Published as “Esther the Midwester” in the December 2009 issue of the (Jewish Federation of Collier County) Federation Star.
“Good for the Jews,” by Debra Spark. University of Michigan Press. $24.00.
The Megillat Esther is the classic tale of a plot against the Jews being overturned. Jewish children learn the story, often reading a watered-down version, and come to know the principle characters: King Ahashueros, Queen Vashti, hateful Haman the grand vizier, the attractive young Jewess named Esther, and Mordecai – her uncle and foster father, a man of some rank. The story is set in Shushan, capital of ancient Persia. Although the survival of the Jewish people is at stake, the text seems only pretending to seriousness. A Jewish beauty contestant wins the day?
Debra Spark’s version is set in Madison, Wisconsin: state capital and home of a major college football power. The authority figure is Alex Decker, superintendent of schools. His marriage to Valerie – a culture queen who is busy organizing a season of arts events based on the theme of hate – is crumbling. Maybe it’s mid-life crisis. Fair young Ellen Hirschorn works at a day-care center that occupies space in Valerie’s cultural arts facility. Her cousin, Mose Sheinbaum, raised her (and her sister Barbara) since the tragic death of the girls’ parents, bringing the girls to Madison a little over twelve years ago to take a second-career position as a high school teacher. Now sixty-five, forty years older than Ellen, he is a popular teacher at Sudbury High, where Alex was once the principal. Jewish antennae alert, Mose is an ardent spokesman on what’s “good for the Jews.” Inevitably, Alex and Ellen run into one another and romance blooms.
Though Mose and his now-grown charges might be thought of as new to the town, the Jewish community has long roots there, including an old synagogue that is now a historical landmark. While Mose lives and breathes his Jewish identity and heritage, Ellen, attractive and athletic, wears hers lightly – she has rarely attended synagogue since her Bat Mitzvah, shortly after arriving in Madison.
Hyman Clark, an emergency hire as the new principal at Sudbury, is about to become Alex’s second in command. Hyman is soon in conflict with Mose, criticizing his teaching methods, his failure to follow established policies (Spark explores how bureaucracies function), and his unwillingness to participate in school activities outside of the classroom. He calls the award-winning teacher unprofessional, singling him out as not meriting a pay increase. Is Hyman’s by-the-book administrative style a cloak for anti-Semitism? This and related questions keep us turning the pages.
A bit of anti-Semitic graffiti, mysterious threatening messages sent to Mose, and Hyman Clark’s palace guard trio of high school tuffs combine to create an atmosphere of threat. When a synagogue is set ablaze, a teenage girl found burned to death inside, it seems as if Shushan has come to Madison after all. When Ellen shares Mose’s suspicions about Hyman with Alex, now her lover, the echoes between this early 21st century story and the Book of Esther grow louder and louder.
Written with a simple elegance, wearing an eerie smile, and – for all its allusiveness – constructed with a life of its own, “Good for the Jews” works on many levels as a contemporary cautionary tale. It is good for the reader.