Life & Culture

Esther without borders: Artists around the world reimagine the Purim story

For the past 34 years, Jerusalemite David Moss has been asking fellow artists from across the globe to interpret the story of Purim.


'Sending The Story to All Lands' © Philip Carey, California (Photo: Shira Cohen Beck)

“I gave the artists a copy of the Megilla translated into Indonesian, some parchment paper and asked them to imagine the Purim story was happening in their villages.”

In 1990, the artist and Jerusalemite David Moss was in Bali. While marvelling at the island’s stepped-pyramid temples and other facets of its ancient Hindu culture, he happened across the work of some local artists, a collection of “beautiful minatures that immediately reminded me of the story of Esther.

“I drew six small, blank rectangles on the parchment paper and asked them to envisage six scenes from the story: Achashverosh’s party, the beauty contest in which Esther takes part; the moment she touched the king’s gold spectre; Haman leading Mordechai through the city streets, astride the king’s horse; the hanging of Haman’s ten sons, and the writing of Megilla.”

Most important, Moss, a book illustrator and calligrapher who also designs ketubot, wanted them to imagine that story had taken place in Bali and to tell it in local vernacular.

“I didn’t want them to think of the land of Persia at all,” he says.

When he saw the artists’ “stunningly original images” it got him thinking.

How might this ancient Jewish story be interpreted by other people across the globe? And could he interest other folk artists to depict it, to reframe the story of Esther and Haman and Mordechai through the prism of their indigenous cultures?

The answer was: yes. Esther Without Borders, as Moss has called his now third-of-a-century-old project, includes the work of artists from Ukraine, Russia, Bali, India, Italy, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama,  among other countries, and the US states of California and New Mexico.

“Like the Megilla’s Achashverosh, whose kingdom spread from Hodu to Kush [India to Ethiopia],” he points out. “The original Purim has a profoundly universal flavour.”

Using fabric, tiles, envelopes and parchment to tell the story of Purim, their techniques and materials are as diverse as the artists’ countries of origin.

Ancient Peru was the inspiration for artist Zuly Jimenez’s figurines fashioned out of potato flour and dressed in Inca costumes. Her Haman sits astride a llama because until the Spanish conquest of the Incas in 1524, there were no horses in Peru.

An artist from Piedmont depicted the king’s eunuch with a pair of scissors on his turban, and Emma Burchill, from Australia, made her artwork in an Aboriginal style.

Although his project has involved a lot of travelling, some of the artists came to Moss’s studio in the Old City in Jerusalem, close to the site of the annual Chutsot Hayotser international arts and crafts fair.

This is how he met Boris Gozzo, a Ukrainian artist whose illustrations feature inebriated peasants, and Rajendra Kumar Moktan from Nepal, who incorporated the mandelas – prayer wheels used in Buddhist and Hindu sacred rites – in his artworks.

“In Morro Bay, California, I met Philip Carey who drew miniature scenes on envelopes which he then posted to me.  His figures are all from the the animal kingdom.

His king is a monarch butterfly, Esther is a cat, Mordechai a bald eagle astride a sea horse, and Haman is a coyote. Every single one is a miniature masterpiece.”

In the course of his artistic mission, Moss stumbled across the traces of an extinct civilisation in southern New Mexico called the Mimbres, whose black and white pottery was decorated in stylised designs.

“I imagined I was an ancient Mimbres artist and designed the six Esther scenes as round bowl-like images.”

People have suggested that he converts his art project into a book or an exhibition.

He’s not averse to the idea, and is certainly keen to help his fellow artists get as wide an audience as possible.

But first, he quips, he needs to incorporate the work of artists from 127 nations, to ape the 127 provinces from Hodu (India) to Kush (Africa) over which Achashverosh ruled.

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