Esther saved the Jewish people because, so they say, she was smart and brave. When she learned of the genocidal plot of Haman, the vizier to her husband, King Ahasueres of Persia, she revealed that she was a Jew and pleaded for her people to be spared.
Esther’s daring act of approaching the king, confessing her nationality, and requesting the Jews be saved from certain death underpins the story of Purim. But as relatable as the holiday’s heroine is meant to be, few of us would get the opportunity to act as she did. Ahasuerus had chosen Esther above all of the other girls in his harem; to put it plainly, she was able to save the Jewish people because she was the hottest woman in the room.
But the story of Purim isn’t the only reason I’ve been thinking about Jewish women, beauty and the pressure to look a certain way.
Every March brings us Women’s History Month. Among this year’s highlights is the publication of a new biography of an American Jewish woman — Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp — by another American Jewish woman, Ann Kirschner.
If the Earp name sounds familiar, that’s because Josephine’s common-law husband, Wyatt, has occupied the limelight of American Old West mythology. Remember that famous shootout in Tombstone, Ariz., in 1881? The one dramatized in films such as “My Darling Clementine,” “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “Tombstone,” and “Wyatt Earp”? Turns out that the fight had something to do with a certain Jewish girl. In her new biography, “Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp,” Kirschner restores Josephine to her rightful historical place. (In her previous book, the acclaimed “Sala’s Gift,” Kirschner explored her mother’s Holocaust story.)
Kirschner, whose career began as a lecturer in Victorian literature at Princeton University, currently serves as University Dean of Macaulay Honors College of The City University of New York. In a recent interview with The Sisterhood, Kirschner discussed what’s remarkable about Josephine — and what it was like to research her story.
While attending a major Las Vegas tech conference for work a couple of years ago, I found myself following a Hasidic couple around the convention center. Their presence at the tradeshow was not completely shocking — many religious Jews work in consumer electronics sales (just look behind the counter at B&H in New York City — but I was delighted to catch a glimpse of them. We made our way slowly through the tightly packed throng gawking at the gargantuan Intel Booth — they, making casual conversation about operating systems in Yiddish, and I eavesdropping gleefully from a few paces behind. The wife doubled back for a moment and bumped into me. “Anshuldik mir,” I squeaked. Excuse me. The look of utter surprise on her face stayed with me for weeks.
Some of my cousins happen to live in a town in Orange County, NY, adjacent to the Satmar Hasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel. Whenever I stay with my (completely non-religious) cousins, I feel compelled to pay a visit to the small shopping center in Kiryas Joel. I get a thrill from the supermarket, with its Yiddish signage and patrons shopping for Cholent ingredients (packaged meat is even labeled exclusively for this purpose). I stop to browse through the rack of Yiddish children’s books outside the clothing store (only children would read for pleasure in Yiddish in this community). I can’t overstay my welcome; tourism isn’t exactly encouraged in Kiryas Joel.