Esther in Des Moines

The Purim story, with appearances by Ronald Reagan and Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Poster for State Fair, the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Poster for State Fair, the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Atar Hadari
Observation
March 13 2014
About the author

Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin was recently awarded a PEN Translates 2016 grant and is forthcoming from Arc Publications.


The other night, my children put on a show in the kitchen, with me running the lights. For the first time ever, my son, now six, was entrusted with his own song:

Oh I know all I owe I owe Ioway

I owe Ioway all I owe and I know why.

It’s from the movie State Fair (1945), that paean to American national identity by Rodgers & Hammerstein: two Jews (one of them, Hammerstein, only on his father’s side) who’d never set foot outside the environs of New York City. Like, perhaps, one of Hammerstein’s Prussian-Jewish forebears, the lyric then turns abruptly on its heel:

I owe Ioway more than I can ever pay,

so I think I’ll move to Californ-i-ay

At this, and at the sheer joy of occupying a stage all by himself, even if it was only the kitchen, my son burst out laughing. His beaming face took me back to my own first stage experience, also at age six, in my Israeli elementary school. I was playing the part of Mordecai in the school’s Purim play. History (in the form of my mother) records that, addressing the audience with my opening line, “I am Mordecai the Jew,” I, too, burst out laughing. The assembled spectators took one look at me and laughed back. Catching the fever, I laughed again, and so it continued “until you were dragged off the stage with a hook.”

I tend to think that by way of the lines written by the two gentlemen from New York, my son managed to say at least as much about Jewish identity and about the holiday of Purim as I did by way of the biblical book of Esther.

But first let’s recap. That book’s story is about Jews coping with power and prejudice in the midst of exile in ancient Persia. It goes like this: in the royal court, Queen Vashti annoys King Xerxes and abruptly gets terminated. A nationwide talent contest is then held for a new queen, drawing all the pretty girls in the kingdom to the capital city of Shushan. Notable among them is Esther, the beautiful niece of Mordecai the Jew, who is chosen to be queen from among all the rest. At his self-appointed station outside the palace, worrying about Esther, Mordecai overhears a plot to kill the king and brings it to her attention; she foils it. He also infuriates Haman, the king’s top minister, by refusing to bow to him. Haman passes an edict to kill all the Jews. Mordecai brings it to Esther’s attention; she foils this plot, too, in the process persuading the king to let the Jews kill their enemies instead.

So far, so Hollywood. Important to the story is the sheer wealth and splendor of the world in which the exiled Jews find themselves. The book starts with a banquet thrown by the king, and lingers over the accoutrements:

It was in the days of Xerxes,

he’s the Xerxes who rules

from India to Egypt,

one-hundred and twenty-seven states.

In those days as King Xerxes sat

on his royal throne

in Shushan the capital,

in the third year of his rule

he made a feast for all his ministers and servants,

the host of Persia and Mede,

lords and ministers of states at his feet

as he displayed the substance and glory of his reign

and the honor and splendor of his magnitude

for many days, one-hundred and eighty days.

At the end of those days the king then made

for all the people in the capital Shushan, both great and small,

a feast of seven days in the court of the palace garden:

drapes green and blue, each threaded with white linen and scarlet wool

on poles of silver, and pillars of marble,

and couches of gold and silver, on a floor of alabaster and pearl and black marble,

and drinks served from golden vessels and dished out from different dishes

and the royal wine as plentiful as the king’s table.

And the drinking was by the book, no limits, for the king told every head servant

of his house to pour as each man wanted.

In the midst of all this, the Jews of Shushan, the story tells us, remain rooted in their own past and present national identity:

There was a Judean man in the capital Shushan and his name was Mordecai,

son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin

who was exiled from Jerusalem with the exiled community,

who went into exile with King Yekhanya of Judea

who was exiled by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

And he was raising Hadassah, who was known as Esther,

his kin, for she had no father and mother. 

But they are also tempted to obscure their identity:

And it was when the king’s writ and his law became known,

and many girls were gathered to the capital Shushan to Hegai’s hands,

Esther was taken to the house of the king

to the hands of Hegai the keeper of women.

And the girl seemed the best in his eyes,

she caught his fancy and he rustled up lotions and meals;

and the seven maids fit to give her from the king’s house

he changed to the best maids of the house of women.

Esther did not declare her race or birth

for Mordecai commanded her not to declare. 

The last two lines bring us to the crux of this story about identity: does one owe Ioway more than one can ever pay, or is it desirable (or even possible) to turn your back on your roots and strike out for Californ-i-ay?

It so happens that as I was translating the section about Esther’s arrival at King Xerxes’ court I was also reading the chapter in Edmund Morris’s Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan where the young radio announcer moves from, I kid you not, Des Moines, Iowa, to take up his dream job as a movie actor at the Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood. Morris notes:

The giant studio lay like a compressed and teeming city on the far side of the Los Angeles River, geographically separated from Hollywood. In practical fact it was a city, walled and gated.

