Purim Day! Hooray for Purim! March 11-12, 2017

The Italian catacombs contain epitaphs and paintings of many women of noble virtues, much loved and respected, including Jewish women known in Greek as "Ast(h)er", but no direct reference to the Esther (Hadassah) of the Hebrew Bible (JIWE 1, nn. 47 & 136(?); JIWE 2, nn. 91, 140, & 278; one possible reference to the Megillat Esther in a Jewish epitaph in Sicily, JIWE 1.143). The Persian queen is not the only formidable female of Scripture absent from these sites: try to find a Judith, Deborah, or Rahab.  That said, Eve and Susanna are present within largely Christian contexts in these cemeteries, as well as Mary, mother of Jesus, and most probably the Samaritan woman at the well.  And Esther's triumph was known and promulgated at this time: a third-century CE synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria vividly depicts episodes of Mordechai and Esther's struggle against the devious Haman, from which the Jewish feast of Purim gets its name, a reference to the פור‎, or "lots" that Haman drew to determine the date upon which all Jews in the kingdom would be killed.  

Not only for this is Esther a special figure to the International Catacomb Society.  The "Hebrew name" of the society's founder and longtime executive director, Estelle Shohet Brettman, was Esther: like many 20th century Jews, children or grandchildren of immigrants to America, she went by a name that opened the way (so it was thought) to the mainstream of society.  Brettman was always conscious of her Jewishness, but steadfast as well in the belief that Judaism played a defining role not only in the formation of a uniquely American culture but also in so many other periods of history, from Antiquity to modern times.  She looked to ancient Judaism, especially post-Temple Judaism, as a time of struggle, but also of success for Jews in new surroundings, not unlike that which her family had experienced in Boston, founded as a "new Jerusalem" but hardly one for practicing Jews.

It's close to sundown and the beginning of the celebration.  L’Chaim!  A freilichen purim, as Estelle's ancestors would say.  Our best to you all on the Feast of Purim 2017 (Adar 14, 5777).

Estelle Shohet Brettman photographing in the catacombs of Rome.

Estelle Shohet Brettman at the opening of her photographic exhibition on the catacombs of Rome.

The Shohet family (circa 1913) on the North Slope of Beacon Hill of Boston.