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On the Shelf: Esther, Cinderella for Real

Originally published February, 2008. Republished February 29, 2012.

The other day my seven-year-old daughter and I were talking about Purim."I don't know if want to be Queen Esther again," she said. I told her that Queen Esther is not just a Jewish Cinderella who lives happily ever after in a lopsided fairy tale. She's many things to many women. What I keep to myself is that sometimes Esther is also magical thinking turned all-too-real: a reminder of watching beauty pageants at puberty and panicking that I would never look like any of the contestants.

Eve Merriam, whose "Esther" poetry resonnates today.

Now I know that those things don't matter. But I have to convince Anna of that. Beautiful Anna who tells me that her thighs are fat and that she has a big tummy. I tell Anna that Queen Esther was a girl who landed on the right side of the tracks. A lucky girl. A girl with great timing. A girl who entered a beauty contest not to be popular, but to lift herself out of poverty.

One of my mother's crowning achievements was to be selected as Queen Esther, Purim 1954, at the Havana Jewish Center. But unlike Cinderella, Esther had no fairy godmother and neither did my mother. She fought an autocratic father to get a college education and convinced her overprotective mother that she needed to start her life anew in the United States. Self-made Cinderellas, Esther and my mother. And life continued even if their men were not exactly their idea of Prince Charming.

One of the most haunting pieces I've ever read about Esther is the eponymous poem by the late Eve Merriam. It's from her volume of poetry called Family Circle, which Archibald MacLeish selected as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1946. Though long out of print, it's populated by familiar people from ageless times — a book that is still fresh and vital. Esther

[h]ad crashed the right part of town.
Could wear a different deep-cut gown
Every night in the week. Butlered, banqueted, butter-rich fed,
Life was a silver serving dish,
Cinderella wish.

Merriam's adroit commentary on the anti-Semitism of her time is summed up in her poem called "Jew," a correlative to the "Esther" poem.

...the Jew was chosen. Surely your rabbi
Read you the Hebrews were God's anointed race?
Now how would you like to take yours:
Mixed or straight?
We are sorry to inform you our enrollment is complete.
No Dogs or Jews Allowed.

Did Shushan's most famous beauty contestant have to ignore similar signs? Or more to the point, did Bess Myerson, America's first and only Jewish Miss America, crowned in 1945 just as the Holocaust was ending, see signs like that in her travels around the country?

In Shushan, Mordechai prodded Esther to enter the contest. Uncle, cousin — no matter, he was the only family that the orphaned girl had. He is remembered as a good man. Certainly a man of principle who, because he would not bow down to anyone, awakened Haman's genocidal impulses. Mordechai and Vashti, their pride and reverence mistaken for rebellion, must have been soul mates.

But who was Esther's soul mate? For Merriam, it was every woman, including her own mother, whom she describes as:

Suburban middle class and stoutening middle age, Your early poverty
You drop deliberately
As voided bill.

Thirty years later, my mother comes back as Queen Esther, handing out twenty dollar bills to her elderly relatives. Money cashed from the paycheck of a second job. During the day she taught, at night she demonstrated vacuum cleaners. She started out like Queen Esther, doing the unimaginable and marrying an American who she thought was going to be more prosperous than he became. But she never wanted anyone from the old country to know that. Every few years she would go back to her Havana neighborhood, now relocated to Miami Beach — a place where her aunts ran televisions with bad reception day and night as a way to keep time and forget time. Lawn furniture passed as living room sets.

Drive limousinely up to the old neighborhood,
Lady Bountiful bestowing caviar baskets of food!
Brighten their cobweb corner

writes Merriam in "Esther."

But where is Esther's happy ending? The Jewish people descend from Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. The Messiah will descend from Ruth, a convert. Did Esther have her brief moment in history only to return to Ahashverush's harem to watch the backstage preparations for the next beauty contest?

Maybe that's too cynical. There is a holiday in her honor, a fast in her memory. As every woman's Cinderella, she inspired our mothers to explore life beyond the kitchen. Having married the non-Jewish Ahashverush, she is a particularly meaningful role model to interfaith families, demonstrating that you don't have to be married to a Jew to be integral to the survival of the Jewish people.

She was born chosen. She is the mother of Diaspora Jewry, the heart and soul of American Jewry. She wore her "common conscience like a light and shining skin." The beam of that light should focus on our daughters, on Purim and every day.

Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Judith Bolton-Fasman

Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance book reviewer and writer in the Boston area.

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