Esther in America

  • Review
By – February 22, 2021

Esther in Amer­i­ca is a splen­did col­lec­tion of essays on the com­plex his­to­ry of the Book of Esther in Amer­i­can — and par­tic­u­lar­ly Amer­i­can Jew­ish — cul­ture. Rab­bi Dr. Stu­art Halpern has assem­bled a range of essays from some of today’s sharpest scholars.

Halpern, who teach­es at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, has orga­nized the col­lec­tion by top­ics, some his­tor­i­cal and some the­mat­ic. Amer­i­can Stud­ies schol­ars from Per­ry Miller through Sac­van Bercov­itch have long not­ed that Amer­i­can Puri­tans referred to the Hebrew Bible or Old Tes­ta­ment” as a touch­stone for the poli­ties of the ear­ly colonies. It is inter­est­ing to see con­tem­po­rary Ortho­dox schol­ars bring­ing their insight into this process. Halpern’s own essay on Morde­cai Manuel Noah is par­tic­u­lar­ly worth noting.

As we move into the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the anthol­o­gy focus­es on eman­ci­pa­tion and abo­li­tion. Dr. Eri­ca Brown, with her usu­al acu­ity, points out par­al­lels between women find­ing their voice in the Esther sto­ry and female Black empow­er­ment. As the anthol­o­gy moves for­ward in time, the empha­sis moves from the Book of Esther in Amer­i­can cul­ture over­all to its pres­ence specif­i­cal­ly in Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture. Here the essays become more incon­sis­tent in tone and depth. There are some straight­for­ward­ly the­o­log­i­cal essays on Solove­ichik and the Lubav­itch­er Rebbe, and oth­ers that focus more broad­ly on Esther in Amer­i­can and Amer­i­can Jew­ish art, and the Esther sto­ry in Amer­i­can movies.

Draw­ing par­al­lels between Jews’ assim­i­la­tion in ancient Per­sia and in con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­ca is a risky busi­ness, but Dara Horn writes bril­liant­ly about the phe­nom­e­non of name-chang­ing. The urban leg­end that Jew­ish names were changed by immi­gra­tion staff at Ellis Island — and not vol­un­tar­i­ly by Jews once ensconced in the Unit­ed States — makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing case study on iden­ti­ty and what it means.

From children’s pic­ture books to issues of med­ical ethics, this col­lec­tion address­es a wide range of cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal top­ics. Dov Lerner’s final essay is a mod­el of how to use deep tex­tu­al learn­ing and post­mod­ern the­o­ry in a way that elu­ci­dates bib­li­cal hermeneu­tics with­out mys­ti­fy­ing it.

Josh Han­ft holds Advanced Degrees in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and curat­ed the renowned read­ing series, Scrib­blers on the Roof, for over twen­ty years.

Discussion Questions