Roslindale artist Rachel Hammerman has always loved working with clay. A multi-genre artist, Hammerman began regularly using clay a few years ago to make mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) to give as baby gifts. Hammerman’s collection of mezuzot in her Etsy shop caught the eye of Laura Mandel, executive director of the Jewish Arts Collaborative, who became a loyal customer. Since then, Hammerman has designed mezuzot that range from the whimsical to the symbolic.

To celebrate Purim this year, Mandel asked Hammerman to use her prodigious gifts as a clay artist to tell the story of Purim. The result is Hammerman’s rendition of the Purim story over 12 panels that are 5×7 inches and exclusively made of clay. Hammerman recently told JewishBoston that each of the panels created over the past year represents a theme connected to the Megillah, or Scroll of Esther. The themes often integrate interpretations Hammerman has gleaned from midrashim and her close study of the text.


Hammerman said she approached the Purim story as a fairytale full of Shakespearean sub-plots. The result, she said, was a complex story of genocide, murder, palace intrigue and merriment. “I wanted to highlight the fairytale aspects of the story with very bright and colorful panels. Even the panels that are more about violence and hatred still feel playful to me,” she said. “I imagined each panel like an illustration of a children’s book. The story is advertised to kids, even though it’s not kid-friendly. But I purposely made playful imagery for that reason.”

The Purim story opens with a raucous party that Achashverosh, the king of Persia, throws over six continuous months. During the party, an inebriated Achashverosh summons his wife, Queen Vashti, to dance naked for his guests. The queen famously refuses. Vashti pays with her life for her insubordination. But Hammerman pointed out that punishing Vashti was not obvious to the king. He consulted his advisors, who convinced him to make an example of Vashti. Hammerman’s panel of the incident conveys the misogyny inherent in the story. “The text conveys if Vashti got away with disobeying her husband, then other women in the kingdom wouldn’t listen to their husbands either,” she said. “It would be total chaos. Vashti isn’t just Vashti; she’s all women.”

Hammerman takes her inspiration from the other archetypes in the story, including the evil Haman and the noble Mordechai. But things are not so straightforward. A key plot point is how Mordechai angered Haman when he refused to bow to him. “Haman is completely obsessed with power,” Hammerman said. “He has the king sign off that everyone must bow to him. But Haman on horseback never notices Mordechai in the crowd. Until this project, I hadn’t noticed the text never said Haman saw that Mordechai didn’t bow. Haman hears about it secondhand. It makes sense. There are thousands of people bowing, so Haman wouldn’t notice the one guy who didn’t.”

Hammerman’s close reading of the Megillah also uncovered Mordechai’s preoccupation power. She found that there was no edict in Judaism forbidding someone to bow to another person and questioned Mordechai’s motives in setting off Haman’s genocidal rage against the Jews. Hammerman is also critical of Mordechai as Esther’s guardian. She casts a critical eye on the supposed beauty pageant in which he enters his ward as “one of the virgins in the land preparing herself for a one-night stand with the king.” Hammerman added: “The story could have been different. Mordechai could have run away with Esther from this edict, which turns her into a concubine.”

After Haman decrees that the Jews of Persia must be killed, the balance of power has shifted from Mordechai to Esther. Mordechai asks Esther, who is now queen, to appeal to the king to save her people. Although she initially hesitates, Esther realizes her success rests on being strategic with Achashverosh. She works with the supposition that Achashverosh does not care about the Jews and knows that to gain favor with the foolish king, she must throw a party for him.

Haman’s obsession with Mordechai is his downfall. However, before Esther exposes Haman’s murderous intentions, Achashverosh learns that Mordechai saved him from an assassin. Achashverosh summons Haman for advice on rewarding a subject who saved his life. Haman says to dress up this hero in royal garb and place the crown on his head, then have him led around town on a horse. The image of Mordechai on a horse further enrages Haman.

Esther throws a second party for Achashverosh, where she makes her move to tell him someone in the royal household wants the Jews of Persia murdered. She reveals Haman as the culprit. Hammerman observed that Haman is so angry at Esther he attempts to assault her. In response, Achashverosh orders his disgraced advisor to be hanged on Haman’s very gallows for Mordechai.

However, Achashverosh does not have the power to reverse the edict against the Jew. He says he will allow the Jews to defend themselves to placate Esther. To Hammerman, the ending conveys that “the message is that you should be happy because we escaped genocide. When you think about other genocides, we memorialize rather than celebrate them.”

During the year Hammerman was immersed in the Purim story, she came to regard it as the most modern story in the Jewish canon. There is no definitive revelation, and God is never mentioned in the Megillah. “The characters are left to fend for themselves,” said Hammerman, “and their relationship with God is indirect. It’s also a completely diasporic story in that it wholly takes place in Persia. Other stories in the Torah either happen in the Holy Land or on the way to the Holy Land.”

Hammerman will unveil her Purim-themed panels during a JLive appearance on Friday, March 4, at noon (register here). In addition, her Purim art panels will soon be available through Society6, an online platform that reprints artists’ work on paper, clothing, mugs and other products.