ESTERKE


ESTERKE, Jewish woman from the village of Opoczno, Poland, said to have been a mistress of the Polish King *Casimir the Great (1310–1370). Reports claim that her outstanding beauty caught the king's eye while he was passing through her town. Her two sons, Pelka and Niemera, were given grants of land from their father and were raised as Christians. The names of her daughter (or daughters) were never recorded, but with the king's approval, they supposedly remained Jewish. Alternate endings to Esterke's story include the king's severing his relationship with her; Esterke's death while they are still together; and Esterke's suicide either immediately after the king's death or several years later. Although a house in Opoczno was designated as her family home, and her grave was believed to be in Lobzow Park, near Cracow, there is no historical basis for any of the Esterke legends, and there is no mention of her either in court documents or in Jewish sources. Written mention of Esterke appears in the late 15th century in a history by Polish cleric Jan Dlugosz (1415–1480). The first Jewish source to mention Esterke is Ẓemaḥ David by David Gans, written in 1595. Gans believed in the historicity of the report and gave a Christian source for it. The relationship of Esterke and Casimir, with its obvious parallel to the Book of Esther, was appealing; the theme was used by Jewish writers as late as the 19th century. Versions of Esterke's story in Polish antisemitic literature attempted to undermine customary Jewish privileges granted to Jews by King *Boleslav V (1221–1279) and continued by King Casimir, suggesting that they were promulgated to please a lover rather than for the good of the nation. A 16th-century priest alluded to Esterke in his book Jewish Cruelties, claiming that her "gentle words induced him [Casimir] to devise by scheme this loathsome law under the name of the Prince Boleslav.…" Such negative allusions to Esterke continued in Christian writings until the 19th century; the belief that this Jewish woman actively interceded for her people gave Casimir the nickname "the Polish Ahasuarus." Despite confirmations by modern historians that Esterke is best regarded as an example of a literary trope of the seductive Jewish woman, popular from the early Middle Ages, and despite the fact that her name was used to further antisemitic claims, her sentimental appeal persists among Jews.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

E. Aizenberg, "Una Judia Muy Fermosa: The Jewess as Sex Object in Medieval Spanish Literature and Lore," in: La Corónica, 12 (Spring 1984), 187–94; Ch. Shmeruk, The Esterke Story in Yiddish and Polish Literature (1985); E. Taitz, S. Henry, and C.I. Tallan (eds.), The JPS Guide to Jewish Women: 600 B.C.E.–1900 C.E. (2003), 84.

[Emily Taitz (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.