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Esther: The Star of the Jews

By Amy Tan

Haman:

In all my years of serving the king, I had never seen the Shushan palace in such glory

until tonight. It had already been one hundred and eighty days since the king first announced the

grand feast that he was holding for all the princes, nobles, and servants in his provinces. Such an

event was unprecedented, for each night of feasting costs a fortune. But in the years that I had

known him, King Ahasuerus was never one to show humbleness, or good judgment, for that

matter. Since King Darius passed away, a month had not gone by without news of a revolt

somewhere in the kingdom. I could tell that this onslaught of ill fortune had slowly been

chipping away at the kings all-powerful facade.

One day, after hearing rumors that some princes had questioned whether the king still had

control over his kingdom, the king had enough and called for a festival to be held in his very own

palace that would display the riches of his glorious kingdom and, of course, the honor of his

excellent majesty. Considering the current ill state of affairs, to say that everyone in the palace

was surprised would be an understatement. He was the potent mix of imprudence and volatility.

But even with his unwise judgment, I had imagined that after the feast, when the balance

was calculated, the feast would have made such a huge dent in the palace treasury that the king

would surely shrink away from holding such extravagant festivities ever again. Yet tonight

marked the beginning of yet another week-long feast to reward all his palaces servants. Secretly,

I wondered how long such a proud king will last on the throne. But as one of his guests, I could

not complain about the feasts extravagance, for it was truly awe-inspiring.
As I walked around the kings garden, I could not help but admire my surroundings. The

soaring marble pillars surrounding the courtyard sparkled under the soft moonlight. Between

them hung white, green, and blue tapestries that depicted marvelous scenes of heroism from

Persian myths. Fluffy beds embroidered exquisitely with gold and silver thread lined the cool,

glittering pavement next to the garden. Hundreds of species of flowers, trees, and bushes

imported from the farthest corners of the kingdom bursted with fantastical colors. The slow

summer breeze wafted the plants exotic, pungent scents into the guests noses as they strolled

around the courtyard in soft conversation. I wished my wife Zeresh could see this. She would

have been delighted by how bounteous it looked compared to the bare Macedonian landscape we

were used to in our childhoods.

Suddenly, a womans shrill cry cut through the courtyard.

Let me go! I tell you, let me go at once! I searched the area for the source of the voice,

following the eyes of the crowd. In the northern corner of the garden, two guards flanked either

side of Queen Vashti, dragging her by her arms toward where the king sat on his golden throne.

Her hair and dress were a mess, as if she had just been in a terrible scuffle with the guards.

The young, handsome vizier, the kings most trusted court official, spoke once Vashti has

been placed in front of the throne. The king reclined next to him, his face tomato-red with wine.

The king has commanded you to show your beauty generously to all the princes

gathered here. Commence your performance at once, he declared in a bellowing voice.

I will not stand for this degradation, Vashti replied, her fiery eyes glaring at the king.

For a split second, I thought I saw the kings face morph with anger, scrunching up his

features, but it quickly resumed its drunken passiveness again. He bent his head to whisper to the

vizier, and the vizier consulted the men around him. After a long discussion, the vizier whispered
something back. The king hesitated, doubt flickering across his face as he looked at Vashti in a

drunken stupor, with no sign of recognition. He then nodded slowly.

The king has declared that Vashti will be banished from the palace and the kingdom

forever, for her disobedience to the kings orders, which are the law. Let it be known that from

now on, all the wives residing in the kingdom must obey their husbands, the vizier said.

An audible gasp resounded in the crowd. The guards immediately closed in and grasped

the queens arms firmly as she began to flail. They seemed to take no notice of her struggle and

started tugging her in the direction of the palace gates.

Cursed be your name! I pray for the next woman who has to endure your shameful

requests! Vashti shouted in anguish as she was roughly dragged away.

