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The First Jewish Novel, by Gershom Gorenberg

 (Copyright The Jerusalem Report,  February 25, 2002, page 46, The People & The Book section)
Posted with permission of the Jerusalem Report.  For subscriptions, visit their website or email subs@jreport.co.il.
For a scanned copy of the article for printing, click for Page 1; Page 2.

         And on the one hundred and twenty-seventh night, Scheherazade resumed the story for which she had been given permission and said, "O happy king, it is told that in the days of Ahashuerus, the same Ahashuerus who ruled over 127 provinces, from India to Ethiopia..."

        OK, that's not how we're used to the story of Esther beginning. But that opening, borrowed from the 1,001 Nights, is the one we need to make sense of its context - that is, the other half of its context, the gentile, secular half, which we don't notice when the Scroll is dressed up as Scripture and nestled between other sacred texts and read in a synagogue, instead of in a coffeehouse with the smell of cardamom and bittersweet brew hanging in the air. Imagine Scheherazade, the vizier's daughter who has married the capricious, murderous king to save the daughters of the kingdom, telling about capricious Ahashuerus and murderous Haman, and the story is obviously a Persian court tale, taken from the same tradition, populated with the same stock characters and constructed out of the same motifs as Scheherazade's own story and many of the tales she tells.

        And at that point, we realize that the thin book squeezed into Scripture might just be the first example of the rich genre of the Diaspora Jewish novel, and perhaps actually the beginning of secular Jewish literature. The Scroll of Esther is a book written by a Jew living in a non-Jewish culture about the precarious situation, both culturally and physically, of Jews in that reality. The author is proud of his - or perhaps her - Jewishness, but also quite ready to describe hiding Jewishness as a wise precaution. The book fits the genre requirements of the gentile host culture, fits so well that it may be a subtle parody of gentile literature. And at the same time so thoroughly is it located in Jewish literary tradition that it can almost be read as an entirely Jewish creation - though a second look reveals that it is altogether playful and satiric toward Judaism as well. Like its characters - Mordechai, a descendant of King Saul named for the pagan god Marduk, and Hadassah, a good Jewish girl who goes by the name Esther, borrowed from the goddess Ishtar, and who raffles her gorgeous self off to the king - the Scroll lives in two worlds. It's the unrecognized early ancestor of I.B. Singer's "The Family Moskat," of Isaac Babel's brief stories and of Bellow's sprawling "Herzog."

        Our libraries aren't stocked with ancient Persian royal romances, but examples - albeit Islamicized - can be found in the 1,001 Nights. The earliest references to that work are found in 10th century Arab texts, which explain that its original name is "Hazar Afsana" - Persian for "One Thousand Tales." One of the Arab texts also describes the original book as including Scheherazade, the vizier's daughter, as a central character.

        So (despite a dissenting historian here and there) it seems clear that the lost core of the great Arabic work was a pre-Islamic Persian tale, and that it included at least some elements of the story we have: King Schahriar discovers his wife's infidelity, executes her and thenceforth marries a virgin each night, deflowers her, and kills her in the morning, ostensibly so he will never be betrayed again and in fact to show just who is in charge, the man or the woman. At last Scheherazade, the wise daughter of his prime minister, volunteers to marry the king. Before the sun rises, she begins telling him a story; and he is so eager to hear the end that he lets her live to the next night - and to the next, and the next, till 1,001 have passed, and she has borne him three sons. Then the king revokes her death sentence, honors her father with a sumptuous robe, announces 30 days of feasting throughout his kingdom, and gives gifts to the poor. The woman has won, and her male proxy has been rewarded.

        Along the way, many of the tales Scheherazade tells are also about kings, evil ministers and good ones, princes and princesses who fall from their positions, are banished to distant lands, and after fantastic adventures are restored. Presumably some of those stories, too, have their sources in the Persian text, though naturally the Arab storytellers who inherited them did what any good writer does with the literature he or she inherits: misread it, embroidered and shamelessly reworked it.

        But one good indication that those plot elements were already old traditions when they passed into Arabic is the Scroll of Esther, written - say contemporary scholars - in the third or fourth century BCE, well over 1,001 years before those early Arabic references to Scheherazade. The Scroll describes a Persian ruler who, in the midst of a feast, calls his queen to dance for his guests. She refuses, defying her male lord and master, and is deposed if not executed in order to make sure that the women of the empire do not "find their husbands contemptible in their eyes."

