“Kanner explores the wine-and blood-soaked politics of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and sneaks around a palace where no one gets a good night’s sleep, because just about everyone wants someone dead.”
In our current social media and political climates, particularly the rise of Donald J. Trump, a woman’s looks are fair game whenever she’s mentioned. It’s more important now than ever to tell stories of women that emphasize intelligence and courage rather than beauty. Thanks to The Jewish Daily Forward for letting me write about something so close to my heart.
The book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia and thwarts the genocide of her people. Though it’s read aloud in synagogue each year, the reading is accompanied by so much raucous celebration that I never paid close attention to the details. I listened for Esther’s and her cousin Mordechai’s names so I could cheer, and I listened for the evil Haman’s name so I could shake my noisemaker and boo. The costumes, treats, drunkenness—the experience of the Purim holiday celebration—distracted me from the intricacies of the story.
I thought the story was a simple one: a beautiful Jewish girl wins the king and saves her people with the encouragement of her cousin. I couldn’t understand why it took so long to read. Each year, about a quarter of the way through the reading, my thoughts had already sped ahead to hamentashen, wine and dancing.
To see what was delaying the final phase of the party, I started to read along. Later, I read it again on my own. I was confused. Esther didn’t seem like a true heroine. She seemed to be an indecisive girl who would have allowed the genocide of her people if not for Mordeachai’s harsh prodding. Beauty and obedience are the only assets mentioned. In fact, the king’s choice of Esther from among all the virgins is summed up, “The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she won his grace and favor more than all the virgins,” leaving us to look for the description of her up to this point that may have made her attractive to him. The most telling description of her seems to be that she was “shapely and beautiful.” Beyond that, we have only her deference to the wisdom of Hegai, “She did not ask for anything but what Hegai, the king’s eunuch and guardian of the women, advised. Yet Esther won the admiration of all who saw her…” and her deference to Moredechai, “But Esther still did not reveal her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had instructed her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai’s bidding, as she had done when she was under his tutelage.”
When she finally does disobey a man, it’s not due to a new strength and independence. It’s due to cowardice. Mordecai instructs her to go to the king to reveal that she’s a Jew and ask for her people’s lives. She responds that going before the king without being invited is an offense that is punishable by death. Mordechai, upon learning that saving her people is not enough of a reward for risking her life, tells her, “Do not imagine that you, or all the Jews, will escape with your life… if you keep silent… you and your father’s house will perish.” It is only then that she decides that she will go to the king, and issues the most famous quote from the story, “…if I am to perish, I shall perish!”
To answer this question, I dove more deeply into the story. What I discovered was that on the face of them, a number of Esther’s choices don’t make sense. Beneath the surface, however, is an Esther who is strategic and cunning.
I spend more time than I would like wondering what will happen. I want control of not only my input but the outcome. Yet when I look back at my life sometimes I see that not getting what I want has been the best thing for me.
A few years ago there was a job I wanted. It would not have paid enough for me to cut back on freelancing, but I thought it would be a steppingstone in my career.
Today I thank G-d that I didn’t get it. I wouldn’t have completed Sinners and the Sea. At least not anytime soon.
When I find myself getting overly invested in what I think should happen, the best spiritual medicine for me is reading this short-short by Amy Hempel. I hope it helps you too.
CHAPTER ONE: THE ROPE
All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open.
God chooses cowards to be brave, barren women to give birth to prophets, passionate men to be patient, and a man who stutters to command his people through the desert. So it was He chose Noah, a man who couldn’t nail one board to another without hitting his own thumb, to build a great ark.
Noah was to put all of the species of the land into his ark. And by “his” ark I mean the one that was built by the sons I bore him. The one we are hurtling back and forth on now in a darkness as black as midnight, while fists of rain beat down the space between us. When lightning strikes I see the screaming, gasping faces of the sinners below. Noah has forbidden me to throw a rope to them. I hear their cries as they are strangled by the terrible sea that is falling from the sky.
Even as I’m tempted to disobey Noah, I can’t deny that he’s a good man. If he weren’t, it wouldn’t have been possible for him to live six hundred years without once stealing a few grains from someone else’s stores or coveting another man’s wife. Most people we know—the ones who are now drowning in huge God-hands of water all around us—can’t go more than a few days without stealing, whoring or murdering.
A blind man could see that I’m lucky to be Noah’s wife. Yet I must admit that many moons ago, when he told me about the ark, there were a couple of breaths here or there in which I had the idea that I should get on it without him and pull up the anchor. This is because there are certain things about Noah, such as how important he feels riding around town on a donkey the size of a large goat, and how he talks incessantly to himself but claims he’s talking to God, that made me think he was touched. And I don’t mean by God.
But now that the murderous flood he prophesied is actually upon us, I see that he really was talking to God and he’s not crazy after all. I would rather that he was. How can we let these people drown?
It’s raining like God’s emptying a bucket of water the size of the sky. There’s so much rain that even when lightning flashes I shouldn’t be able to see the rope. Yet I do. It is hard not to think of the people it might save. There is one person in particular who shouldn’t die. I think that not only will I regret it if she does, but that God will too.
Below us beasts howl. The girls are down there with them, in the bowels of the ship. One is the daughter of a man said to be a greater prophet than Noah, and one is more beautiful than all the beautiful things I’ve ever seen put together. I’m afraid they’ll be pecked by any number of beaks or trampled under the hooves I hear crashing from one side of the ark to the other. Smells rise up and just as quickly disappear—vomit, dung, blood.
The wind knocks me down. I start crawling, on my hands and knees, towards the rope. The last layer of pitch hasn’t fully dried yet. This gives me just the tiniest measure of traction. Enough that I’m able to make my way, ever so slowly, towards the rope.
“Wife!” Noah yells at me. “Get below!”
I should obey my husband. This is every wife’s first duty. Has life made me strong enough, or foolish enough—to question him? And if I do, what will he do to me? I’ve borne Noah sons. This is all he needs from me, and I’ve already given it to him.
To read the actual beginning of Sinners and the Sea, click here to go to the Amazon Preview.
Leave a comment on my facebook author page about which beginning you like better for a chance to win a signed, first edition, hardcover.
The genesis of “No One Will Know” was a story my father told me of a cow the Germans took from his great aunt three times. Twice, the cow came back. I started thinking about the legacy of the holocaust, about how even after all the survivors have died it won’t really be over. Only the “during” part ends.
I also wanted to explore loss, and how the feeling of loss is sometimes an attempt to hold onto the thing you’ve lost. Some people seem to develop a loyalty to loss.