As the crowd slowly turned to whisper to themselves with raised eyebrows and nervous

glances, I chuckled to myself silently. Such was like the king to make rash decisions in his

drunkenness that could very well jeopardize his reputation even more. It was foolish to make a

huge scene over a trivial request and make his domestic quarrels so public. What amused me the

most was I know for a fact that he did not make the decision himself. He has often talked to me

about his fondness of womanly pleasures so I knew he must not have wanted to let Vashti go,

who has been with him long before he was anointed king. Its more likely that Vashti had grown

to become a nuisance in the palace, refusing to follow many orders that came before this one. I

wouldnt be surprised if the kings advisors wanted to set an example for their own wives

publicly, a suspicion that seems to be confirmed by the sly smile that the vizier and his men now

wore on their faces.


The next morning, the king summoned me to his private chambers. His back was to me as

I entered, creating a hunched silhouette against the beautiful scenery of the garden.

Oh, Haman! What have I done? the king exclaimed as he turned around to face me. His

unlined, boyish face was streaked with tears.

Why, did you not want her gone? I asked timidly, feigning surprise.

No! You know how much I loved Vashtis presence. How could I have banished her for

such a silly request? he said, his eyes dull with sorrow. I cant believe shes gone forever, for

you know that a royal decree cannot be annulled.

I nodded, lowering my eyes in mock sympathy.

Then, his eyes suddenly blazed with anger. If not for the vizier, she would still be here.

That fool His gaze trailed off into the distance.

Haman, with each conquest, you have proven yourself to be the wisest and most

trustworthy of all my men. I feel like I can confide my deepest secrets to you. If I asked you to

become the new vizier, would you?

Why, of course! Anything to please the king, I replied with a start.

Good, good. Now your first task is to call for the most beautiful virgins in my kingdom,

place them in the harem, and train them for twelve months before they shall meet with me

individually. I need to have a queen by my side who is fair and gracious like Vashti, although I

know that nobody can ever compare to her, the king said.

My heart raced with excitement at this promotion. I was already envisioning how much

more power and wealth I would acquire in the new position. My wife Zeresh would be so excited

to hear the good news the next time I go home, which might not be until next year. I could barely

comprehend his words, but I willed myself to focus.


Yes, my king. I will send out your request to all the governors of the provinces at once,

I said as I exited the chambers. I smiled to myself. Maybe the banishment of Vashti was for the

better after all.


Esther:

My name is Hadasseh, the Hebrew word for the myrtle tree. Even though it was a plant

native to Babylonia, my Hebrew ancestors brought the tree back to the Promised Land. It

eventually came to represent the nation of Israel. I used to feel so proud of my name as a child

because I loved my people and my culture. It wasnt until I was old enough to go to school that I

realized the people of my city did not like my name. It allowed them to instantly label me as one

of those Jews, a word tainted with contempt, out of their fear of the unknown. I could never

understand why we were seen as the other, the foreign people, when we live in the same city,

walk on the same streets, and speak the same language. But it had always been this way my

entire life, and after many rebukes from Mordecai, I eventually learned that it was better to keep

my questions to myself.

When Mordecai brought up the idea of sending me to the Persian courts harem, because

it offered financial and social security, I wasnt sure if I could do it, even for Mordecais sake. I

was filled with sorrow that I would have to leave Mordecai, who had raised me since I was a

baby to become a sensible and responsible girl. He was always kind yet firm, wise yet stubborn

when it came to protecting me. He was the one I looked up to, the one who I can talk to about

anything and in return, receive prudent advice. At home, even though we couldnt afford many

luxuries, I felt like a queen because Mordecai loved me like his own and tried his best to give me

what I wanted. I always asked for books because they transported me into other peoples shoes,

and in those fleeting moments, I was not just a Jewish girl. Who would care for me out there in

the great harem?

Besides leaving him, he told me that I would have to change my name to a Persian one

because the harem did not accept Jews. He warned me that no matter what happened, I must
keep my identity secret. He then suggested the name Esther, which meant star in Persian

because according to Mordecais dream the night before, I would play a great role in leading the

Jewish people, like a dazzling star in an ominous, black sky. Of course, I brushed it off as one of

Mordecais ways to make me feel special, especially when he wouldnt be there to remind me

everyday anymore. He consoled me with the fact that he would soon transfer to serve as a guard

at the palace gates, so he would be able to communicate with me whenever I found free time to

sneak out. I finally agreed to go, and within only one days time, all my things were packed and

ready to go. I waved goodbye to Mordecai and rode off in the carriage by myself, already

starting to miss home.

