself from becoming doped and sick from the drugged wine that the eunuchs feed the virgins, and how she can keep herself in the king's favor to eventually save her people. According to the book's press materials, Kohn supplemented her imagination with meticulous historical research, and so while there are no surprises about how the story ends, it still manages to look different from the story we know.

"The Gilded Chamber" sticks to ancient Persia, but "Writing the Book of Ester" by Louise Domaratius (Quality Words in Print, 2003) travels across continents and time to the present day, and uses the story of Esther as a starting point for a complex novel that meditates on race, culture and religious identity.

"Writing the Book of Ester" is the story of Celia, an American English teacher who lives in Paris and is in love with Medhi. Medhi is her 19-year-old Iranian student, and the son of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother -- named Ester. Ester is in prison for writing provocative journalism and, as Medhi talks about his mother, Celia becomes fascinated with her. Celia creates a "book" in which she parallels the contemporary Ester and the biblical Esther, seeing in both a fascinating feminine strength and defiance. Like the biblical Esther, who had to hide her Jewish identity in the palace but still remain true to it, the contemporary Ester does the same thing. While she converts to Islam, she remains true to Judaism in her heart and maintains her cover so she can help the Iranian Jews.

In both these books, Esther emerges as a proto-feminist hero. In the self-help book "What Queen Esther Knew: Business Strategies From a Biblical Sage," authors Connie Glaser and Barbara Smalley (Rodale 2003), continue this idea, seeing Esther as a role model for young women trying to make it in the business world. With chapter headings like "It Pays to Know the Palace Gossip" and "Communicating With the Clout of the Queen," the authors advise young girls to act "queenly" in business, much the same way that Esther did in the palace. The book keeps referring back to the megillah -- "Queen Esther requested not one, but two banquets with King Ahasuerus and Haman. Why? Putting in more face time with the king before revealing [her] request was likely part of her master plan..." -- but it also references a good number of other business advice books to bolster its advice, and a few contemporary Esthers, like Sherron Watkins, who blew the whistle on Enron.

"Given all that Esther knew," Glaser and Smalley write. "It's little wonder that her story continues to inspire women -- even after 2,500 years."

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