Pages Reveal a Whole New Esther

As far as narrative goes, Megillat Esther is one of the most exciting parts of the Tanach. It is rich in religious significance and considered a seminal text on the miracle of Jewish survival, the story of Esther, the orphan girl who is chosen in a nationwide beauty contest to become the queen and ends up saving the Jewish people from the evil machinations of Haman the Wicked, has all the elements of a good potboiler. Played out under the specter of Armageddon for the Jewish people are great and lavish displays of wealth, a mighty king who is duped by his nefarious adviser, scheming chamberlains, a harem full of nubile virgins, power plays among the king’s underlings and enough surprising plot twists to keep the pages — or the scroll itself — turning.

Megillat Esther is perennial — it is read every year on Purim in synagogues and homes all over the world accompanied by a cacophonous soundtrack of grogger noise — but the story itself has recently inspired a number of contemporary authors to spin their own versions of Esther’s compelling tale.

While two novels published in the last year take a new look at the beautiful queen, another self-help book uses the megillah as a source of business advice to young women.

In "The Gilded Chamber" (Rugged Land, 2003), author Rebbeca Kohn tells the story of Esther’s pauper-to-princess journey in way that evokes Anita Diamant’s "The Red Tent" in style and Arthur Golden’s "Memoirs of a Geisha" in setting. Much of the narrative in "The Gilded Chamber" is devoted to life in the harem, a setting that develops intrigues of its own between the girls themselves. There are many lush descriptions of the girls trading secrets and gossiping while reclining on couches and being fed and tended to by eunuchs. The eunuchs also instruct the girls how to pleasure the king, and the book is full of flowery and euphemistic sex prose, like, "My body opened to him like a rose in bloom, each soft petal unfolding until the final burst of color and fragrance."

The story of Purim is the backdrop of the "The Gilded Chamber," but the book is not a retelling of the megillah. Mordechai’s role, for example, is greatly reduced. He is Esther’s unrequited love interest and, taking great liberties with the source text, he emerges in "The Gilded Chamber" as a man largely estranged from traditional Judaism. Esther pines for him, all the while trying to figure out how she can protect herself from becoming doped and sick from the drugged wine that the eunuchs feed the virgins, and how she can keep herself in the king’s favor to eventually save her people. According to the book’s press materials, Kohn supplemented her imagination with meticulous historical research, and so while there are no surprises about how the story ends, it still manages to look different from the story we know.

"The Gilded Chamber" sticks to ancient Persia, but "Writing the Book of Ester" by Louise Domaratius (Quality Words in Print, 2003) travels across continents and time to the present day, and uses the story of Esther as a starting point for a complex novel that meditates on race, culture and religious identity.

"Writing the Book of Ester" is the story of Celia, an American English teacher who lives in Paris and is in love with Medhi. Medhi is her 19-year-old Iranian student, and the son of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother — named Ester. Ester is in prison for writing provocative journalism and, as Medhi talks about his mother, Celia becomes fascinated with her. Celia creates a "book" in which she parallels the contemporary Ester and the biblical Esther, seeing in both a fascinating feminine strength and defiance. Like the biblical Esther, who had to hide her Jewish identity in the palace but still remain true to it, the contemporary Ester does the same thing. While she converts to Islam, she remains true to Judaism in her heart and maintains her cover so she can help the Iranian Jews.

In both these books, Esther emerges as a proto-feminist hero. In the self-help book "What Queen Esther Knew: Business Strategies From a Biblical Sage," authors Connie Glaser and Barbara Smalley (Rodale 2003), continue this idea, seeing Esther as a role model for young women trying to make it in the business world. With chapter headings like "It Pays to Know the Palace Gossip" and "Communicating With the Clout of the Queen," the authors advise young girls to act "queenly" in business, much the same way that Esther did in the palace. The book keeps referring back to the megillah — "Queen Esther requested not one, but two banquets with King Ahasuerus and Haman. Why? Putting in more face time with the king before revealing [her] request was likely part of her master plan…" — but it also references a good number of other business advice books to bolster its advice, and a few contemporary Esthers, like Sherron Watkins, who blew the whistle on Enron.

"Given all that Esther knew," Glaser and Smalley write. "It’s little wonder that her story continues to inspire women — even after 2,500 years."

A Ukrainian City’s Coming-of-Age

It’s not too often that a 13-year-old boy can change the world — or at least the world in which he lives.

So, it is difficult to underestimate the significance of the recent bar mitzvah of Menachem Mendel Moskovitz, known as Mendel.

As the eldest son of the Venezuelan-born chief rabbi of Kharkov, his calling to the Torah represented a coming-of-age of the Jewish community in post-Soviet Ukraine and of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in particular.

