esther’s song

purim in november

On Thurs­day night, Novem­ber 19, 2009, Deb­bie and I went to see the opera Esther at the New York City Opera in Lin­coln Cen­ter.
The opera, the last one by com­pos­er Hugo Weis­gall is based on the bib­li­cal Book of Esther. It uses the basic sto­ry­line (with some mod­i­fi­ca­tions in the sequence of the telling) and builds on that in an attempt to update some of the ideas. Much of the dia­log comes from the bib­li­cal text, with addi­tions that seem to be from Psalms. Weisgall’s musi­cal idiom is hard­ly bib­li­cal and the one hat-tip to nusach seemed to me, and to the fam­i­ly of Jew­ish musi­cians sit­ting behind us, almost gra­tu­itous. While the sto­ry is ancient and the music dates from the late 20th cen­tu­ry, the mar­ket­ing was def­i­nite­ly of the moment.
That amal­gam intrigues me. The opera was mar­ket­ed almost as though it was a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty event. Per­haps as a way to bring in a new audi­ence, the 92YTribeca held a sym­po­sium that dealt with the opera. The online edi­tion of the For­ward ran adver­tise­ments encour­ag­ing read­ers to take a date to see purim come to life.

advertisement for esther in the forward

adver­tise­ment for esther in the for­ward

Signs inside the opera house indi­cat­ed that cer­tain per­for­mances were Jew­ish Sin­gles Night!

jewish singles night at the new york city opera

jew­ish sin­gles night at the new york city opera

a man you what?

I have been famil­iar with the Weis­gall name for many years, dat­ing back to my time in Young Judaea when we stud­ied the his­to­ry of Zion­ism. Lat­er, when I attend­ed Cal State U at LA I learned a new word from the sis­ter of Ralph Schoen­man (a rabid anti-zion­ist, but not the issue here), the man who was the pri­vate sec­re­tary for Bertrand Rus­sell. It was then that we learned that our moth­er was not only not a “house­wife”, nor a “home­mak­er”, but our father’s amanu­en­sis. I then came to under­stand that Mey­er Weis­gall, Hugo’s uncle, was the “trust­ed lieu­tenant” and, like­ly, the amanu­en­sis of Chaim Weiz­mann. Weis­gall was able to pub­lish 23 vol­umes of Weizmann’s “Let­ters and Papers”.
In 1999 a book turned up on the new books shelf of the library at Tem­ple Adat Shalom in Poway: A Joy­ful Noise: Claim­ing the Songs of My Fathers by Deb­o­rah Weis­gall. The name was famil­iar, but I could not quite place it. I checked out the book and read through it. Deb­o­rah is Hugo’s daugh­ter and from that book I gained a new appre­ci­a­tion for the musi­cal wing of the Weis­gall fam­i­ly.

zionist opera

Hugo’s uncle Mey­er had been involved in the pro­duc­tion of an ear­li­er “opera” that told the sto­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple: The Eter­nal Road with a libret­to by Franz Wer­fel and score by Kurt Weill. The Eter­nal Road was an attempt by Weis­gall to call atten­tion to the plight of Euro­pean Jew­ry in the late 1930s. Hugo Weisgall’s Esther seems to be a sim­i­lar attempt to call atten­tion to the sit­u­a­tion of the Jews six­ty years lat­er.
The a-tonal nature of the score of Esther makes the pos­si­bil­i­ty of leav­ing the opera hum­ming a tune almost impos­si­ble. The a-tonal­i­ty, how­ev­er does not dimin­ish the emo­tion­al impact of the score, which is intense. The acoustic pow­er is great, even at low deci­bel lev­els. It is, how­ev­er, almost all at the same emo­tion­al lev­el. I hoped, in the sec­ond act, for Esther to sing an aria in soft dis­so­nance explor­ing the excru­ci­at­ing choice she had to make, whether to cast her lot with her peo­ple and approach Xerx­es, or con­tin­ue to hide the nature of her ori­gins. My hope was in vain. Only near the end of the third act, after the fact, after the “Jews” have ably defend­ed them­selves does Weis­gall allow Esther to take the lev­el down a notch (but bare­ly a notch) to feel bad about all those who have had to die in the process.
There are odd­i­ties in the pro­duc­tion. Except for Morde­cai and Esther, all the Jews appear dressed in gray rags. They look like poor East­ern Euro­pean Jews about to be sent to con­cen­tra­tion camps. Grant­ed, they fear a sim­i­lar exter­mi­na­tion, but still, the asso­ci­a­tion is far too obvi­ous. Some of the odd­i­ties are uncalled-for. One of the adver­tis­ing images for the opera is of a young (pre­sum­ably) Israeli female sol­dier. There is no con­nec­tion what­so­ev­er between the image and the opera.

