Tales and Their Tellers 11: Queen Esther, Jewish Cinderella

Queen Esther Before Ahasuerus (1815) – Francesco Caucig

 By Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner

If there is any Biblical story from the Old Testament which lends itself as a direct antecedent of modern fairy tales and storytelling, it’s… I bet you thought I was going to say Noah’s Ark, didn’t you? That’s certainly the most well-represented Bible story in the children’s section of any bookstore or library. David and Goliath is always good for a laugh, Daniel in the Lion’s Den: classic. But no, it’s the story of young Haddasah and her transformation into Queen Esther – eventual savior of the Jewish people – which I find the most resonant.

I wouldn’t have at first supposed it, so mired as it is in Jewish law and customs. Also, there is no obvious supernatural element at work, no magic to be had. There are wicked people, and there are good people, but never did I get the sense that there was any Devilry or divine intervention of any brand.

I had not actually read the Biblical text of the tale in preparation for this column. I purposefully kept myself from, interested instead in seeing how many different versions of the story I could find, and in which ways they changed or differed. Some people may find the Biblical account to be the One, True Account, so help me God. I preferred to treat it as a folk tale, and I was surprised at the connections I made.

Raisel’s Riddle (1999) by Erica Silverman and Susan Gaber

In Raisel’s Riddle by Erica Silverman, Queen Esther is only ancillary to the plot, as it takes place several thousand years later. It is first and foremost, a Cinderella story about a young Jewish woman who lives in squalor, and must go to work for the local rabbi to live. The celebration of Purim serves as the stand-in for the fancy-dress ball. The “prince” is the son of the village rabbi and the Fairy godmother is a Polish beggar.

That is not to suggest that Silverman merely filled in the blanks of the Cinderella tale with Jewish icons to arrive at this telling. There is plenty to distinguish this story on its own terms. First and foremost, the eponymous “riddle” from the title. During the Purim meal (beet soup, roast duck, potato pancakes, noodle pudding) a bevy of young Jewish maidens flirt with the rabbi’s son by telling him riddles.

“What has a face but no mouth?”

“Now what is that over my head but under my hat?”

Surely, this is the way to a young man’s heart, and Raisel – working in the rabbi’s kitchen whilst dressed in rags – also knows a riddle, though she doesn’t get the chance to tell it until later that night, after she has helped the old beggar who turns out to magic, wishes for a Purim costume and a horse-drawn wagon, and finds herself at the celebration where the young son of the rabbi states with bold impertinence bordering on the scandalous, “In that costume, you are the loveliest Queen Esther here.”

Then, the striking of the chimes, midnight apparent. The young Raisel disappears and the Rabbi’s son is left with the task – not of trying to fit a solitary slipper upon the foot of some lucky woman – but of discovering the woman who knows the correct riddle.

“…the loveliest Queen Esther here.” I love the thought of a story building upon the assumed foreknowledge of a previous story.

The Story of Queen Esther by Jenny Koralek and Grizelda Holderness

Queen Esther is a story which seems the inversion of most other tales, as it begins with the typical Happily Ever After part and then unravels from there. At least, that’s how The Story of Queen Esther by Jenny Koralek and Grizelda Holderness frames it. Rich and powerful king Ahasuerus chooses for himself the most beautiful woman in his kingdom to be his wife. Her name is Esther, and Grizelda has indeed made her very beautiful. Her hair is long and black, inexplicably filled with the stars and the moon. She seems quite happy – with no misgivings – spending her time being bathed and prepared for the wedding. All is well and good, except… she’s a Jew!

This is the central conflict of it. She fears that if the King knows she is Jewish, she will be banished (as was the previous Queen). So, with the help of her cousin Mordecai, she keeps her secret.

I love how Holderness illustrates the story, with pages containing several scenes happening concurrently. In one spread of the king’s castle, we see men snickering and plotting murderously in an upper window of the tower. In two other windows, Mordecai and Esther communicating by carrier pigeon, while on the castle roof, the King hands his servant Haman his royal ring of command.

Haman suggests to the King, “Your Majesty, the Jews do not obey some of your laws. Why don’t you get rid of them?”

“Do what you like with them,” is the King’s lackadaisical response.