This resonated for me with the description of the court in which Esther arrives and achieves instantaneous success. If Warner Brothers had its own “police department and fire company and power plant and hospital and school,” the king’s palace had an outer court and an inner court that you couldn’t enter uninvited on pain of death. (A similar sentence awaited those, like Queen Vashti, who didn’t enter when invited.)

All we know about Esther at this point is that she’s exceptionally easy on the eyes and has a knack of charming whoever is in charge of whatever new house she comes to. But she’s also loyal, retaining her allegiance to Mordecai even as she wins over the next person in the chain of authority. Nor do the resonances with Ronald Reagan end there. For, whether in Persia or in Hollywood, there are also codes to be observed as you move from one circle to another.

I’ll return to this theme presently.

 

The one class I ever attended on the book of Esther was given by the scholar Yehezkel Cohen, who identified it as a satire. Pointing to specific phrases in the book, as well as to the cantillation signs affixed to the words for purposes of ritual chanting, he drew telling comparisons between Esther, a mock epic, and the book of Samuel, a true epic. I also hear echoes of Genesis and specifically the story of Joseph, who goes from slavery to the home of a court official, to prison, to the royal palace, along the way charming whoever is in charge at each step while remaining loyal to his true home and to God before finally rising to become second only to the king and, turning every table, enslaving all of Egypt apart from his own family.

In tracing the “mock” elements in Esther, it’s tempting to focus, as Cohen did, on the book’s depiction of Xerxes, a weak and habitually drunken monarch compared with true kings like Saul and David. But to me what’s more striking is the way Esther herself is positioned—and its correspondence with the way David is positioned in the first book of Samuel.

By the time young David appears on the scene, King Saul has already been told by the prophet Samuel that he will lose his kingdom because, in taking pity on Agag, king of the Amalekites, he has disobeyed the Lord’s explicit instructions to wipe them all out. Samuel himself then steps in and hews the defeated Agag limb from limb before Saul’s eyes. In the immediately following chapters in Samuel, we meet the shepherd lad who volunteers to fight the Philistine champion Goliath, so fearsome a warrior that even the king dare not face him.

In his interview with Saul, David alludes to his own credentials for the task at hand, relating how with his two bare hands he has protected his flock from the depredations of “a lion and also a bear”:

Both the lion and the bear has your bondsman slain, and the uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he taunted the armies of the living God.

Whereas Saul had mercy on Agag, leaving it to Samuel to butcher him, David doesn’t think Goliath is even human. He’s vermin, harassing the “sheep” and therefore about to be exterminated.

In the same way that the book of Samuel builds up the mighty Goliath—over nine feet tall, and the shaft of his spear is like a weaver’s beam—the book of Esther builds up Haman the Agagite (literally, descendant of Agag, since there was no tribe known as the Agagites), the power he wields in court, and the ferocity of his hatred of Mordecai. And just as the real threat to Goliath is a mere shepherd boy who disdains the gift of the king’s helmet and sword and instead goes out to battle a giant with five stones in his satchel, the real threat to Haman is only and always Esther, who cares not a fig for the trappings and honors that obsess the vainglorious Haman:

And when the time arrived for Esther daughter of Avihail

(the uncle of Mordecai who took her as his daughter)

to come before the king, she did not ask for a thing

except whatever Hegai the king’s eunuch had recommended,

and Esther caught the fancy of anyone who laid eyes on her.

Doing as Mordecai commands, withholding only her nationality and ancestry, she presents herself as she is, in full view: the very nemesis of Haman.

 

Which brings us to another oddity in the story: namely, its attitude to the three women who, each in her turn, prove a source of tension at the royal court and are thus the essential motor of the plot. As we saw, the story begins when Vashti, the first of the three, says no to the king. Next, when Mordecai discovers the plot against Xerxes, Esther is the only one who can reveal and foil it because she alone has access to the king; she thereby sets in motion a train of further events that will vastly complicate and finally put a spectacular end to Haman’s ambitions. Then there is Zeresh, Haman’s wife, who, as a curtain-raiser to his announced campaign to rid the kingdom of its Jews, instructs him to build a seventy-five-foot-high gallows on which to hang Mordecai. And finally we have Mordecai delivering to Esther the reprimand that, once she acts on it, will become both the trigger of the final act of the story and the key to its meaning:

Do not imagine you’ll get out alive

there in the king’s house, alone of all the Jews.

For if you keep silent and still at this time,

relief and rescue will stand by the Jews from somewhere else,

but you and your father’s house will be lost.

And who knows if not for such a chance

you reached the royal seat. 

