India to Ethiopia; Persia to America: A Review of Esther in America
When thinking about iconic narratives in Tanakh, it is easy to point to the Book of Esther as one of the most accessible. From the royal festivities to the scheming villains to the fairytale ending, it’s a story so many of us have familiarized ourselves with since childhood. What we may overlook, however, is the way that the story of Esther has impacted the formation of the United States, something a new book edited by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern seeks to correct.
Compiling a collection of essays from leading rabbinic and academic scholars, “Esther in America” begins by focusing on the early days in the New World when Puritanical pilgrims came from England, before going on to conduct an examination of how Megillat Esther touched both Jewish-American culture and the cultures of other communities that help make up “The Great American Melting Pot.” This book, published by Maggid Press in conjunction with YU’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, is the 15th that Halpern has edited or co-edited. His other edited works include the popular “Mitokh Ha-Ohel” series, which features articles from YU rabbis and professors, and the “Derashot Ledorot” series, a compilation of essays based on the sermons of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm.
A meaningful section of “Esther in America” that stood out to me was “Emancipations and Proclamations.” It devotes itself to showing how Esther influenced African Americans and President Lincoln during the Civil War. In one of my favorite essays there titled “Lincoln, Esther and the Rav: A Study in Scholarship,” Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik — a professor at YU — compares the political approaches of Esther and Lincoln. While both Esther’s and Lincoln’s advisors sought to act quickly and brashly to solve their problems and rally their people, Rabbi Soloveichik argues that Esther and Lincoln distinguished themselves as leaders by understanding when is the right time to act and speak up. To quote Rabbi Soloveichik, “... a sweeping moral vision is necessary but not sufficient; what is also required is the ability to proceed in a way that those goals can be attained” (pg. 95). This idea, while specifically referring to Lincoln in the chapter, can also be taken as an important message for anyone that seeks to accomplish something in life: sometimes success lies not in the idea itself but in ensuring a strong and effective implementation.
In one of the closing chapters of the book which focuses on presidential politics and the Megillah, there is an entertaining and highly informational essay written by Dr. Tevi Troy on how various first ladies viewed themselves as Esther, in that they were not given any formal duties other than ceremonial roles, yet were still able to access their spouses at more regular rates than actual cabinet members. The position in which many first ladies found themselves also contributed to how they were viewed when taking on advocacy roles on social issues, and how they viewed their respective president’s advisors. For example, Troy points to the hostility between Nancy Reagan and Donald Regan — Treasury Secretary and later Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan — as a modern example of Esther’s imploring Achashveirosh to get rid of Haman. While not a beat-for-beat reenactment of the story, their frequent clashes highlight how prominent figures in the White House often tried to carve out their own legacies by looking at Biblical heroes like Esther.
For those that prefer another, less politically philosophical approach to the impact that Esther had on America, an entire section of the book is devoted to cultural influences of the Megillah. This section focuses on how children’s book authors, filmmakers and artists took liberties with the narrative to either cater to a wider audience or come up with their own unique stories. In the chapter discussing Esther’s appeal to artists, images are included that spotlight the variety of styles that developed in the American art world. From the more classical approach that William Rimmer took in 1847, reminiscent of the European depictions of scenes from the Bible, to the considerably more abstract and colorful homages of artists like Abraham Rattner (whose painting Song of Esther hangs in the Whitney Museum in New York City) and Archie Rand, the impression of Esther’s fame in American popular culture is clear and powerful.
A great advantage of “Esther in America” is its variety of sections which offer a sampling of the vast scope of the history of the country. Because of this range, readers are bound to find a handful of essays that speak to them the most. Additionally, given that each chapter is self-contained and written by a different author, one only needs to devote a short amount of time to learning something new and interesting. As we head into the month of Adar and begin our preparations for the holiday of Purim, readers can be left feeling excited and appreciative of the fact that they can share new insights on Megillat Esther with their friends and families thanks to Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern.
Photo Caption: “Esther in America” book cover
Photo Credit: Maggid Books