Later, we are meant to side with the King when, learning of the plot to kill the Jews, says with feigned innocence, “By whose order? Who would do such a terrible thing?”

This though me for a loop. It’s an irony which most versions of the story do not fully explore. All that matters is that Haman is executed while his weeping wife watches, Esther is one beautiful lady and, “to this day, a noisy, happy feast, the Feast of Purim, is held every year to remember how Queen Esther saved the lives of her people.”

Queen Esther by the great Tomie dePaola has a much different tone.

Queen Esther by Tomie DePaola

The artwork is distinctly dePaola – he has such a unique style – very simple, very stylized. Usually I think of his characters as possessing an abundance of rosy cheeks and pleasant dispositions. Not so, in this book. A quick flip-through reveals a plethora of dour complexions which occasionally give way to fear, angst and some definite wrath. Even at the very beginning, as King Ahasuerus sits upon his throne and has all of the beautiful, young women in his kingdom brought before him so that he can select a wife – he doesn’t look so pleased about it.

King Ahasuerus admired Esther more than all the others. So he chose Esther to be his queen.

And there he stands, at the left-hand side of the page, holding his royal scepter. There stands Esther, on the right, eyes shut, hand on breast, bowing formally. I would expect this degree of formality with an arranged marriage, but the King has basically let his lust do all the choosing for him!

Something this book does which the previous version did not is that it explains what ‘purim’ is – lots, like dice. We see the wicked Haman – cloaked all in red – casting them to help him determine the best month and the perfect day to kill all the Jews.

Once the purim have spoken, Haman tells the king, the Jews must be slaughtered! DePaola very specifically writes, “King Ahasuerus listened and then he ordered the Jews to be killed.” [emphasis mine]

As I read this line, I suddenly became interested in how dePaola was going to resolve the story, now that he has so plainly outed Ahasuerus as the true villain.

I did not have long to wait. During the climactic feast – and after touching the royal scepter (?) – Esther says, “If it pleases your Majesty, my wish is that I may live, and that my people may live. We are about to be killed.”

“Who dares to do such a thing?” asks Ahasuerus.

Really? You have to ask?

Or perhaps we are meant to think that his apparent outrage is an act, in order to cast suspicions off himself? It must have come as a great relief, then, when Esther says, “Our enemy in this cruel man, Haman.”

Phew! And to cover his tracks completely: “Hang Haman himself on those gallows!”

So King Ahasuerus stops the Jews from being killed, and… Er, wait. No, he actually doesn’t stop the Jews from being killed. The book says that the King decreed the Jews could “defend themselves against the people who came to destroy them.” Come again?

Esther’s Story by Diane Wolkstein and Juan Winjgaard

Esther’s Story by Diane Wolkstein and Juan Winjgaard was the most beautiful and expansive version I’d read yet.

Esther’s Story is woven together from the biblical Book of Esther, oral legends, and my own musings,” writes Wolkstein. “Other legends were told to me by my own rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach.”

Right away, I could tell I was going to dig this one. She has her priorities straight. Not a mere retelling, no, but a conflation of different sources and personal acquaintances.

Esther is eleven years old when the story opens – the youngest I’d seen her – and named Hadassah. She is writing in a diary given to her by her Uncle Mordecai, on a night wherein he has left her by herself and attended the King’s banquet. The whole of the book is written in the first person, with Esther’s voice.

When Mordecai returns home, he comes bearing news:

“Tonight Queen Vashti, the queen of all Persia, refused to go to the king when he called for her, so she has been banished. Tomorrow a search for a new queen begins throughout the one hundred and twenty-seven lands of Persia.”

We follow Esther through her adolescence, growing into a young woman. Wijngaard has done wonderful work showing not just the key players, but the entire world in which they live: fully realized with innumerable details. I love the lattice work and her triple braids as she stands looking out at the evening sky.

In Persia, Esther is the goddess Ishtar, who is the goddess of love and war. She is also the first planet to appear every night in the sky. I often watch for her in the evening. I think it is very brave of her to appear all alone when it is dark.

What? Polytheism in a Bible story?

I dig it.

When Esther is a bit older (thank God) she is selected to live in the palace with other

Young Esther and her cousin Mordecai

beautiful, young women from the kingdom. Presumably, this is part of the bride-choosing process. It is only when she happens across the king in the hall and they share a child-like laugh that he asks her to marry him.

