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Read Orrin's interview with Rebecca Kohn.

First a disclaimer: Ms Kohn is a neighbor and a friend--so some partiality is likely unavoidable in this review. That said, it was a considerable relief to open the pages of the book and find that no partisanship would be required to sing its praises. I read the first hundred pages in one gulp and was captivated. The story of Esther is one we know so well that we may cease to consider what it really means. Its characters are become so iconic we may forget they were human beings. Ms Kohn makes the story fresh and exciting, not least by expanding upon the character of Esther so that her actions are those of an engaging woman whose motivations we understand and whose courage we respect. Granting us a new look at the old tale, Ms Kohn makes us consider its lessons anew and they are as timely today as they were thousands of years ago.

The Biblical account of Esther is intact here, but Ms Kohn does take some liberties around it. For one thing, she has the young Jewish girl Haddasah initially betrothed to Mordechai, before being sent to the harem of King Xerxes. Mordechai himself has taken on the coloration of the court and of the worshippers of Ahura Mazda and urges the young Haddasah to: "Let yourself be known only as Esther, foster daughter of Marduka the Babylonian." Then the great bulk of the action occurs in the harem. The novel focuses on how Esther learns to wield political power within that closed world, which will serve her in good stead when she later needs to affect the wide world. She develops believable relationships with the other women, servants and eunuchs of the harem and Ms Kohn is particularly good at portraying the internal conflict that being Jewish and loving Mordechai causes Esther as she is forced to disguise her true religion and serve a king she does not love:
I could eat the food of the harem. I could submit myself to the authority of a eunuch. I could go in to the king as a virgin and return to the harem as a harlot. I could live a life like [her servant] Puah's, with little joy over the generations.

But I could not worship the gods that were an abomination to my father. I could not betray Avihail, whose living seed remained in none other than me. I could not crush the memory of his righteous ways.

I had hoped to fulfill my days in Mordechai's household and to give him strong sons. Mordechai was a stranger to his people's ways, but my father would have lived on through the generations of our children's children. For Mordechai was still a Jew in his heart. He would walk among the idolaters, but he would not worship a stranger's gods.

And I could not do so now.
This doubleness is, of course, the key to the story, indeed to much of Jewish history. The struggle of a stateless Jewish people to conform sufficiently on the outside to fit into hostile societies but to maintain their faith and their traditions internally has played out for thousands of years, often with tragic results. As we look back at the story of Mordechai and Esther through the tragic lens of the Holocaust we can see how dangerous the tale is with its suggestion that if only the Jewish people are sufficiently righteous before G-d and pleasing in the eyes of their temporal rulers they will be spared, or at least empowered to protect themselves. Here are the most fateful Bible verses:
[E]sther spake unto Hatach, and gave him commandment unto Mor'decai;

All the king's servants, and the people of the king's provinces, do know, that whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law of his to put him to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden sceptre, that he may live: but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days.

And they told to Mor'decai Esther's words.

Then Mor'decai commanded to answer Esther, Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews.

For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
It's almost unbearably harsh to contemplate, but perhaps the lesson of the Holocaust is that the charge Mordechai places upon Esther applies to every Jew, to speak and act against injustice directed at their people lest they fall prey to it themselves.

At any rate, if the fictionalized portions of the book flesh out the characters it is when the biblical events return that the novel achieves great drama. The contest between Haman and Mordechai, with Esther ultimately determining the outcome, is thrilling even in the Bible's bare bones version, but all the more so once Ms Kohn has personalized it for us. At a time when every women's book club in America is fretting about its next choice and the box office and best-seller charts are topped by religion-themed works, the novel should find a wide audience and it richly deserves one.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Rebecca Kohn (2 books reviewed)
Rebecca Kohn Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Rebecca Kohn
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Author Rebecca Kohn (Shay Zeller, March 9, 2006, Front Porch: NHPR)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: to The Gilded Chamber (Rugged Land)
    -REVIEW: of The Gilded Chamber (Gaby Wenig, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles)
    -ESSAY: 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. (Rebecca Phillips, BeliefNet)
    -The Book of Esther (King James Version)

Book-related and General Links: