In one of the few, or perhaps only halachic and homiletical essays in the book Esther in America, my old friend Rabbi Shmuel Hain suggests that the custom to read the Megillah of Esther twice on the holiday of Purim is to ensure that you read the rich text from different perspectives. To paraphrase Hain, one perspective will look at the biblical text of Esther as a serious description and the other as a satire, some will see salvation and others assimilation, some will focus on heroism and others on devious antisemitism. This perspective aptly covers the range of perspectives conveyed by the individual essays included in Dr. Stuart Halpern’s Esther in America. Perhaps, it would even be more accurate to say that the multifaceted essays in the book offer a multitude of ways people saw and read themselves and their American experiences into the Book of Esther.
Esther in America has a richness of American characters that are as enthralling as the Persian characters in the Book of Esther itself. Halpern authors a very interesting essay on the ambitious and perhaps eccentric Mordecai Manuel Noah, who built an Ark and attempted to build an autonomous and exemplar Jewish “state” in America with the inspiration of the biblical Mordecai. We learn of the influence of the Esther character on women’s suffrage and rights in the southern Christian movements. In one of the more engaging pieces, Dr. Dara Horn suggests that Esther is an origin myth or cover story that people later developed and told themselves.
From the seriousness of abolitionists, exegesis, and even 17th century minister Cotton Mather adopting and adapting the Esther story, the collection of essays also touches the frivolous Esther beauty pageants put on by the Jewish community of New York and other communities in the United States. The book assembles these, other historical events, commemorations and even artwork from the last few hundred years in which America or Americans saw themselves in the rich text of the Book of Esther.
Esther in America is written by an all-star cast of academics and writers, all of whom have penned extremely well-researched essays. The book starts with a set of deep and involved essays and characters. The characters it covers, both Jewish and Christian, have deep knowledge of the Bible and are rich characters themselves. They are rooted and mission-driven by their own identification to biblical characters and narratives. I deeply enjoyed the first half of the book. However, as the book progressed, it became more tendentious and tenuous on a number of fronts, such as the attempt to identify White House first ladies with Esther.
Reading the book’s essays conveys a sense that both American Christians, who perhaps view themselves as the new Jews in a promised land of their own, and Jewish Americans, who either permanently or temporarily find themselves and identify themselves in the equivalent of cosmopolitan second-century Persia or in a new free homeland akin to Zion, want to see themselves in the Esther narrative. The biblical Book of Esther is a compelling book both because it is the first post-prophetic biblical narrative and because of the realpolitik or palace intrigue that is so easy to identify with. Its rich tapestry of characters and narrative enable anyone immersed in politics, national rivalry or a search for identity in a new land to find their own evil Haman or heroic Esther. They can vividly see themselves influencing the king or impacting policy. In recent diverging columns, two Israeli rabbis even differed over whether former president Donald Trump was akin to Cyrus the Great or Ahasuerus (Xerxes.)
Israeli readers might find the book in general but the second half in particular, in some places, disconnected, defensive or foreign.
Esther in America is definitely very American. Dare I say, American “lishma.” Like the Jews of Persia, the American-ness of the book feels Shushan-like and certainly per both Hain’s perspective and others such as Yoram Hazony and Prof. Aaron Koller (not writers in this book but authors of books on Esther), the book, like its biblical reflection, is a positive testament to life in the Diaspora and even a handbook for how to manage a diasporic setup politically.
It is remarkable how many American individuals see themselves in the context of this biblical narrative. That is a great contribution of Esther in America. It is, I guess, aspirational for individuals attempting to make history or communities attempting to find their place in history, to identify with symbols of the past. The Book of Esther as both literature and biblical canon has richly developed characters, is malleable by the reader and feels more corporeal and human, making it easier to identify with than many other biblical narratives. Both American Christians and Jews who saw themselves as building societies outside or away from ancestral religious homelands could identify with the Book of Esther. I left the book asking the question is this a book about Esther in America or about Americans seeking immortality or icons that would give them immortality in the mirror that is the Book of Esther.
For me, the most interesting, overarching but perhaps unintended meta-learning from the book was the arc of biblical awareness and identification in America. The phenomenon of biblical familiarity and ease of deep, thoughtful identification wanes as the book progresses chronologically. Despite the fact that the book is organized via content structure, the chronological and historical arc of the book shows the declining awareness of, knowledge of and identification with the rich biblical narrative. The decline unintentionally chronicled in this book of essays is as much a reflection of the secularization of American society as it is of a religious people in a diaspora. Early characters and events that the book grapples with and researches are much more deeply ingrained in biblical narrative and importance.
Esther in America faithfully tracks the fascination of individuals and some groups with the characters and stories of the biblical book as well as the arc of America. The book shows an appreciation for many important and some overlooked characters in American history and a hope, a tikva, that maybe America can return to its less secular roots.
The writer is the author of The Vanishing Jew, A Wake-Up Call From The Book of Esther and a venture capitalist at Aleph.
ESTHER IN AMERICA
By Dr. Stuart Halpern
424 pages; $29.95