This was the only version I’ve read in which some genuine emotion passed between the two of them, that it is because of her good-natured, child-like quality that she is able to warm the sad king’s heart. Not just because, you know, she’s hot. In fact, I think it works greatly toward this story’s overall message that Esther is not necessarily the most beautiful.

There are many other details which I loved. Esther does not merely enter the King’s throne room, but she “..walked through the first, the second, and the third gates. At the fourth gate, my legs began to tremble. I walked more slowly. I passed through the fifth and sixth gates. As I came to the seventh gate, I wondered if these were my last moments to live. Then I heard the sound of the shofar, and pushed the last gate open.” In a medium in which minimalism seems to be the name of the game, I love lengthy descriptions like this all the more.

The story will pass from one to another. I think that is how it was meant to be. Once it was my story. Now it belongs to each of us.

Meanwhile, thousands of years later…

“Oh, today we’ll merry, merry be!”

On Purim by Cathy Goldberg Fishman and Melanie W. Hall

In On Purim, Cathy Goldberg Fishman and Melanie W. Hall gives us a story within a story, showing how the story of Esther – with whom I was just previously enraptured – translates into a modern-day celebration.

A contemporary Jewish family is preparing for Purim. The young narrator of the story is making masks, and wonders, “Why do we wear masks on Purim?”

Soon, the whole family is wearing masks, taking on the guise of specific characters. There is wise Mordecai, handlebar-mustache-wielding King Ahasuerus, and of course, Esther.

“Line up!” demands this incarnation of the King. “I will choose a new queen!”

It’s all a giggle. So funny, how these violent Old Testament stories can become something so pleasantly diverting.

“Who knows the story of Purim?” asks the grandfather, and soon the family has gathered around for the telling. When the young narrator reads, “The king’s chief advisor was an evil man named Haman…” the grandfather yells, “Boo! Boo!”

“Haman wanted everyone to bow down to him,” she attempts to continue, but is again interrupted by the booing of her grandfather. Every time Haman’s name is spoken aloud, he feels compelled to shout out his displeasure.

Group portrait of children dressed in Purim costumes. Danzig, 1930-1939. –from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

It’s a simple retelling, but Hall’s illustrations are quite lovely and emphasize the fairy-tale aspect of the story. It is plain to see how this is a story which would be especially appealing to children, and particular to girls who daydream of becoming princesses. Perhaps someday they too will be selected by some great King and asked to be Queen…

I found myself thinking back to Raisel’s Riddle, and the idea of the Jewish Cinderella. It occurred to me then that Esther herself is a kind of Cinderella. All the motifs are in place. A poor girl of humble origin, whisked away and given the chance to impress a nobleman with her great beauty and charm. But whereas Cinderella feared the strike of midnight, for Esther it is her Jewish identity which she fears most. Her Jewish identity is a metaphor for Cinderella’s poor upbringing. In both tales, when the nobleman finds out, she is instead rewarded, not betrayed. It is no wonder, then, that it has remained so resonant.

Following the story, the family continues their celebrating, noshing on some hamantashen. Hamantashen are triangle shaped cookies which are supposed to look like the hat Haman wore. “Gobbling them up is another way of blotting out his name,” says the grandfather, who really does seem to have a personal vendetta.

Then comes the Purim carnival itself, with games and prizes, a costume parade and a Punch and Judy-esque puppet show, in which all the children – not just elderly grandfathers – chant, “Boo! Boo!” and shake their groggers when puppet Haman makes its appearance.

“Where is God in the Purim story?”

This question is asked by the young narrator of the story, and reflects a question which I had had since the beginning, when I noted the lack of a supernatural intermediary.

“He is hidden in the faith of Mordecai and Esther,” answers the girl’s father, “and in their courage to do the right thing.”

We wear masks to remind us that, even though we don’t hear His name, God is a hidden part of the Purim story.

We wear masks to remind us that, even though we don’t see Him, God is a hidden part of our lives, too, and when Purim is over, He will still be there.

For more reviews of picture books, please visit Picture Books Review.

Queen Esther with Mordechai – Mosaic - Lilian Broca

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