New-age depiction of Esther's age-old story

March 08, 2009|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

Of all the heroines in the Bible, few have been as popular with artists or received exposure in as many different ways as Esther, a young woman who hid her Jewish identity, wed a Persian king and saved her people from destruction by a sworn enemy.

The story of Esther has been retold in Italian Renaissance paintings, French sculptures, even a 1960 movie starring Joan Collins, Esther and the King. In 2004, pop star Madonna announced that she wanted to change her name to Esther as part of her involvement in Kabbalah. Esther's story also forms the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim, which begins at sundown tomorrow.

This year, the Jewish Museum of Maryland has found yet another way to tell the story of Esther: in comic book form. Today it opens an exhibit featuring the work of JT Waldman, a Philadelphia-based artist who spent seven years rendering the Book of Esther as the graphic novel. Drawing on Tradition: The Book of Esther takes a look at the biblical tale and Waldman's efforts to use the power of comics to bring Esther to life.

The graphic novel has become a popular way to tell stories about everything from Civil War generals to sci-fi superheroes. Released in 2005 by the Jewish Publication Society, Megillat Esther, which is Hebrew for Scroll of Esther, is Waldman's first book. Featuring more than 40 original drawings from Megillat Esther, Drawing on Tradition marks the first time a museum has mounted an exhibit on Waldman's work.

His book is a serious, scholarly work meant to add layers of meaning to an age-old tale. Waldman, 32, spent 18 months in Israel conducting research and translating the text and a year in Barcelona working on the illustrations.

Karen Falk, curator of the museum and the exhibit, said she mounted the show because she was impressed by Waldman's artwork and scholarship. She hopes it will travel to other cities after it closes July 26. "He's a wonderful illustrator," she said. "He's very talented."

Waldman said he began the project in 1998 because he was a comic-book fan who had wanted since childhood to create his own comic book (he doesn't like the term "graphic novel"). He also wanted to explore his Jewish roots. "This was a way of merging the two."

He said he chose the Book of Esther because it's a story that has been sanitized over the years, and he thought a fresh presentation could make it more accessible to people today. After a friend told him a much more compelling version than the one he learned growing up, he said, "I thought, Wow, this is such a racy story. It would make a great comic book."

Waldman now works for the book's publisher as director of JPS Interactive, a division that is developing an online database of the Bible. He'd like to create more comic books and has an idea for one based on another book of the Bible. He said he believes the entire Bible could be told in graphic form. "Any part of the Bible, it's so ready to be comic book-ized," he said.

For now, Waldman's happy to spread the word about Esther. Much of the story's appeal, he said, is that it touches on many different themes that are still relevant, from theology to politics to feminism.

"I think that's why it has been such a vibrant story for people to reinterpret," he said, "and why we hold on to it today."

if you go

"Drawing on Tradition: The Book of Esther," runs through July 26 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for students and free for members. Call 410-732-6400 or go to jewishmuseummd.org.

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