There's Something About Esther

A spate of new books shows what Jews, Christians, and even secular business people can learn from the biblical heroine.

BY: Rebecca Phillips

 

"What actress wouldn't kill for the role of Esther?" New York mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly asked a crowd at a Jewish Museum gala this week. He was joking about the possibility of making a Purim movie as a follow-up to Mel Gibson's "Passion." But there was truth in the joke--Esther is one of the most celebrated women in Jewish lore, renowned for her beauty, charm, and perseverance.

Fortunately for Esther wannabes of all ages, being like Esther is no longer limited to the ranks of Hebrew [or Jewish] elementary school girls who don gowns and tiaras in her honor every Purim. A spate of new books about the beloved queen who charmed a king and saved the Jewish people from destruction in ancient Persia help bring the Esther story to adult turf.

These books vary in the type of advice they give as much as they range in genre; included are a novel, a collection of business tips, and a Christian self-help book. In the business genre, "

What Queen Esther Knew

" (Rodale, 2003) by Connie Glaser and Barbara Smalley, offers career guidance for women, based on the principles they believe Esther used to win King Ahashverosh's heart and turn him against his evil adviser, Haman. Glaser and Smalley suggest contemporary women take cues from Esther's confidence, assertiveness, ability to seize opportunities, and willingness to take risks, to help them get ahead in the workplace.

The authors demonstrate the importance of finding a good mentor on the job, just as Esther found Hegai, the leader of the Persian king's harem, to assist her in being chosen as queen. They compare keeping tabs on office gossip to Esther's overhearing Bigthan and Teresh's plot to assassinate the king. In the Purim story, Esther was able to use her knowledge of Bigthan and Teresh's plan to win favor in the eyes of the king for her and her cousin Mordechai. Being similarly aware of hush-hush news of impending company layoffs or other shakeups, Glaser and Smalley suggest, can lead women to make better career decisions for themselves and act appropriately in their own jobs.

In each chapter, the authors dispense Q&A-style "Royal Advice" for women dealing with career struggles like being denied a promotion, having trouble communicating with superiors, and handling bad bosses. While the real Esther would never have been able to balance accounting sheets or make a PowerPoint presentation, Glaser and Smalley's book successfully uses her story as a model for female empowerment in the workplace.

Esther as a model of female empowerment is also a major theme of a new novel, "

The Gilded Chamber

" (Rugged Land, 2004) by Rebecca Kohn. The book, which will be released later this month, is being pitched as "must-read" for readers who loved Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent"--both books retell familiar biblical stories from the perspective of the women in the story. The book is also reminiscent of the non-biblical but equally popular "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier. The women in both stories are quietly and reluctantly accepting of their fate, yet they use their seeming passivity to fashion themselves unexpected positions of power.

"The Gilded Chamber" Judaizes the Esther story much more than any other of the new books about Esther, and perhaps even more than the Esther story in the Bible. Kohn's Esther is wistful about having to give up Jewish rituals when she leaves her homeland for Persia, regretful over not having been more schooled in Jewish tradition, scornful of Mordechai's having given up his faith, and concerned above all for the fate of her fellow Jews in the king's harem.

This very Jewish portrayal of Esther is a remarkable contrast to two new Esther-themed books by evangelical preacher Tommy Tenney. In his new "

Finding Favor with the King

" (Bethany House, 2003), Tenney embraces Esther as a Christian heroine. This Christian treatment of Esther may seem strange to Jewish readers, who recognize Esther as the epitome of Jewish righteousness and a savior of the Jewish people, but Tenney considers the Purim story's theme of good overcoming evil as an important Christian message. "Whenever God gets ready to elevate you, He must first introduce an enemy," he tells readers. "If your enemy is the King's enemy, then your battle is the King's battle," he continues later. The Purim story's "King," in Tenney's view, symbolizes God, and Esther functions as a stand-in for Jesus: through her, God's people find deliverance from evil.

Tenney sees the Esther story as one about fulfilling destiny. Because Esther fulfilled God's plan for her, just as Jesus fulfilled God's plan for him, so, too, can readers fulfill their own destinies. "Sometimes you must risk everything to become the 'very thing' you are supposed to be," Tenney explains. Though readers might find his writing style grating, it's likely Tenney's message will resonate with Christians who see this Jewish heroine as a role model. Tenney is also the author of a new novel about Esther, titled "

Hadassah

" (Bethany House, 2004) after the heroine's original Hebrew name, which continues these themes in fictional form. "Hadassah," though published by a Christian publishing house and written for a Christian market, gives a nod to Jewish readers by using the preferred "G-d" instead of God in the text.

These new books follow dozens of other recent theological, textual, political and psychological investigations of the Book of Esther, from the inspirational "The Esther Effect" by Dianna Booher to "The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther" by Yoram Hazony. Whether a reader is a businesswoman, a traditional Jew, or a faithful Christian, these books and others like them demonstrate the power of the Esther story, which Jews will read in celebration of Purim this weekend, and inspire readers to mimic her character. And while adults learn to appreciate her confidence, her business savvy, her commitment to Judaism, or her understanding of good and evil, Jewish children need not worry. Esther's legendary beauty and courage are sure to sustain her place as a favorite dress-up character for Hebrew school Purim carnivals as well.

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