Celebrating Jewish Literature: Making Esther come alive

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman


Pages from the “The Koren Tanakh Graphic Novel: Esther (The Magerman Edition).” (Photos used with the permission of Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.)

Biblical commentaries offer us new ways to look at the Torah text. However, there are limitations to using words – even wise words – for those unable to visualize the text as a dramatic story unfolding before their eyes. However, it is not only those who prefer graphics who will benefit from “The Koren Tanakh Graphic Novel: Esther (The Magerman Edition)” with illustrations by Jordan B. Gorfinkel and Yael Nathan (Koren). The work offers something to all readers.

“Esther” has some unusual features that distinguish it from traditional graphic novels. The work contains the complete Hebrew text in large, easy-to-read print, usually opposite the pages with graphics. The drawings illustrate the story, adding details that make it come alive. What is particularly interesting is the English descriptions and dialogue used with the graphics are a direct translation of the Hebrew. Nothing is added; it is the drawings that add depth.

For example, after Achashverosh decides he needs a new wife, the text explains what happens to his potential brides when they are shown to the king: “She would enter in the evening... and... in the morning she would return to the royal harem... passing into the charge of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, keeper of the concubines.” These words are divided over four panels, which gives readers time to pause and think about what really happened to the women. Esther’s Jewishness is shown in gestures, as are examples of her kindness. Other scenes – such as when Esther is first brought before Achashverosh – allow the illustrators to show the king’s expression and those of his courtiers: they gasp open mouthed at Esther’s beauty and grace. It also allows them to fill in some gaps in the text, for example, showing how Mordechai kept in touch with Esther by silently passing messages to a palace servant.

The illustrations also offer commentary on the text. Haman is portrayed as having a Hitler mustache. Other references compare his deeds to the Nazis, one example being when he is convincing Achashverosh that the Jews are a danger to the kingdom. The caricatures of the Jews that appear in his descriptions could have been taken directly from Nazi propaganda. When noting that Haman is an Agagdite, the illustrators offer a glimpse of the biblical battle between his ancestors and the Israelites; Moses is shown holding his staff in the air, being aided by Aaron and Hur who hold his arms skyward.

There are some anachronisms, although they do not detract from the story. The six-pointed star of David is used to represent Jews, something that was not true in that time period. There’s also a beautiful drawing of Esther that makes her look like a superhero: her headdress flies behind her like a cape and her Jewish star necklace is enlarged to serve as a symbol on her chest. At the end of the work, when talking about how Purim continues to be celebrated, the last few pages move into contemporary times to portray a celebration, including a woman dressed as Esther for the holiday. 

There are some interesting components in the English translation of “Esther” that show the book is meant for adults. Rather than referring to the men in the harem as ministers as do many translations, they are called eunuchs, which is probably more accurate. The text uses the word virgins, rather than maidens, for those who might be the king’s new wife; that translation also makes sense since that would have been a requirement for a potential new bride for the king. 

The drawings in “Esther” are colorful and beautiful, and do an excellent job portraying the emotions of the characters. The Hebrew text is easy to follow for those looking to use the book during synagogue readings. To make Haman’s name stand out, it appears in red print in both Hebrew and English. “Esther” is not only entertaining, but offers a new way to explore the biblical text. Lovers of graphic novels will also appreciate this beautiful and meaningful work.