With this, we return to the question of how to balance your debts to Des Moines with the desire to thrive as a budding screen star inside of Warner Brothers. And here, courtesy of Edmund Morris, is a rather snarky newspaper account of young Dutch Reagan’s visit from Hollywood to his hometown of Dixon, Illinois in the company of his new friend and patron, the gossip columnist Louella Parsons:

Maybe success has made him a touch slick. He courteously asked former buddies how they’d been doing since he left town in ’33, but at the first sign of a hard-luck story, “Dutch” was ready with a joke and a handshake. Knows how to keep the fans coming—and going. . . . Reagan doesn’t want anybody’s shadow across the sunny landscape of his life.

Which chimes beautifully with the account of Esther’s initial reaction to reports that Mordecai is at the palace gates bewailing Haman’s edict against the Jews—and doing so, what’s more, in the sort of dress that, frankly, you don’t want to be seen with:

Mordecai tore his clothes and wore sackcloth and ashes

and he went out into the city and cried a great and bitter cry.

He came up to before the king’s gate–

but you can’t come to the king’s gate dressed in sackcloth—

* * * * *

Esther’s ladies in waiting and eunuchs came and told her.

And the queen quaked

and she sent clothes to dress Mordecai

and to remove his sackcloth; but he refused it.

Only after being chastised by Mordecai that she, too, will sink into oblivion if she lets the Jews go under is Esther galvanized to side unequivocally with her community and her faith. It is she who instructs Mordecai to gather the Jews in Shushan and fast for her. (Still no mention of the Almighty, but at least Esther remembers that Jews occasionally do gather among their own—and not, like the royal household, for the purpose of consuming wine.) Then she proceeds to play the king like a harp. Meanwhile, Zeresh, learning that court intrigue has led to Mordecai’s taking her husband’s place as the new favorite, foretells Haman’s certain downfall. The gallows, Zeresh’s visionary project, will become instead the hanging tree for both Haman and their ten sons.

And throughout it is Esther who calls the shots, the one who speaks, the one who has the most lines of actual dialogue in a satire set in motion by the previous queen’s single word: no.

 

My comparison with Ronald Reagan is not casual. His biographer notes that upon arrival in Hollywood he tried to join the Communist party, but was told he would be much more helpful doing its bidding on the outside. Then he joined and eventually headed the Screen Actors Guild, became a New Dealer, lost faith in the Democrats, and then continued his trajectory rightward until finally becoming one of the most popular American presidents of the last century. All this he accomplished by being entirely self-contained, able to move from one house to another while retaining his loyalties to something higher, about which he was very eloquent as occasion required.

For Jews, the book and the person of Esther pose the question very starkly: how do you define your Jewish identity, and what does and should it demand of you? What can you not leave behind? When the execution of Haman and his sons is over, and the book’s remaining chapters finish recounting the altogether fantastical vision of the Jews’ revenge on their enemies, those words that Mordecai sent to Esther in the palace, his only dialogue in the text, come back to frame his own responsibilities and conduct as, now, a leader of his people.

In that capacity, he composes many lines of text devoted to whether, and how, and where, the commemorative feast of Purim will be observed—and by what measures the Jews, now scattered all over the world, will stay Jews:

Mordecai wrote these words

and sent scrolls to the Jews in all the states of King Xerxes

both near and distant

to take upon themselves and to observe

the fourteenth of Adar and the fifteenth, year by year

as days when the Jews had respite from their enemies,

and the month that turned for them

from agony to joy, from mourning to holiday.

To make them days of feasting and merriment

and sending helpings each man to his friend

and gifts for the indigent.

But what about the question that faces a Jew like Mordecai himself: that is, a Jew who enjoys power and success and influence? This is the same question asked by Rodgers & Hammerstein, the question of what “I owe Ioway.” The scroll of Esther answers it unequivocally:

For Mordecai the Jew is second to Xerxes the king

and a leader for all the Jews

and beloved of the multitude of his brethren:

seeking the good of his people

and speaking peace to all his nation.

It is not enough to talk the talk, or to send clothes to relatives who embarrass you by dressing in sackcloth and ashes. When push comes to shove, you have to gather with them and pray. Still harder, when the shove shoves off, and times are good again, you have to maintain your sense of self, and (hardest of all) you have to live at peace with your brethren as well as with your neighbors.

In that sense, the book of Esther is not so much a satire as a parable of Jewish life at a time when the threat is not a Philistine warrior at the gates but the entire social order that envelops and entices you. That’s what the sending of food to friends, and money to the poor, is all about. Purim is not about the celebrating, it’s about the aftermath of the celebrating, about using everything in your power to keep faith with all the people you never left behind. As my delightedly laughing son reminded me, dressed as I was in a cotton-wool beard and delightedly laughing like him, eventually the beard becomes real and, when you’re asked, you have to answer, “I am Mordecai the Jew.”

_________________________ 

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. His “The Preacher’s Air,” an essay on Ecclesiastes with original translations, appeared previously in Mosaic.

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More about: Esther, Jewish identity, King David, Mordecai, Ronald Reagan, Xerxes