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    Turning Fears into Hopes

    A Review of Esther in America, an essay collection edited by Stuart W. Halpern

    By Kate Rozansky

    February 25, 2021
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    When the earliest Jewish settlers arrived in America sometime in the mid-seventeenth century, the first thing they did right off the boat was circumcise themselves. Then, they waited a few days and remarried their wives according to Jewish law. "You see, they were fleeing the Inquisition in Portugal, crypto-Jews who had been living their religious lives in secret." For them, the promise of America was the promise of a land where they would no longer have to hide.

    This is the captivating story my tour guide told me when I visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest synagogue that still stands in America. I imagined a mass wedding on the docks of Newport, a chorus of feet smashing glasses symbolizing both the destruction of the Temple and the end of oppression. But as soon as I looked into it, I realized that this story was a myth – a kind of mish-mash of the history of the Jews of Newport. The founder of the Touro Synagogue, Aaron Lopez, did undergo circumcision upon his arrival in Newport from Portugal in 1752, and at the same time, he, his wife, and their infant daughter took on (or reclaimed) their Hebrew names. But there was already a Jewish community present when they arrived, and it had been there for some time. Still, the story I heard contains an interesting truth in it about the nature of Jewish life and religious liberty in America. For the earliest Jews in America, their freedom consisted in being able to reveal publicly that they were bound privately.

    Such a moment is also the climax of the Book of Esther, where the Persian Queen Esther reveals to her husband King Ahashverus that she is a Jew, thus enabling her to save the Jewish people from destruction. We should not be surprised that a story of a persecuted minority flourishing in their adopted land has a hold on the American imagination, both in Jewish and in non-Jewish thought. Esther in America: The Scroll’s Interpretation In and Impact On the United States of America is a lively collection of essays edited by Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern that examines how Americans have used the Esther story throughout the generations to tell their own stories.

    painting of Esther with a gold dress and long red hair

    John Everett Millais, Esther

    One of the first things we can learn by looking through this collection is that over the years, Esther appears very much to readers what she was, at first, to the Persian court: a kind of cipher, transforming to meet whatever moment was before her. While Martin Luther declared himself “enemy” to the book of Esther and wished that it had not been included in the canon due to its “Heathen unnaturalities,” the early Puritans held Esther up as a model of feminine virtue. In Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion (1692), Cotton Mather described Esther as an example for her modesty and forbearance, emphasizing the way she gently corrects her wayward husband rather than openly rebuking him (how the Puritan men felt about being compared to the uncouth Ahashverus, we do not know). Before the American Revolution, discontented pamphleteers would turn to the metaphor of King Ahashverus misled by the wicked Haman to describe the relationship between King George, his ministers, and his loyal and wrongly-condemned bride, America. They could criticize royal policies openly, while avoiding any objection to the institution of monarchy, or – heaven forbid – the king himself. As soon as independence was on the table, though, the metaphor was out.

    To abolitionists and suffragettes, Esther was a model of female agency and independence. In her 1832, “Farewell Address to the City of Boston,” Maria Stuart casts herself as an Esther figure to defend the propriety of a Black woman speaking publicly against slavery: “What if I am a woman; is not the God of ancient times the God to these modern days? Did he not raise up Deborah to be a mother and judge in Israel? Did not Queen Esther save the lives of the Jews?” Both the cause and her part in it are holy. Meanwhile, in “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” (1836), abolitionist Angelina Grimke exhorted the wives and daughters of slave owners to become Esthers, pleading with (or threatening) them with the same words Mordecai used to persuade Esther to action: “Think not within thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house … for if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shalt there enlargement and deliverance arise … from another place, but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed.” Who knows, Grimke suggests: Perhaps you attained your privileged position for such a crisis as this. Complicity does not grant safety, Grimke warned, only righteous action can do that: Slavery was not just destroying the enslaved, it threatened the souls of the slavers and all who benefited from the institution. Grimke yearned for a nation of Esthers persuading “their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons,” to “no longer barter the image of God in human [beings] for corruptible things such as silver and gold.” Although her efforts would not be successful, her warning would be prescient.

