Israel Museum—Jerusalem—present day
Father, where are you taking me?"
The old man turned shakily upon his cane, paused at the top step and looked toward his daughter while still panting to catch his breath. Despite the wrinkles that had lately etched their way across his face, she could still recognize the sly smile that always signaled his toying with her.
"Why, Hadassah, this is the Shrine of the Book. You've been here a dozen times."
"Of course, Poppa. I know that."
As if to punctuate her statement, she glanced about the monument. Her gaze rose into the cobalt blue Judean sky where the Shrine's celebrated dome thrust its odd, milky white swirl. She noted again its fluid shape, meant to evoke the ancient jar lids that once sealed the beloved scrolls now housed inside. Just beyond, her gaze settled briefly on a jutting slab of ink black basalt—the famous architectural apposition of Darkness against Light. "Ideological structure," her ninth grade teacher had called it years ago, just before using the term in a test question.
Ideological structure: designing a building for a symbolic as well as a functional purpose....
"But why today?" Hadassah continued the conversation in the modern Hebrew with which she had grown up, though she also spoke fluent English. "With the wedding just a few days away? This is no time for sightseeing, Poppa."
He smiled again, indulgently this time, and waved her on up. "My child, have you ever known me to waste your time?"
It was an odd question to pose so flippantly, but she pondered it nevertheless while she scrambled up the steps after him. In fact, he had always been a quiet, mild-mannered father, and she had to admit after consideration that he had never been one to yank her about on useless errands.
She reached him, and he laid his arm upon her shoulders. "Just follow me," he said with a smile that grew wider and more inscrutable by the second.
Still locked in their amiable stalemate, they entered the lobby where tourists waited in line to see the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls. For the first time her father did not approach the counter for a ticket but merely waved at the cashier and received a solemn nod in return. They walked through the entrance passage with its smooth, rounded walls intended to emulate the cave at Qumran, site of the scrolls' discovery. And then, presumably like the young shepherd who had found them half a century earlier, they emerged into a cool, vaulted space: the main hall.
Despite both her bewilderment and her familiarity with the room, Hadassah could not help but glance around. One of the wonders of modern architecture, the luminous inner hall of the Shrine of the Book never failed to seize her imagination. Overhead, the curved underside of the dome shone with countless horizontal grooves, each one capturing a different hue in the sunlight that filtered from a window at its apex. Rising from the floor, just beneath this aperture, stood a huge scroll handle—as though someone had half-buried a giant Torah upright in the floor.
A hush overtook the pair as they entered the chamber, as both its acoustics and the solemnity of its contents discouraged noise. But her father was not here today to peruse the softly lit parchment tables. He crossed the room and immediately started down a nearly hidden stairway that led into shadow below.
"Poppa?" she asked.
She saw only the back of his hand motioning her to follow, then disappearing into the gloom. Hadassah shook her head and frowned, then followed him. A door opened into soft half-light. She followed him through it into a carpeted hallway that branched off into three additional corridors.
And there, smiling in anticipation, stood—
Aunt Rose? "What are you doing here?" Hadassah asked, incredulous. Aunt Rose lived in America. The two had not seen each other for four years. Rose was indeed flying over for the wedding, but Hadassah was sure she was not due for another few days.
Rose leaned toward her with a knowing smile and simply engulfed her in a hug. And that was when, over her aunt's ample shoulder, she saw the rest of the women. Standing in a corner, strangely quiet and still, were Grandma Grossman, Great-Aunt Pauline, Aunt Connie and two more elderly matrons she only faintly recognized, yet all were facing her with intent and shining eyes.
As soon as she disengaged from Aunt Rose, the women converged on their youngest descendant en masse, crying softly and creating a tumult of greetings and congratulations. Although she responded in pleasure and surprise, this gathering, on this day and in this place, filled her with an intense curiosity and even a sharp sense of foreboding.
What in the world is going on here? She pulled away and shot her father a questioning glance.
"My dear, I brought you here to maintain an ancient tradition," he said as though he'd read her mind. He turned to the group while jerking his thumb dismissively in her direction. "Ladies, Missy here did not even want to come today. I practically had to drag her over—I thought she'd call a nursing home to haul me away before I could get her in here."
The women all laughed knowingly, which did not help the bride-to-be's disposition. Her father faced her again, and this time his expression had changed completely; she could even see a surprising gleam of tears in his eyes.
"Your mother would have brought you here herself, were she still with us," he said huskily, then paused a moment. "And, of course, I wondered if I would last long enough to see you actually find your beloved."
It was true. She had been picky, taking her time to find the one she would want to wake up with every morning for the rest of her life.
Now her father was off again, hobbling down the center hallway with his cane, the line of old women in tow. She shrugged and followed. He paused before a large metal door recessed into the wall. Then he stopped and took a maddeningly long time to extract first a folded piece of paper from his pocket, then his glasses with which to read it. He looked up, punched one of the buttons in a wall-mounted keypad, then glanced down for the next. The whole process took several minutes. Finally the door clicked open with a whoosh of compressed air. The group filed in without a pause, as though they had gone through many times before.
