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“Clever Esther” – Not Suitable for Children?!

A showcase full of Puppets

The Purim installation at the Academy in March 2015; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Shlomit Tripp

Purim is a family celebration, a time when children dress up, make a great din with rattles and gorge themselves on traditional Haman sweetmeats. By so much merriment it seems a little astonishing to recall that this religious holiday is actually rooted in a Bible story that is anything but happy and G-rated.

The Book of Esther, which is read on Purim, tells of how the orphan girl Esther carries out a spectacular operation to rescue the Jewish people from the hands of King Ahasuerus, ruler of the Kingdom of Persia. The anonymous author recounts this story in the style of an epic poem and thereby suggests that God plays only a minor role in the proceedings. He turns the spotlight instead on the cunning with which clever Esther and her Uncle Mordechai manage to stop vizier Haman from realizing the pogrom he has planned against the Persian Jews.

Divorce, love, jealousy, intrigue, hate and murder are elaborated in five chapters, in such detail that they could easily fill five episodes of a Brazilian telenovela. It was these dramatic portrayals that inspired me last summer to create a book for children.

A rag doll sits on a throne and looks at a female rag doll standing on a pedestal

King Ahasuerus falls in love with Esther; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Shlomit Tripp

I felt it would be a huge challenge to span a credible arc from the Purim Bible story to the traditional merry children’s party. But to tell the tale of the Jewish people’s will to survive and of a celebration that occupies such an important place in the cycle of Jewish holidays simultaneously held great appeal for me.

So I set about staging the story with the aid of little dolls and oriental props, which I sewed myself and then set into the fantastical Persian landscapes I built in my living room. My colleague Nadja Rentzsch made a photographic record of all this and I then worked until dawn on her images, for what felt like 1,001 summer nights! In parallel, I had intense discussions with Myriam Halberstam, founder of the Ariella Verlag [publishing house] about those parts of the Book of Esther not really suitable for children—the bit about the fate of Queen Vashti, for example, who refuses to dance in front of her husband’s guests and in consequence is murdered—or so the official sources say. We agreed however that Vashti and King Ahasuerus would simply divorce—before the latter marries Esther.

Book cover

Clever Esther. A Jewish Tale from Ancient Persia; © Ariella – Verlag, photo: Nadja Rentzsch

The result of our discussions and stage sets—my book, Die schlaue Esther (Clever Esther)—was published in February 2015 by Ariella Verlag. In finest Jewish tradition, there are comments from the sidelines on all the texts and images. Thus speech bubbles above the heads of red-haired Schlomo and his humorless sheep Mendel make very clear that in the “Book of Esther for Adults” the punishment meted out to the anti-Semite Haman was far less mild—but also that ancient times were in any case a “brutal epoch.”

My hobby book project opened up new prospects also in my work on the Purim family program at the Jewish Museum Berlin: in the Academy entrance I’ve created an installation that entices visitors into a fantasy realm. A huge Esther roll serves as a stage for puppets in Oriental dress, set in a Persian landscape.

Two puppets in front of a blue screen, one is sittung on an Horse

Queen Vashti leaves the Palace; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Shlomit Tripp

I decided against using Hebrew script on the roll since very religious Jews regard original texts as sacred and I did not want my artistic experiment to strike anyone as a sign of disrespect. Happy Purim to all of you, tall or small!

Shlomit Tripp (formerly Tulgan), author of “Die schlaue Esther”, puppeteer and a staff member in Education

Bibliographical Reference

Die schlaue Esther. Eine jüdische Erzählung aus dem alten Persien (Clever Esther. A Jewish Tale from Ancient Persia). Reinterpreted by Shlomit Tulgan in cooperation with bubales – Jewish Puppet Theater Berlin. Photos: Nadja Rentzsch. Ariella Verlag, Berlin 2015. ISBN 978-3-945530-009. Hardcover, 32 pp., 14.95 €.

A showcase full of Puppets

The Purim installation at the Academy in March 2015; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Shlomit Tripp

Citation recommendation:

Shlomit Tripp (2015), “Clever Esther” – Not Suitable for Children?!.

Holidays: Old Rituals, New Customs (19)

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