A year inched by at the harem, without a single chance for me to sneak out to the palace

gates to speak to Mordecai. Everyday, I prayed that he was still well and did not forget me. I

imagined all the things he would have said to me during the training: Be strong, even when the

trials are great, for you are my star. I missed him terribly, so I generally tried not to think about

him too much. I transferred all of my mental energy into the training instead. I was determined to

make him proud by doing well in my training and securing a stable place in the harem.

After twelve months of rigorous training in the feminine arts of walking daintily,

speaking politely, and performing music and dance gracefully, the king himself began to meet

with each virgin of the harem individually in his chambers. We were told that the king had been

observing our performances throughout the training in his search for a new queen. For the

interviews, we were allowed to accessorize ourselves with anything we wanted to present

ourselves more favorably to the king, but since I thought my physical appearance stood no

chance against all the beautiful, gracious girls I trained with, I left all discretion to my trainer,
Hege the chamberlains wife, Sarah. I was never one of her favorites since I sometimes couldnt

help correcting her during our history of the arts lessons. She instructed me to put on my usual

everyday makeup and hair, giving me only one accessory: a set of tiny yellow diamond earrings

in the shape of rhombuses. I thanked her politely, even though I knew that she gave her favorite

girls extravagant sets of jewelry, scarves, and gloves. To make the earrings look slightly more

unique, I turned them sideways so that they looked like glittering, diamond-shaped stars.

My interviews with the king went by in a blur. The first thing I saw was the stony, blank

face of the king, his lips set in a tight line. He looked young, perhaps in his thirties, but I could

already see fine gray hairs in his beard. He asked me to introduce myself and asked me questions

about the kingdom, for a queen must know at least some information about her people. I could

not remember anything I said to him because my fear of being found out as a Jew overwhelmed

me. Besides the sound of blood pounding in my head, the world seemed mute, but somehow I

managed to figure out what he was saying by the motions of his mouth. I felt my own lips

forming words, phrases, sentences that not only answered the questions accurately, but also

stroked the kings ego with constant praise, as I was instructed to do. I found myself blabbering,

including too much information about the kingdoms history, as well as the kingdoms allies and

enemies. The entire time this was happening, I prayed to the Lord that the meeting would end

soon before I accidentally revealed who I really was.

When I walked out of his chambers, I was sure that my praise didnt sound very genuine

because of the fear that had seized my mind. Despite my apparent failure, I was relieved that it

was over. I knew when the training started that I was not fit to be a queen; I disliked being put

into constraining dresses and speaking with my eyes lowered. I would much rather read in my

room all day than greet foreign guests in the waiting rooms. I felt a bit disappointed at myself
since I had wasted a year training for this, but most of all, I felt ashamed of letting Mordecai

down. Even though he didnt particularly like the king, he would have wanted me to have the

most comfortable life, which the king would have ensured with his wealth and power.

Thats why I could not believe my ears when Sarah walked into our classroom for

morning lessons and announced a month after the interviews began that a new queen had finally

been chosen: Esther. The girls around me turned to gape at me, with expressions ranging from

astonishment to jealousy. As far as I knew, I was the only girl in the harem with that name, but

did she really mean to say my name? It must have been a mistake. I slowly got up from my desk

and approached Sarah. Her gaze was icy, but at least now she looked at me directly in the eye

with new interest. Upon my asking her why I was chosen, all she offered was that the king

praised the beauty and intellect of the girl with the star earrings.

Beauty? Mordecai always said I was lovely, but I never saw myself as beautiful.

Beautiful was Queen Vashti, whose looks every little girl in the city adored, myself included.

Besides, I didnt wear any makeup or jewelry that could have attracted the kings attention, so

how could this be possible? Intellect? I may have read a lot of books, but my mind felt frozen

during the interviews. I didnt even have any recollection of what specific questions he asked, let

alone what I replied to those questions. I started saying that there must have been some error, but

she cut me off.

Do not question the kings decisions. You will report to the palace immediately with all

your belongings...Queen Esther, Sarah said with a scowl, as if she had suddenly tasted

something extremely revolting in her mouth.