A vast underground room sprawled before them. Subdued lighting emanated from somewhere under glass-covered table rows. A stout woman of about fifty wearing a museum uniform and a world-weary smile stood in front of them with her hands clasped before her.
Hadassah had always known that most of the Shrine's workings were underground. She also knew that the Dead Sea Scrolls were periodically rotated from public areas to subterranean chambers in order to reduce their exposure to light. But she had never known of this chamber or any reason her relatives might have for congregating here.
"You are members of the family?" the uniformed hostess asked in a smooth voice.
"Yes, we are," her father said loudly.
"And who is today's bride?"
Her father turned back to her and motioned. "Hadassah."
The woman smiled knowingly. "A most apt name." Then she stepped forward, gave another reassuring grin and shook Hadassah's hand before leading her toward one of the waist-high tables.
"Please, Hadassah. Step forward and sign."
"What am I signing?" she asked.
The museum staffer looked sharply at her father. "So she has been told nothing." It sounded like a statement but was actually a stern question.
Rather than answering the woman, her father turned to Hadassah. "My dear, I apologize for all the secrecy and uncertainty. But you must understand. For nearly three thousand years the mothers of our family have been keeping these pages a secret until a bride's wedding week."
He sighed heavily, as he always did when she showed impatience, and swept his arm toward the display.
"These tables hold the remains of a private family parchment. In more recent times, the government has been kind enough to safeguard it for us because of its enormous historical value, but it belongs to the family and is completely private, for our individual use. It is our single copy of a letter written, in a way, just for you—given by someone very special to your grandmother nearly one hundred times removed."
"Okay. Who gave it to her?"
"Queen Esther—of the Tanakh?"
"No. Queen Esther from the corner bakery." He reached out and touched her hand to show he had meant no offense. "Yes. The Esther of old. It is a memoir she wrote in her later years to a younger Jewish girl also chosen as a candidate for Queen of Persia, just as she had once been. Tradition has it she never wanted these words to end up in public, framed in some Palace museum, but she wanted its message reserved privately for every bride of royal standing descended from its recipient for time everlasting." He bit his lower lip, and a thick tear rolled down his cheek, which he quickly swiped away. "Now you know why your mother insisted so strongly that you learn to read Hebrew fluently."
"So, would you care to sign here at the end?" repeated the museum attendant, with the faintest hint of insistence. She pointed to the left, as Hadassah would have expected since the document was written in Hebrew—from right to left.
Then she realized what she was being asked to do and recoiled. "You mean—actually sign the end of the document itself?"
The woman nodded and almost smiled. "This is a piece of living history. And you are its latest addition."
Hadassah exhaled forcefully. She could feel her mind reel under an unfurling stretch of antiquity suddenly far more colorful and vibrant than any she had contemplated before. To think that she—modern, busy, disorganized Hadassah—led a life linked to a saga stretching back nearly three thousand years ... that her everyday existence was now connected to a story she had known only upon the printed page or in tales of rabbinical legend on synagogue scrolls ... It made her heart pound. She was truly becoming a part of its history.
Feeling almost dizzy, she followed the staffer to where the long table ended, where a length of the ancient parchment now lay shockingly exposed to the elements. A gold fountain pen rested beside the manuscript, waiting. She stopped for a moment.
Just above a blank space near the end of the scroll stretched a long array of signatures in an endless variety of feminine handwriting. Some of the scripts flowed, some were meticulously squared, some thick and strong, others wispy and ethereal with their inks fading under the onslaught of time.
She bent down and peered at the names. The first almost assaulted her with its immediacy, for it was the signature of her own mother. Strangely, the sight of such familiar handwriting in this place startled her, caused her heart to skip a beat and her eyes to moisten. It seemed for a moment that Momma was not dead and buried in some faraway grave but standing beside her, steadying herself with that fragile hand she had laid upon Hadassah's shoulder so many times in her later years.
The museum attendant cleared her throat and shifted her feet from side to side.
Hadassah ignored her, wiped her eyes and started to read the names above her mother's. Ruth Sarason, her grandmother's maiden name. Elizabeth Prensky, her great-grandmother's. On and on: aunts, cousins. Names she did not know but which sounded distantly, vaguely familiar. She blinked away more tears and looked even farther—the parchment was now growing crowded with increasingly faded and ancient names. She became overpowered by the feeling that she was some impudent interloper getting ready to deface an item of infinite value and age.
She looked even farther and saw where the signatures began and the actual text ended—faded and barely discernible, archaic Hebrew script traced in a sure and graceful hand.
"We bring you here to honor the tradition," her grandmother said, breaking the spell with her trembling voice. "But we also have a modern Hebrew translation of this letter printed in book form for you to take home."
Her father had bent over and now struggled to hold up a richly embossed, thick leather tome.
"Do I have to read it now?"
The women laughed. "No, dear," her father answered, cradling the volume in his arms. "Just take it home and read it over a few days like you would any good book. Like the others did whose signatures you see."
She thought for a long moment and then turned to the whole group, her voice sounding weak and small to her own ears. "Am I a royal bride?"