    Sojourner Truth spoke of Esther in 1853 to justify the granting of not only freedom, but also of political rights for women in a free republic: “There was a king in the Scriptures … would kill a woman if she come into their presence; but Queen Esther come forth, for she was oppressed, and felt there was a great wrong, and she said I will die or I will bring my complaint before the king,” Truth said. That same tyrannical king, even though he was a tyrant, offered Esther half of the kingdom and also, eventually, her enemies on pikes. Meanwhile, all she was advocating for was for her God-given rights: “Should the king of the United States be greater, or more crueler, or more harder [than Ahashverus]?”

    For the earliest Jews in America, their freedom consisted in being able to reveal publicly that they were bound privately.

    In his essay in Esther in America, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik examines a letter from American clergymen to President Lincoln, urging Lincoln to act the part of Esther and end slavery. But, Soloveitchik argues, in denying their request for immediate action, Lincoln was actually acting more like Esther than the clergymen realized, deploying a cagier, less morally satisfying prudence in the face of pressure to act more swiftly. Esther emerges in these writings as a woman who is an agent of slow but deliberate change within the system.

    By contrast, King Ahashverus’s original queen, Vashti, emerges, particularly in Black women’s literature and speeches, as a woman ennobled by her refusal to participate at all in a corrupt system. In her poem “Vashti,” the abolitionist Frances Harper describes Vashti putting aside her crown and leaving the palace, a queen no more: “Proud of her spotless name / A woman who could bend to grief / But would not bow to shame.” Deprived of a voice, all of Vashti’s agency was in her rejection, retaining her dignity in the face of exclusion. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also held Vashti up as an icon of feminine refusal as they fought for women’s suffrage. Vashti, they said, was “the first who dared.” In his essay “Vashti Comes to America,” Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky traces the rehabilitation of Vashti in American religious and political thought, from a wicked, wayward woman to a model of feminine liberation. White women seemed to drift away from the Vashti metaphor after the Nineteenth Amendment passed, he writes, but Vashti’s story continued to “take on a life of its own” in the Black community. He notes several notable individuals, literary characters, and even a community organization devoted to teaching leadership skills to Black women and girls, called “Vashti.” The most prominent example he cites is the first female bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal church, Vashti Murphy McKenzie.

    Is Esther a model for the bold, unsolicited approach in the face of injustice, or an advocate of the slow and methodical advancement of incremental policies? Is Vashti Esther’s foremother or her antithesis, an imperious mistress or a model of self-respect? Depending on the reader and the audience, each woman is both, and in either case, she frustrates our expectations of what a role model should be.

    The ambiguity of Esther, the way in which she appears both pious and secular, modest and daring, pliable and strong, is what makes her “of all Biblical figures… the most beloved among crypto-Jews,” particularly those forced to flee Spain between 1478-1834, argues Emily Colbert Cairns in “Saint Esther in Latin America.” Cairns writes of the ways in which crypto-Jewish women elevated Purim’s importance, and held up Esther’s model of a hidden Jewish life in their own heterodox observance, which was, like Esther’s story, “female-centered and inscribed upon the body.” If these women could not openly keep traditions like observing Shabbat on a Saturday (for those around them had been trained to recognize some basic Jewish practices and report them), they could practice Judaism in quieter ways, like cleaning the home before Shabbat, fasting, and avoiding non-kosher foods. In the Americas, the more minor Fast of Esther was elevated and practiced more strictly, kept for three days instead of one. Crypto-Jewish women would light devotional candles for “Santa Ester,” and keep icons of her in their home. As Cairns writes, this “Catholicized reverence of a Biblical woman developed from the dual context of Catholicism and Judaism in which [crypto-Jewish women] lived their everyday lives.” As late as the mid-1970s, the Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, was actively working to discourage the “Festival of Santa Esterica” from being celebrated by New Mexico Catholics, for, as he explained, it was merely Purim in disguise.

    We do not see Esther pray, or keep kosher, or even publicly identify as a Jew until her life and the lives of all her brethren are at stake. The Talmud and the Midrash must read God’s presence into the gaps of the text: a hidden dialogue between man and God is at work in the Megillah, or Book of Esther. It is no wonder then, that Esther was revered so much by the crypto-Jewish women of the American Southwest and Latin America: Esther may have had to sacrifice her outward Jewish practices, they might have reasoned, but there was dignity and meaning in the compromises she made. Her secrecy held the key to her survival and the survival of her people. A crypto-Jewish woman could revere Santa Ester in private and pray for the day that she, too, could make herself known

    The best essays in this collection are the ones that engage deeply with both the text of the Megillah and those ideas’ resonance in modern American culture. Novelist Dara Horn’s essay “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” holds a mirror up to the American immigrant and minority experience and reflects back uncomfortable truths there. Horn seizes on the Megillah’s brief mention of Esther’s Hebrew name – Hadassah – in order to launch into an extended takedown of the prevalent American myth that anyone’s family name was “changed at Ellis Island.”