I nodded and walked past the rest of the girls in the classroom, who were still staring at

me in disbelief. Their faces now lacked all familiarity and warmth. Instead, they were full of
contempt and disappointment, varnished with a facade of respect. I averted my eyes and

collected my things, never to return again.


Haman:

The king almost lost his life...again. His insistence to go into battle with his army every

time there was a rebellion to be squashed or a new land to be conquered was bad enough. During

the last battle the king fought in (in actuality, more like sitting in a tent in the middle of the

battleground and giving out battle orders that no military commander took seriously), he was

struck in the right arm by an arrow that ripped through the fabric of the tent. Luckily, it wasnt

lodged very deeply, so the wound was not serious. His combination of bad judgment and

arrogance made him an easy target, to the delight of his adversaries.

This time, two chamberlains who worked in the kings gates devised an intricate scheme

to murder him in his sleep while his night bodyguards were distracted by another staged

emergency in the palace. In my opinion, it definitely would have worked if not for some loyal

staff person who happened to overhear their sinister plan. I pitied the kings ignorance of his own

precarious situation in the kingdom. He relied too much on others often contrasting, sometimes

ill-willed opinions and advice. At the same time, I was grateful for his weakness because it was

precisely this flaw that led to the banishment of Vashti and my promotion to vizier.

As vizier, I received more vacation days. When I went back to my small hometown

thousands of kilometers south of the city, my family and friends surprised me with a

Macedonian-style banquet in my house. They wanted to hear all about my experiences with the

king since they have never seen him in person. I eagerly informed them of my recent promotion,

and I was delighted by their amazement and wonder. My wife Zeresh proudly beamed at me

across the banqueting table as I related my stories.

I told them that my past year as vizier had been just like what I imagined it to be:

increased power, wealth, and status. I had the ability to bid other lower servants to do the tasks
that I found too mundane or tedious. Not only could I now afford to indulge my family and

friends with luxurious gifts, like silk and exotic teas, but people also now acknowledged my

presence wherever I go. Everyone who crossed my path immediately got down on their knees

and bowed down to me, showering me with praise. Everyone...except one man named Mordecai.

When I got to this point in the story, I hesitated. If I told them about this exception,

would they question whether I deserved my newfound respect from the people? Would this

undermine my importance as the kings right-hand man? But my family and friends curious

faces told me that I could not stop there after I already mentioned his name, so I went on.

Mordecai was a Jewish guard at the palace gates who refused to pay me respect whenever

I passed by him. While everyone else around him dropped to the ground upon seeing me, he

stood arrogantly with his head high and feet firmly planted on the ground. He always greeted me

good morning, as if in mockery, staring defiantly into my eyes. My anger flared every time I saw

him because he was not giving me the due respect that was only natural for a vizier. I wished that

I could simply forget such a disgraceful Jew, but I had to endure his disrespect whenever I went

out of the gates, which was everyday.

I assured them, however, that I had already found a solution to get rid of this abominable

Jew and all of his kind. I had convinced the king to issue a decree that would execute all of the

Jews in Persia because I said that the Jews were planning to dismantle his kingdom by causing

anarchy through their evil practices. Therefore, there needed to be a cleansing of the evil, in

order for the kingdom to prosper again. Given the kings utmost trust in me, the plan worked

flawlessly. In fact, it should be carried out and finished within the next two days. But even with

the promise of his death, I didnt feel satisfied. I wanted to publicly see him humiliated, as he

publicly humiliated me with his disobedience.


My wife Zeresh then came up with a brilliant suggestion. She thought that the only fitting

place for such a disrespectful Jew was the gallows. In fact, she said, he deserved not just any

gallows, but gallows customized for him, fifty cubits high. Everyone else at the table applauded

the idea. I simply had to ask the king, who was like a toy puppet, to build the gallows and

convince him that Mordecai was plotting to dethrone him. If he believed me so easily once

before, he should instantly grant my request.

