Summer Reading Recommendation: Esther Goes to Madison, WI

By | Tagged: culture, holidays

Last month I was picking through a pile of books and came across Good for the Jews, by Debra Spark, a novel that took the story of the Book of Esther and transplanted it to Madison, Wisconsin during the second Gulf War. I was skeptical–it sounded like it could be yet another Red Tent takeoff–but I was curious enough that I went home with the book, and read it within a matter of days.

I was fascinated by so many things, not least the way that putting a modern lens on this ancient story really made me think, in new and important ways, about the implications of the book we read on Purim, and the lessons that we talk about when Purim comes around every year. In particular, what struck me as I read was how everyone really shared in the blame. Even Esther and Mordechai, the heroes of the megillah, really make a lot of poor decisions (remember, if Mordechai hadn’t been so adamant about not bowing to Haman, something that is not halakhically problematic, the Jews would never have been in trouble to begin with). Even a few weeks after having finished the book, I still find myself thinking about it a lot, and I recommend it to friends on a daily basis.

So, please, go pick up a copy for your beach bag. It’s got everything you want in a summer read–sex, booze, people making bad decisions, people make better decisions, and jealousy. All that, and it’s gorgeously written.

After I finished reading the book I got in touch with Debra Spark and asked if she would mind answering some questions for the blog. So without further ado, my Q&A with Debra Spark:

Tamar Fox: Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of the book? When and why did you decide you wanted to write something based on the Book of Esther? What were you attracted to in that book?
Debra Spark: Several years ago, I decided to take my son to Purim services.  He hadn’t had much of an introduction to synagogue services yet, and I thought Purim, rather than our synagogue’s long Saturday morning services would be a good way to go.  In preparation for the service, I decided to reread the Book of Esther.  When I did, I got a shock.  The end of the book was not as I had remembered it.  Not at all.  As I remembered it, Haman’s plot was foiled, Haman was hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, the Jews’ enemies were defeated, and all’s well that ends well.  In fact, what happens is that Haman is hung, his son’s are hung, and Esther asks the king for an extra day of fighting.  This is granted, and the Jews go out and kill thousands.  Self-defense?  Revenger?  There’s no evidence to suggest there is a further threat against the Jews once Haman is gone.  Then again, there’s no evidence to suggest there isn’t a threat.  Without more of an explanation, the ending left me profoundly unsettled, all the more so because I happened to reread the Book of Esther on the eve of the Iraq war.  Like many, I had no problem when we went after the Taliban in the wake of 9/11, but I opposed the entry to Iraq.  It seemed to me that we were victims of the 9/11 attack, but now we were becoming victimizers.  Could the same be said for the Jews at the end of Esther?  I didn’t know, but I knew I was uncomfortable, so I wrote my book in part to explore my feelings.  But once I got into the project, I found that other aspects of the Book interested me.  After all, it’s a great story with its focus on male-female relationships, female roles, and palace intrigue.  I saw how that could easily be translated into a story about contemporary relationships and office politics.

Posted on May 28, 2010

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