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.