Before my plan even had the chance to take off, it crashed to the ground. Right when I

was about to approach the king to propose the customized gallows, he asked me what the most

honorable man, second to himself of course, in his kingdom deserved. I immediately replied with

all the glorious things that I have always wanted for myself, but never had the guts to ask for. I

always thought that asking for such favors would reflect poorly on my wise reputation because

they were wholly unnecessary and prideful. Still, I dreamed of having my very own procession

through the streets. I wanted to wear the kings royal apparel and crown while riding on his horse

as the people revered me from below. These honors I suggested to him, and he approved.

To my horror, he then revealed that the honorable man was Mordecai. Even worse, I was

tasked with giving Mordecai the honors I just described. In that moment of disbelief and rage, I

wanted to kill the king myself. How ignorant was he to honor a Jew above me, his right-hand

man? But my time to shine would come. I repressed my anger and carried out his orders the next

day. Mordecais smug expression burned holes into my head, but I refused to look at him as I

helped him into the royal apparel and onto the horse. I pretended to not recognize him, but my

boiling-red face gave it away. Inside, I seethed at the injustice. Soon, I will get my revenge.
Esther:

I didnt recognize Mordecai when I saw him again for the first time since coming to the

Persian court. He was dressed in only a dirty sackcloth, sitting right outside the kings gate. He

was loudly lamenting something the king did, which I paid no attention to until he grabbed my

arm as I was passing through the gate with my servants. I instantly shrank away from him, but

not before I glimpsed his tear-stricken face and recognized my father. I cried out in anguished

surprise at his sorry state, and we embraced. The other guards rushed to pull him away, but I bid

them to go away, which they reluctantly did. He then hurriedly recounted how he had come to

his current predicament, informing me that the king decreed to persecute all Jews. My heart

stopped. If this was true, both Mordecais and my life were in danger. I told him that we must

leave right away before they find us.

No, Esther. For the sake of the Jews, who have been driven away for innumerable times

and cannot be separated again, you must convince your king to stop the persecution, he told me

urgently.

As I was just married to him, I dont even know him that well yet...he would never listen

to me, his pretty, naive queen, I said sadly.

With the Lord on our side, you can do anything, he said with a conviction that I knew

cannot be shaken from my years of living with him.

I assured him that I will try. I asked him to gather all my fellow Jews in Shushan, and

together in spirit, we will fast for three days and pray to the Lord for his help. In the secrecy of

my bedchambers, I will cast away my crown and lavish royal garb and put ashes on my head. I

will pray continuously to God, asking for mercy for his chosen people. Only then will I approach
the king in his inner court, a transgression that will surely lead to death if the Lord does not

intervene on my behalf.

I stood before the ornate golden doors, emblazoned with the royal coat of arms. You still

have time to run before anyone finds out youre a Jew, I thought to myself. I felt lightheaded

again, but this time, the magnitude of pain in my pounding head was one hundred times of that

before. My hands felt clammy, and my nose dripped sweat. But then I remembered that I was not

just doing this for myself, but all of the Jews in the Persian kingdom. I must be strong and face

death if this comes down to it. I pushed open the doors with all my might.

The doors slammed against the wooden walls inside. All the princes and their servants

seated around the room hushed and stared at me. At the front of the room, directly ahead of me,

the king sat on his enormous, golden throne, dressed in his full velvet regal ensemble. His

expression contorted into a vicious snarl, like that of a ferocious dragon about to breathe fire. His

eyes, once cold, sparked with rage, and his hand tightened around his towering scepter. He

slowly stood up and pointed its sharp tip at me. He was going to kill me. My vision faded into

darkness.

When I returned to the world, I was surprised to find the king holding me in his soft, velvet

robes.

Are you alright? You seemed to have fainted there, he said in a calming tone, his eyes

crinkling kindly, something that I have never seen in him before.

Y-yes, I stuttered.

What brings you to the court? The scepter is yours, he said.


I looked down and realized that I was holding his golden scepter. It was cold to the touch

and heavy on my lap.

Thank you...if it pleases you, I invite you and Haman to come to the banquet I have

prepared in my chambers tomorrow, I said timidly.

The king laughed heartily and agreed to come. Haman raised his eyebrows in surprise,

but he nodded. The princes snickered at my seemingly trivial request.