Aunt Rose answered. "You are, sweetie. We took a vote," she said kindly. "You are a bride fit for a king."
Hadassah turned away, as much to hide her tears as anything else, and started to cross the room back toward where the document, under its glass protection, ended.
"Men of our family have died to preserve this," her father said beside her in a voice still thick with emotion. "My father missed his boat to America so he could take the time to store it in a basement in Amsterdam."
She kissed him on the cheek, remembering her grandfather's death at the Nazi camp Treblinka, then looked down at the first line.
"Just sign," he said softly, his face now quivering freely. He struck the book's cover with a dull tap. "Then you can read it all."
She nodded, handed the box with it precious medallion to her father and sat down before the faded document. She lifted the pen with trembling fingers, bent toward the glass, took a deep breath and signed.
Dear Candidate for Bride of the King,
I am sure this letter will come as a great surprise, as I have never actually spoken to you, let alone given any indication that I wished private communication between us. However, the truth is that I have much information of the highest importance to share with you.
Please do not tell anyone of this letter. Certainly tell none of the other girls. The only one you can trust in your harem is the one who gave you this: the King's chief eunuch. You know him as the Chamberlain. If you cannot read, he will read it for you, and he is trustworthy beyond life itself. I should know.
But I write you, my dear girl, on the eve of your own time in history, with vital information to impart.
I saw something in you when you first appeared at the harem, something that others must have seen in me almost thirty years ago.
Even among the crowd of young women I noticed a peculiar gleam in the eye, a regal hold of the head, an uprightness of posture, an unusual poise and self-possession.
Now, I know that such qualities are mere features of one's outward appearance. And even less significant perhaps—they can be mere habits of disposition. But what they appear to say about you, about your character, is far more profound. I believe I discerned an integrity, a depth, in you that set you apart from the other young, beautiful maidens brought in from the provinces for the King.
More important still, I spotted you praying in the Palace orchard yesterday morning, and besides reminding me indelibly of myself, it sealed one thing for me. From the manner of your prayer I'm convinced you must be a follower of YHWH, like me. That you are a Jewess and follow the living G-d is the supreme factor in my decision to contact you in this manner. (You will notice throughout this memoir I use the traditional Hebrew abbreviated forms in referring to Deity out of reverence for the Almighty One.)
What I have to tell you can be introduced this way. Some years ago I was exactly where you are now. I, too, was a royal concubine in training. I, too, possessed certain qualities that gained me favor with those in authority. But you do not seem to have what I had and sorely relied on: a godly mentor.
I would be that for you: if you will heed my words.
I will start by saying this. Shortly you will be ushered into the King's bedroom, and potentially into his life. In all likelihood, you will never come this close again to such an opportunity for this kind of power and influence. You must treat this time with him as the most precious and pivotal hours you will ever spend. You have no idea what all could result from that one night. I myself, despite spending a year in its preparation, tended to undervalue that time as mere competition, never fully understanding at that time how my success or failure could change the course of history.
Danger often lurks where destiny beckons. That is why the right approach demands even more than just prudence or solemnity. It calls for G-d's anointing and a healthy dose of wisdom gleaned from the Sacred Texts. There is, in fact, a specific protocol to approaching the King's presence. Most who come to him never know this, and this ignorance dooms their most valuable time in his company to insignificance. I would teach you this protocol, for it is both simple and a great source of inspiration and blessing. And besides, I want you to be the Queen. I want my former place of influence occupied by another child of YHWH, someone who will stand for righteousness and mercy in the Empire when times call for it. I want your night with the King to prove as successful and providential as my own.
I have no idea how much you know of my story or the events that surrounded it. I can only hope that you know me as more than the slightly stooped figure who waved at your group the morning of your arrival at the harem. If you've been blessed with some schooling or you come from an observant Jewish family, as I believe you do, then you may know me as the legendary past-Queen. I was once a most powerful figure at court.
But do you know my story? My whole story? The whole breathtaking account of what the G-d of my fathers wrought through the events of my life?
I do not ask this because of some old woman's penchant for storytelling or recognition. I ask you this because telling my story may be the only way of impressing upon you the utter importance of what lies ahead for you.
There are parts of my story that I did not know at the time they were occurring. The historical background with which I begin my tale is found in the Sacred Texts. I have only been able to reconstruct the whole over much time and many conversations with those who were there—or those who knew someone who was there.
Horrible deaths occurred while my story unfolded. Our whole people could have been wiped out forever had I not listened to the voice of G-d and those He sent to counsel me in preparation for my night with the King. In fact, you yourself would not be alive if I had not heeded the sage advice of my own mentor, along with the inner voice of G-d's Spirit.
I have no idea whether your evening with the King will involve as much intrigue, as incredibly high stakes, as mine did. I hope for your sake it is more peaceful.
But I do know one truth for certain.
One night with the King changes everything.
Excerpted from HADASSAH: One Night with the King by Tommy Tenney with Mark Andrew Olsen (c) Copyright 2003, Tommy Tenney. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.