On the Bookshelf
From Hodu to Kush: anticipating Purim with books on Persian food, lust-filled kings, and biblical heroines
What better way to celebrate Purim—the holiday, which begins on the evening of March 19, that commemorates a narrowly avoided genocide of Jews by Persians a few centuries before the common era—than by cooking up a feast of Persian food? Actually, this seems like a ridiculously counter-intuitive idea: Does anybody eat Wienerschnitzel on Yom Hashoah or horiatiki on Hanukkah? But counter-intuitivity is very much the guiding spirit of Purim celebration. So Reyna Simnegar’s Persian Food From the Non-Persian Bride: And Other Kosher Sephardic Recipes You Will Love offers up various tidbits of Purim lore, like the suggestion that the name of Haman’s wife, Zeresh, might be “derived from the Persian name for … zereshk,” which are “tiny dried berries” that “give a tart flavor to many Persian dishes.” A Venezuelan UCLA alumna who learned Persian cuisine from her Iranian Jewish mother-in-law, Simnegar offers only kosher recipes, despite her Catholic childhood: Having discovered her family’s converso roots as a child, she converted to Orthodoxy as an adult and now takes pride in cooking “marrano dishes.” “There is nothing better,” she has remarked, “than seeing my children with tzitzit and kippot, indulging in marzipan!”
The Jews’ salvation in the Purim story comes to pass because Ahasuerus, the Persian monarch calling the shots, has a weakness for the ladies—which allows Esther to influence royal goings-on. In that sense, if no other, Ahasuerus resembles the biblical Solomon, whose sexual partners reputedly included princesses of various Middle Eastern nations plus the Queen of Sheba. Steven Weitzman doesn’t focus on the king’s libido in Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom (Yale, March), but rather on his “lust for knowledge,” yet he does devote a chapter to the question of how “the wisest man in the world, the pious builder of the Temple, could have sinned” by marrying Canaanite women and then building shrines to their idols.
Ahasuerus is said to have ruled “from Hodu to Kush,” that is, from India to Ethiopia. With a foothold in Africa, his massive empire might have wielded influence even over Africa’s west coast, where, a couple thousand years later—in the early 17th century, in Senegal, to be precise—Jewish traders dealt in swords and other goods. Peter Mark and José da Silva Horta recover the unfamiliar history of these Jewish communities in The Forgotten Diaspora: Jewish Communities in West Africa and the Making of the Atlantic World (Cambridge, March), noting, among other fascinating aspects of their history, the reintegration of some Afro-Portuguese Jews into Amsterdam’s Sephardic community.
For a couple of centuries, Sephardic merchants crisscrossed the Atlantic, establishing trade routes and setting up outposts in Curaçao and New Amsterdam, among many other places. By the 19th century, though, Jews making the high-seas trip from Europe to the New World, or vice versa, were more likely Germans or Eastern Europeans, whose experiences resembled those of their non-Jewish contemporaries more than the Sephardic entrepreneurial travelers of previous generations. Co-edited by Nils Roemer, a historian trained by Yosef Yerushalmi who has written on modern Jewish tourism, a new academic collection titled Crossing the Atlantic: Travel and Travel Writing in Modern Times (TAMU, March), devotes some attention to these transatlantic voyages taken by modern Ashkenazi Jews.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, when U.S. immigration wasn’t an option, some European Jews chose Latin America, while others—those who couldn’t bear to part with Poland’s climate, one assumes—headed for Canada. A century later, the Canadian Jewish community isn’t doing badly: For some reason, the national broadcasting company pays one Jew to yammer endlessly to his friends on the radio for half an hour each week. But how are they really doing up there? Jack Jedwab breaks down the numbers in Canadian Jews in the 21st Century: Identity and Demography (Academic Studies, March), attending particularly to the demographic outliers who self-identify on government surveys as either ethnically Jewish or religiously Jewish, but not both.
Small Jewish communities, like Canada’s, have always fretted about a shande far di goyim—a scandal that attracts the attention of the wider, non-Jewish community—and the 2008 playground murder in the Bukharan Jewish community in Queens that lit up the local and national press absolutely qualifies. (Except that Bukharans don’t typically speak Yiddish, so they presumably call the shameful tragedy something else, in Bukhori.) Janet Malcolm covered the trial for The New Yorker, in which the amazingly named Mazoltuv Borukhova, a doctor, stood accused of paying for the assassination of her orthodontist husband, and Malcolm expands her account in Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial (Yale, March).
If ancient scandals thrill you more than contemporary ones, you can always return to the old story of Queen Esther, sleeping her way to the top. Rabbi David Fohrman worries, though, that “if you first learned about Esther and Haman when you were six years old, you may well still see them the same way now as you did back then,” instead of seeing it as “a richer, deeper narrative … a story whose meaning touches the dawn of Jewish history, but is equally relevant and fresh in our own age and time.” In The Queen You Thought You Knew (OU, March), Fohrman explores the contradictions of the text, offering an extended, chatty series of close readings that ponder the characters’ counter-intuitive behavior.
Meanwhile, the second edition of Vanessa Ochs’ Sarah Laughed: Modern Lessons From the Wisdom and Stories of Biblical Women (JPS, March), originally published in 2004, offers another way of making Esther relevant in the present: “Considering trying out Esther’s beauty ritual” as a complement to make-up, Ochs suggests: “Think about the people whom you plan to encounter in the course of the day. Imagine them and recall what it is about them that you admire. … Then repeat Esther’s chant: ‘I look into your eyes. You think I am beautiful, but it is because you are beautiful to me. In this circle, we become precious to each other.’ ” It just might work: Esther’s wiles and beauty single-handedly saved her people from annihilation, so boosting your self-esteem doesn’t seem like too much to ask of her.
In this week’s “Tell Me,” Tablet Magazine’s illustrated question-and-answer column, we reconstruct a reader’s morning repast—and offer commentary on the proceedings