Escort her back to her chambers to rest, the king ordered, as he walked back to the

throne. Now that the disturbance is over, let us reconvene.

I was astounded. Was I dreaming? Did the king really spare me from death and agree to

my request? Was he only pretending to be caring, or was this another side of him that Ive never

seen before? In that moment, it almost seemed like he had affection toward me. It was something

I would have to mull over with time. Perhaps there was more to the king than his usual cold and

distant countenance.

The dinner was a disaster. I accomplished nothing that I had set out to do because the

king was too drunk to hold even a short conversation with. At the end of the night, I invited him

and Haman to dinner again the next day. In his drunken merriment, he agreed, and Haman,

suspecting nothing, agreed as well. I wanted Haman to be there because his reaction later would

serve as concrete evidence that what I said was true. I did not want him to have enough time to

make up more lies that would cover up his evil intentions.

The next night, I made sure to ration how much wine I poured into the kings cup. Once

he was thoroughly satiated but not to the point of drunkenness, he embraced me.
What is your petition, Queen Esther? Even if its half the kingdom, Ill grant it to you,

he said with a grin.

This was the moment of truth; it was now or never. I told him everything. I revealed my

Jewish identity and our current distress at our imminent persecution. He asked me who was the

perpetrator, and I pointed to Haman. By now, Haman was standing near the door of my

bedchamber. When he saw my finger pointing at him, he flung open the door and ran out. But I

already saw that coming and had a guard stationed outside, who brought him in again.

Haman, is this true? All this time, I trusted in you to do the righteous thing, but you have

been deceiving me? What a fool I was! the king exclaimed angrily.

Haman said nothing, his face blank. He simply stood there looking at the king.

The king stormed out and slammed the door shut. Haman instantly ran to where I sat in

my armchair and buried his head in the skirts of my dress.

Gracious Queen Esther, please forgive me. I did not know you were a Jew, or I would

not have had the king issue such a decree. To think that you could have been killed...I am so

sorry. I meant no harm, he cried.

Meant no harm? Even if I wasnt a Jew, it is morally wrong to kill anyone, much less an

entire group of people who are different from you, for no good cause, I said.

Suddenly, the door was flung open, and the king came in. He saw Haman at my feet, and

his face was overcome with shock and...a hint of jealousy? He ordered the guard to take him

away at once.

How dare he manipulate my power to commit such an atrocious crime against your

people, and to think he had the nerve to assault you as well! Perhaps he was trying to overthrow
me and give my throne to the Macedonians. This is unforgiveable. He will meet his fate at the

gallows, the king said to me, his eyes narrowing with anger.

This whole sequence of events happened too quickly for me. My head began to pound

again, and the world gradually slipped from my grasp

When I regained consciousness, I was nestled in the fluffy, cozy blankets of my

bedchamber. My maid informed me that the king has already sent out another decree that

allowed the Jews to defend themselves with arms if necessary, to ensure that they would not

perish at the hands of their persecutors. I sighed with relief at this news. My people were finally

safe.

Now my primary task at hand was to send a messenger to find Mordecai and bring him to

the palace, where he can live with me in peace and comfort. He will no longer have to hide as a

Jew, as I will proudly proclaim him as my father before the kingdom. Judging from the kings

new decree, I am assured that he will not only allow Mordecai to stay here, but he will also give

him a prominent position in the palace since he did save the kings life. All will be well as soon

as Mordecai gets here.

With that behind me, a new idea dawned on me. To commemorate this miracle, I wanted

to act at once to establish a holiday for the Jewish people, perhaps called Purim. With this new

tradition, the people will never forget the two days in which they were about to perish but was

instead miraculously saved by the hands of God. For though my actions may have seemed heroic

to anyone who witnessed these events, all the glory goes to the Lord our savior, who empowered

me to become a guiding star for our people.


Works Cited

Esther. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2017, from http://www.encyclopedia.com/philosophy-and-

religion/bible/old-testament/esther

The Holy Bible: containing the Old and New Testaments with Apocrypha, Authorized King

James version.

(1977). London: Oxford University Press.

Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2017, from

http://mini-site.louvre.fr/venise/en/exhibition/prologue.html#picture1_3