israeli soldier advertising the opera

israeli sol­dier adver­tis­ing the opera

In addi­tion, dur­ing the harem scene, before she is to be brought to Xerx­es, while, at stage right Esther sings regard­ing her con­cern about what to do with the king, an appar­ent­ly naked young woman emerges from the bath at cen­ter stage and gets tow­eled off. Sim­i­lar­ly, in an inver­sion of the Abra­ham Ibn Ezra state­ment “hamayvin yavin”, when Xerx­es does meet Esther, he is so tak­en by her that he can­not stop repeat­ing the phrase (I para­phrase) “Esther = Ishtar”.
The New York Times review was very pos­i­tive. Not till lat­er was I able to find some dis­sent­ing opin­ions.
Very few lines from the libret­to are mem­o­rable. In fact, some of the most strik­ing lines of the Book of Esther, are miss­ing entire­ly. Morde­cai does not tell Esther to hide her ori­gins when she first goes to the palace. And Esther 4:13–14 (per­haps the only the­o­log­i­cal com­ment in the entire book) which has tak­en on polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance due to its use among cer­tain Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians and (even, though I can’t find the ref­er­ence now) then-Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, is not there:

Mordechai had this mes­sage deliv­ered to Esther…
“If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliv­er­ance will come to the Jews from anoth­er quar­ter.
And who knows, per­haps you have attained to roy­al posi­tion for just this moment.”

More recent­ly, Esther’s response has been picked up by Sarah Palin.

In fact, the only line I actu­al­ly remem­ber does not come from any bib­li­cal text, but from the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty slo­gans of the peri­od at the time of the opera’s com­po­si­tion: The Unit­ed Nations revoked the Zion­ism is Racism res­o­lu­tion. When Esther real­izes that her fate is tied up with all the oth­er Jews in Per­sia and around the world, she states:

We are one!


The date of pub­li­ca­tion for this post is Novem­ber 29, 2009. A num­ber of sig­nif­i­cant dates relat­ed to this sto­ry clus­ter at this point for which there are numer­ous dif­fer­ent lapel but­tons.

  • On the Gre­go­ri­an cal­en­dar, Novem­ber 29, 1947 = 16 Kislev 5708 (Decem­ber 3, 2009) marks the date the Unit­ed Nations vot­ed to par­ti­tion British Man­date Pales­tine in two and estab­lish two states: a state for the Jews and a state for the Pales­tini­ans. The Jews accept­ed the option imme­di­ate­ly, while the Pales­tini­ans have, sad­ly, yet to accept this, and seem even to deny both that it hap­pened in our his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry and its rel­e­vance to the con­flict of the moment.
    Var­i­ous maps of Israel appear on very many but­tons.
  • Chaim Weiz­mann, for whom the elder Weis­gall may have served as an amanu­en­sis died on Novem­ber 8 19522009 = 21 Chesh­van.
    Chaim Weiz­mann appears on a vari­ety of but­tons, some (with black rib­bons attached) dat­ing explic­it­ly to his death.
  • Gol­da Meir, a woman who, even if you dis­agreed with her, could be con­sid­ered a mod­ern-day Esther, died Decem­ber 8 1978 = 8 kislev or Novem­ber 25, 2009.
    Gol­da Meir appears on very few but­tons. I am aware of only two.

This but­ton dates (as explained above) to the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Amer­i­can Jew­ry with Israel dur­ing the peri­od when the Unit­ed Nations con­sid­ered Zion­ism as a form of racism. The but­ton was also released in “cel­lu­loid” form. Oth­er relat­ed slo­gans appeared such as “We are all Zion­ists”.

We Are One עם אחד

We Are One עם אחד

Date: ca. 1978
Size: 3.5
Pin Form: straight clasp
Print Method: litho
Text We Are One
עם אחד

your lapel buttons

Many peo­ple have lapel but­tons. They may be attached to a favorite hat or jack­et you no longer wear, or poked into a cork-board on your wall. If you have any lay­ing around that you do not feel emo­tion­al­ly attached to, please let me know. I pre­serve these for the Jew­ish peo­ple. At some point they will all go to an appro­pri­ate muse­um. You can see all the but­tons shared to date.

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