‘Queen Esther And Downton Abbey’

What a relief it was to see Lady Mary and her cousin Matthew, heir to Downton Abbey, finally get together. That wonderful scene when he proposed to her in the snowy moonlight gave me goose bumps. But what will happen to poor Mr. Bates, locked up in prison for a crime he didn’t commit? And don’t you love the Dowager Countess? Has there ever been a wiser, sharper-witted grandmother anywhere?

Oh, please forgive me. I’m having terrible withdrawal symptoms since the “Downton Abbey” series ended its second season on public television two weeks ago. The only thing that keeps me going is the thought of the third season next year, with Shirley MacLaine and the possibility of a Jewish angle. Still I feel bereft on Sunday evenings and, of course, I’m not alone. Millions of fans, including most of my friends, have been equally obsessed with the “Downton” crowd.

It occurred to me the other day that with Purim here, I might find some respite from my pain by revisiting the Esther story. To be sure, I’ve read this Megillah dozens of times. But, dwelling in the fantasy land of “m’lords” and “m’ladys” all year has led me to look anew at Esther, Mordecai and the world they inhabit. Amazingly, I have found that the two sagas, portraying different eras and different sensibilities, have some things in common.

Let’s start with the details. One of the glories of the “Downton Abbey” series is the care given to every detail of life in the Edwardian home of Lord and Lady Grantham. We see half-empty jelly jars lining downstairs kitchen shelves; sparkling silver and beautiful crystal on the upstairs dining table; lavish upholstery and furnishings in the ball room; stunning silk gowns and long satin evening gloves on the women; and men in perfect hunting suits or white-tie dress clothes. Every impeccable detail reinforces the status of the landed aristocracy and the power it wields in its society.

Now look at the court of King Ahasuerus. It has hangings of “white cotton and blue wool” tied to “silver rods and alabaster columns” and couches of “gold and silver” on “a pavement of marble, alabaster, and mother of pearl.” In the king’s harem, the women receive treatments of “oil of myrrh” and “perfumes and women’s cosmetics.” Lush details fill out the image of a king in control of his realm.

In both stories, also, the ruling classes interact with the lower ones. The draw of “Downton Abbey” lies in the intertwined lives of masters and servants and in the drama of each life and all of them together. The Esther scroll opens with a huge banquet the king gives for “all the people” in his domain, “high and low alike.” Powerful as he is, this king, like all rulers, needs his subjects’ loyalty to sustain his power. The big feast he shares with them is meant to keep them happy and loyal. (In “Downton” the nobles dance with the servants on Christmas day.) 

Then, too, in both narratives, the upper crust has to cope with unnerving social change. World War I turns Downton Abbey into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, and barriers between the classes begin to break down — Lady Sybil even marries the chauffeur! In Ahasuerus’s universe, a wife, Vashti, disobeys the king’s orders, and a courageous Jewish woman turns the tables on a once trusted servant, saving a people the king had never even heard of at the beginning of the tale.

Viewed this way, the Esther story has as much, or more, color and excitement as “Downton Abbey.” But now my comparison ends and I’m back where I started. I can barely wait to see what comes next in the television series. No suspense remains in the Esther scroll. Read every year, it holds little that I don’t already know.

But does it? Pondering this scroll I have begun to wonder what the future bodes here as well. What happens after Esther saves the Jews of Shushan? Is she forever locked in the king’s harem, never to be reunited with her people? Has she actually martyred herself for those people by marrying the king? Will her children, growing up in the royal court, ever learn about their Jewish heritage? Or, will she and Mordecai somehow manage to teach them on the sly? Perhaps one of the children will escape — like Lady Sybil did from the life of Downton Abbey — and become a leader of his nation. Perhaps one of Esther’s descendants will help found the State Israel.

Far more complex than it seems at first blush, the Esther story bounces with fun and joy but also projects darkness and doubt. We will never know its true end. How much simpler it is to look forward to next season’s “Downton Abbey.”  n

Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.