Venice is the starting point for this imaginative reinterpretation of the Megillah Esther as a pack of playing cards. Beit Venezia had the artists exploring the themes of gambling, reversal of fortunes, and masked identities.
There are many ways to connect Megillah Esther and the city of Venice. The book is the story of Purim, the festival of dressing up and partying. And Venice is the not always serene city associated with masks and carnivals. The world’s first public casino was established in Venice, patrons had to wear masks, and fortunes could be won or lost in a night. In the Megillah, lots are cast to determine the date of the massacre of the Jews, and reversal of fortunes seem to happen as if by chance. Esther’s intimate parties echo Venetian salons, where hostesses would entertain while games and politics were played out. And Jewish life in the Venetian ghetto was often precarious and subject to random events and chance.
This project was initially planned to be an in-person art residency in Venice. But the global pandemic of Covid-19 forced a change of plans and approach. In the days of the Megillah, messages were exchanged across great distances using horses. Today, there is email and Zoom, and a virtual residency created a shared space from being dispersed and scattered. The artists studied together, and learnt from some excellent scholars. From Beit Venezia’s co-founder Prof. Shaul Bassi, they studied how Venice has been depicted as a women in literature and art. The scholar Miriam Camerini, Megillat Esther in midrash and traditional rabbinic texts. Art historian Prof Marc Michael Epstein explored Esther in traditional illuminated manuscripts, and Rabbi Amedeo Spagnoletto looked at specifically Italian manuscripts. And from Alberto Toso Fei, explored the fascinating and rich history of gambling in Venice.
There are 54 original pieces of artwork in this collection. They follow the narrative of the megillah. Each artist was given a suit and section of the text to interpret in their own way, but sharing a limited colour scheme of black and white with red accents, in keeping with traditional playing cards. The cards in this deck are a Book of Esther, just shuffled and with the words removed. There are main characters, minor characters, and moments, people who don’t know which way is up, figures that can only be seen from the right angle and personalities that are transformed by the suits they wear. There’s even a character who is both in the story and also not.
Jews have been involved in the card painting business since cards began despite deep rabbinic ambivalence, and gaming culture was particularly strong in Venice. When you play with this deck, know that you have in that moment become an author of the Esther story: remixing and reshuffling, dealing, admiring, critiquing, and most of all having a good time. And when you are in the mood for words again, take a look at the companion book, The New Venice Megillah, containing the full Megillah text in Hebrew and english translations, and additional notes from the artists.
Both deck and book were illustrated by Sophie Herxheimer (hearts), Mirta Kupfterminc (clubs), Tilla Crowne
(diamonds), and Jacqueline Nicholls (spades). This deck and book were designed by David Zvi Kalman at Print-O-Craft Press.
Check out Jacqueline’s presentation for The Orange County Jewish Community Scholar Program, 8 March 2023.