        Then the king's men gather every virgin in the kingdom so he can take his pick, and he tries one out each night. The chosen new queen is Esther, an orphan and an exiled Judean - but the pedigree of her cousin and guardian Mordechai is from the house of Kish, father of King Saul. That is, Mordechai and Esther are royalty banished to a far kingdom. Eventually, the plottings of an evil minister threaten her tribe rather than her gender. She risks her life, employs fasts and feasts rather than stories, and overcomes his intent. Her cousin is appointed chief minister and goes out "from the presence of the king in royal apparel of sky-blue and white, and a great golden crown, and a wrap of fine linen and purple" (Esther 8:15). Then the Jews feast, give gifts to the poor, and recall the date in future years both by feasting and by telling the tale.

        It's not precisely the same story as Scheherazade's, but close enough that it's clear the authors were dipping into the same barrel. The scroll may be a bit closer to farce, what with Haman strolling into the king's bedroom to ask to execute Mordechai just when Ahashuerus is looking for a way to reward the Jew. The Jewish author, perhaps, was having fun with the pieces of plot Persian tradition provided him, stories he enjoyed but wasn't quite obligated to in the way a Persian would have been. After all, educated as he apparently was in the empire's literature, he was still a Jew who lived in that empire by force of circumstance and exile.

    AT THE SAME TIME, THE author uses, or misuses, Scripture just as deftly. The midrash in Breishit Rabbah picked up on that "127 provinces" in the opening line as an oblique reference to Sarah, described in Genesis 23:1 as living 127 years. The allusion reminds us that Sarah was also delivered by her male protector, Abraham, to a gentile king - and the Scroll thereby becomes a ribald suggestion that she did not pass the nights in Pharaoh's palace untouched. Victorious Mordechai is not the descendant of David, as a Jewish redeemer should be, but of the failed Saul. He defeats Haman, of the house of Agag - the Amalekite king Saul failed to kill, despite a divine command. When Vashti is deposed, it is "so that her royal estate may be given to her neighbor who is better than she" - a translation into feminine gender of the decree in I Samuel 15:28 that Saul's "royal estate ... is given to thy neighbor, who is better than thee." Esther gets back what her granddad lost for misbehaving. You can read this as commentary, but it's commentary that undermines Abraham and Sarah's sanctity, undercuts the Davidic dynasty, and subverts male power. In a thoroughly modern way, the story quotes tradition to contradict it.

        The effort that later sages made to explain the Scroll only underlines that it is really secular literature. In midrashic literature, the rabbis search it for any possible allusion to God - because there is none. The Talmud in Tractate Megillah asserts that Vashti took Jewish women as servants and "stripped them naked and used them for work on the Sabbath." Without that picture, we might notice that Vashti's modesty cost her the crown, a detail that doesn't fit well into sermons. Haman wore the image of a pagan god dangling from his clothes - or so various rabbinic texts assert in an effort to make religious sense of Mordechai's macho refusal to follow the perfectly normal custom of the time of bowing to a high official. In Tractate Sanhedrin, the Talmud describes Esther as karka olam, as passive as a field being plowed, to absolve her of her quite obvious voluntary sex with a gentile king. Mordechai's voluntary going along with the act is even more outrageous, and even harder to explain away.

        In fact, Mordechai has less in common with Biblical heroes, flawed but aspiring to righteousness, than with the hero of Mordecai Richler's "Solomon Gursky Was Here": Mordechai is boisterous, not bound by the sexual rules, too proud Jewishly to give a bow to Haman, always looking for the main chance as he signs his cousin up for the beauty contest and rats on would-be assassins. In Richler's story, Solomon Gursky is as willing to bribe the authorities to save Jews from Europe as he is to bribe officials to ignore his bootlegging, and in the Scroll, Mordechai knows when it's time to cash in on Esther's position to save the Jews. Richler, spiritual descendant of the Scroll's author, clogs his novel with snippets of tradition while flaunting his mastery of multiple viewpoints, unreliable narration and slightly magic realism, as if to demonstrate that he can do post-modernism in English better than anyone whose great-great-grandfather grew up speaking the language. From Mordechai to Mordecai, there is no story like Mordechai's. Then again, the Scroll's author, like Scheherazade's anonymous creator, is more feminist than Richler is.

        So should we excise the Scroll from Scripture and its holiday from the calendar? For heaven's sake, no. Judaism is all about sanctifying the secular realm, not escaping it. The religion is robust enough to canonize a secular story and dress it up as holy writ, just as its Judean-accented characters dress up as Persian courtiers. Purim announces that the work of all those Jewish novelists who scribbled or pounded away at Smith-Coronas in upstairs rooms deserve to have their works on the tables of the sacred study halls. If that isn't a reason to pour another drink this Purim, what is?