The exhibit on Purim and the story of Esther in the B'nai B'rith museum, 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW, has closed. The Post reported incorrectly yesterday that the show would continue through October.
ESTHER IS one of the gutsy ladies of the Old Testament. Married to the Persian King Ahasuerus, who didn't know she was a Jew, she risked her life by entering the king's inner court unbidden, to ask him to save her people from destruction.
Esther's story became the spring festival of Purim. Because God is nowhere specifically mentioned in the story, artists through the ages have felt free to express themselves in fantasy and pop art. A neat little exhibit, "Esther and Mordecai in Persia," is at the B'nai B'rith museum at 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW through October.
There are Hebraic scrolls ranging from one 25 feet long from 18th-century Italy painted on deerskin to tiny 19th-century versions of the classic megillah, or scroll, from Germany, Persia and other places. Each reflects the taste of its time in architectural details, floral borders and the figures. They give the tale an international appeal that makes it one of the more approachable Biblical stories.
Esther, the ward of her cousin Mordecai, was crowned queen to replace the defiant Queen Vashti who "refused to come at the king's command" and was deposed. Learning through Mordecai that the king's prime minister Haman plotted to exterminate all the Persian Jews -- specifically because Mordecai refused to pay homage to him -- Esther decided to appeal to her husband the king. But to reach him she had to violate the law, punishable by death, that no one could approach the king without being called.
After fasting three days, she "put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king's palace, opposite the king's hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace, and when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she found favor in his sight . . ."
Haman was hanged on the same gallows he had thoughtfully built for Mordecai, and everyone else lived happily ever after. Purim is celebrated with fasting, followed by feasting (including the nuts and seeds that Esther had lived on rather than reveal her Jewishness to the court), gifts of food to friends and neighbors, and noise-making. The noisemakers are rattled whenever Haman's name is mentioned in the telling.
People everywhere have their own versions of Haman. One silver and brass rattle in the show depicts him as a wrathful Cossack in chains on a pillory. Wouldn't you know it was made in turn-of-the-century Poland. In other countries, Haman's hands and avaricious pockets have been turned into novelty cookies. The most charmingly ironic conceit is the common portrayal of Mordecai on a horse led by Haman. (The king asked Haman how best to honor a hero, and Haman, thinking the hero surely must be himself, suggested setting the honoree on a royal horse to be led by a prince. And so he was, but it was with Mordecai up and Haman walking.)
Another standard Purim image is a fish, for the Zodiac sign for the Purim month of Adar. Interestingly, the fish (in Greek, ichthus) was also used by early Christians as an acrostic for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." So, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, it goes.
In any case, the B'nai B'rith has a fine, modest show where you can see all these things celebrating the joy of freedom and the courage of the beautiful young Esther. I only wish someone would say a good word for Queen Vashti, who was thrown out for refusing to parade herself just because the king, "merry with wine," ordered her to.