Summer Reading Recommendation: Esther Goes to Madison, WI

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.

TF: Before I had started the book I was very skeptical that it could work, because the way I’ve always been taught the story it was very black and white. Esther and Mordecai are good, Haman and Achashverosh are bad. But you managed to make Alex, the Achashverosh character, somewhat sympathetic and interesting. And there’s even some sympathy for Hyman, the character based on Haman. At the same time, Mose and Ellen (Mordecai and Esther) while clearly better than Alex and Hyman, are clearly deeply flawed, too. Does that reflect how you read the Book of Esther, or was that something that you did because it felt necessary for your novel? Or both?
DS: Yes, you are right about those characters.  They are certainly played broadly, so really I was just taking what I could for my characters.  But it’s also true that the characters, even as they appear in the text, have their complications.  For instance, Mordecai.  You might say that he behaves really irresponsibly.  There’s no reason he couldn’ t bow down to Haman.  It isn’t like bowing down to an idol.  It would have been expected in the Persian community in which he lived.  (He is technically beneath Haman in the palace pecking order.)  So why not bow, especially when failing to bow threatens the lives of your people?  And doesn’t Mordecai sell Esther’s sexual services?  Yes, he’s the story’s hero, and he behaves admirably, but there are also these other things …

TF: Thinking about the characters in the book, I have a really hard time picking a favorite. Ellen is the obvious choice, but she’s so naive…Who was your favorite character in the book? Why?
DS: Funny but no one ever asked me who was my favorite character with any previous novels of mine, but a number of people have asked me with this one.  Or they’ve told me who their favorite character is.  Mose seems to be the most popular, but perhaps because I am a middle-aged woman, I have a fondness for Valerie, who is the middle-aged woman in the story.

TF: I don’t know how much research you did into Biblical criticism around the Book of Esther, but at least one of the things I’ve heard said about it is that the sixth chapter, (where Haman ends up leading Mordecai through the streets of the city saying, “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor!”) is the pivotal point of the book. Basically, up until that point everything is going badly for the Jews, and after it, everything goes well. When I was reading Good for the Jews I was nervous about how it was going to work out in the novel, and was ultimately relieved that that part was gone. How did you decide to leave that out?
DS: I actually did a LOT of research for this book, and then when I was through with the novel, I started to write a nonfiction book about the Book of Esther, in part because I still wanted to explore this issue of Jews and revenge.  I only got 100 pages in though.  At any rate, I was never thinking of a direct transcription of the Biblical story into a contemporary novel, so I never considered making up a fiction version of that scene you mention.  And that scene!  Here’s something from volume 4 of Lois Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews :  “When the procession”-i.e., of Haman and Mordecai-“passed the house of Haman, his daughter was looking out of the window.  She took the man on the horse to be her father, and the leader of it, Mordecai.  Raising a vessel filled with offal, she emptied it out over the leader-her own father.  Scarce has the vessel left her hand, when she realized the truth, and she threw herself from the window, and lay crushed to death on the street.”  Yikes!

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