Mendel’s story began in New York, where his parents — Moishe Moskovitz and Miriam Amzalak — met and married and made their decision to move to the Soviet Union.

In the late 1980s, Soviet Jews were finally gaining a measure of freedom but — following 70 years of suppression — lacked direction and leadership.

Jews from abroad stepped forward to fill that gap and, in 1990 with eight-month-old Mendel in tow, the Moskovitzs headed for Kharkov.

"It’s hard to look back and try to remember what it was like," Rabbi Moskovitz said. "The wall was starting to come down in Eastern Europe and changes were taking place — but we didn’t know much about Kharkov and we didn’t know a word of the language."

But Miriam added they soon realized they were welcome in Kharkov and that they were to be part of something special — the rebirth of the city’s Jewish community.

The massive, red-brick central synagogue on Pushkinskaya Street had recently been returned by the government, after having served as a state-run sports club for most of its existence, starting shortly after its construction in 1913. Both the synagogue and the city’s Jewish community were in need of a rabbi.

"When we finally reached Kharkov, two boys met us and told us in English, ‘We’ll be your friends,’" Miriam recalled. "On the first Friday, we had 1,000 people for Shabbat, and 3,000 for the first Rosh Hashana."

They also had concerned parents — the rabbi’s father comes from Hungary and his mother from Venezuela; while Miriam’s father is from Egypt and her mother from Czechoslovakia. She was raised in Australia.

"Our parents were very proud," Miriam said.

Her husband remembers their families’ fears. "No one knew what was going to happen," he said.

Rabbi Moskovitz said his parents’ uncertainty stemmed from the experiences of his father, Nissan, growing up in Eastern Europe — and the time he spent at Auschwitz. But his son’s success in Ukraine over the past 13 years, including the December opening of the new Holocaust memorial in Kharkov’s Drobitsky Yar, has tempered Nissan’s reservations.

"My father objected to my coming here at first — but he did come to understand the importance of the work here," Rabbi Moskovitz said. "Watching his son standing beside [Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma] — the symbol of Ukraine — my father had tears coming down his cheeks."

The Moskovitzs decision to come to Ukraine represented a long-term commitment. The Chabad movement sends its emissaries to the former Soviet Union — and elsewhere around the world — for a longer term. They learn the language, buy homes and raise their children in what turns out to be a dynamic, cosmopolitan environment.

The Moskovitz family is no exception. Mendel is the oldest of eight children, which includes one brother and six sisters. They all attend schools launched with the help of the rabbi and the synagogue — and they all inspire the new generation of Ukrainian Jews.

"Mendel is the city mascot and symbol," Miriam said. "When people see him growing up, they also think about the development of the community — and he has a positive influence on the other children as well."

Mendel — who has curly dark hair and brown eyes — takes it all in stride. He has a calm demeanor and an intelligent face — he speaks English, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew and he likes to study music and physics. And for someone who has become the mascot for the 40,000 Jews who live in Kharkov, he was remarkably calm for his bar mitzvah, despite the ramifications of the special day on the community.

"For me it’s a very special day," he said, adding, "though I’m not as nervous as everyone thinks I am."

Having been born in New York, Mendel identifies as an American. He’s also traveled the globe, visiting family in both South America and Australia. He said he enjoys Ukraine, too, because it is the place he’s spent most of his life, a place he has watched grow up around him. The synagogue, for instance, continues to undergo extensive renovations — thanks in part to the support of the George Rhor Foundation — but is already one of the most beautiful and arguably the biggest in the country.

"I think Chabad and the Jewish community is very respected in Ukraine," Rabbi Moskovitz said. "And we’re becoming a more mature community, too — when we first came here, all the help was from the outside; and now part of that help comes from the inside, and that ability to make a difference is an important part of the community."

The rabbi said Chabad’s commitment to staying in Ukraine and proving itself was a key to its success in Kharkov.

"When the media first interviewed us when we arrived and asked how long we would stay, I told them I wanted to be the last Jew to shut the lights off in the synagogue," he said.

Moskovitz helped establish a kindergarten, boys’ and girls’ schools, a medical clinic and a food program for the elderly, and he is actually helping build a legacy that can be left for future generations of Jews in Kharkov and Ukraine — who will be able to build on the foundation being laid today. On hand for the bar mitzvah, the rabbi’s mother, Ada, commented on the progress she and her husband have witnessed over the years.

"When we came to Ukraine, first there was nothing, and now there is everything — and we see our son progressing in his community, too, and that makes us very happy," she said. "It’s a big challenge to be a rabbi here, but seeing the community growing is his reward."