    First of all, she notes, the clerks at Ellis Island were multilingual, highly skilled, and would have been held accountable for any errors. Secondly, nobody’s name was being taken at Ellis Island; that happened at the point of departure, in ship’s manifests that were checked against official government documents (and liable to get you shipped right back if something didn’t match up). Finally, Horn takes us through records of turn-of-the-century petitions for name changes, mostly from Jewish to non-Jewish sounding last names: “What I found most heartbreaking,” she writes, “was witnessing how these … name-changers participated in the very humiliation they were seeking to escape.” The petitioners did not even cite anti-Semitism as the reason for the name change, unless they were non-Jews whose names were getting them mistaken for Jews. Instead, they claimed their own names were “foreign-sounding” and “not conducive to securing good employment.” One Louis Goldstein declared his name “un-American, uneuphonius, and an economic handicap.” Unfortunately for him, his petition came before a Judge Louis Goldstein, and was denied. But he was the exception to the rule.

    Where does the story of the bumbling clerk come from? From “the Jewish community’s two highest hopes and deepest fears,” Horn writes. The two hopes are that they and their descendants will remain Jewish in their new homes, and that this new home will welcome them. The fears are that neither is true. A story that makes the name change a harmless and helpful accident paints a much sunnier picture of how they came to be successful in their new homeland. It is a story that you can tell your children without being ashamed of how scared you once were, a story that you can tell them while encouraging them to keep their traditions and making them feel safe in the only place they have ever known. The story comes from an unwillingness to admit how utterly vulnerable we were, or are. Yet “being a diaspora community means being vulnerable,” Horn writes. “There are political strategies for dealing with that vulnerability, but these founding legends are an emotional strategy, and their power is unmatched.” Critically, rather than merely debunk the Ellis Island tale, Horn honors the resilience and creativity that went into the storytelling. Turning fears into hopes, she writes, is just “what Jews have done for thousands of years.” In the end, “the story is more important than the history, because the story is the device that makes meaning.”

    We love the Esther story because it takes a terrifying truth and tells it with a grin and a happy ending.

    The Book of Esther resonates in America, in part, because it galvanizes the anxieties of any minority group or subculture and soothes them at the same time. The Persia of the Megillah is a sprawling, polyglot empire, with a multitude of languages and religions seemingly spoken and practiced peacefully, side by side. It is a nation open to allowing minorities into the highest echelons of power based on something that looks like merit. But this openness comes with a price, for Ahashverus’s kingdom is one that entices, or even compels, its various subcultures towards forced assimilation. The Megillah views this openness warily. We see how Ahashverus’s generosity at the beginning of the story, inviting all members of his kingdom into his palace for a seemingly endless (but explicitly optional) feast, quickly turns into him compelling all of the wives and daughters of the kingdom into his bed (how easily admiration of difference becomes a desire to master it). Mordecai and Esther’s advancement hinges on the extent to which they are willing to hide and silence themselves. The people of Shushan are “stunned,” as is Esther, when the edict declaring the extermination of the Jews is proclaimed, but should they have been? And after the fasting and fighting is done, are the Jews that much safer than they were at the beginning? Esther stays married to King Ahashverus at the end of the Megillah. She must spend the rest of her life managing his mood swings and worrying about what will happen if she makes a mistake or if the wrong person gains his confidence. The Jews of Shushan may end the story with “light and honor, joy and gladness” (not a far cry, Horn notes, from “the Pursuit of Happiness”), but the careful reader knows that Esther will have a lifetime of sleepless nights.

    Just as Haman’s symbols of authority and power become delicious triangular cookies, the specter of pervasive discrimination in America has been transformed into the bumbling but harmless Ellis Island clerk. We love the Esther story because it takes a terrifying truth and tells it with a grin and a happy ending. Shushan is a beautiful city on a hill. No one has to sacrifice his or her dignity or identity to make it in this country. You, too, can grab the scepter if your countenance is pleasing enough and nobody knows your real name. “And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” This is your inheritance, if you are bold enough to claim it.

    Contributed By

    Kate Rozansky is a student in the Beit Midrash Program at Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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