Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Purim Spiel

So, in case you're not familiar with it, Purim is a minor Jewish holiday based on the biblical Book of Esther. It's sometimes compared to Halloween, because one of the traditions is that kids (of any age) dress up in costume for it. Nowadays they dress up in any kind of costume, but originally it was only as characters from the Book of Esther, i.e., Ahashverosh, the king of Persia and Medea, living in the citadel of Shushan; Vashti, his disobedient queen who he banishes; Haman, the villain of the story who, as the king's prime minister, plots to kill all the Jews; Mordecai, the Jewish hero of the story, and cousin or uncle (the original is unclear) of Esther; and Esther, the heroine who becomes the new queen and risks her life to save her people.

Rather than Halloween, however, Purim is best understood as a Jewish Mardi Gras, falling during that same time of year, early spring or the end of winter, and involving rites of reversal (and for adults, depending on the context, getting drunk as well). As for the historical accuracy of the Book of Esther, well, it comes across as a bit of a joke or satire, and some point to the fact that the name Esther appears to be derived from Ishtar, and Mordecai from Marduk, two Babylonian deities, while Haman is the name of a Babylonian demon.

Be that as it may, the tradition is that on Purim, the Book of Esther is read in its original Hebrew, from a scroll:

By the way, the reason why the books of the bible are called books and not chapters is for this very reason. Originally, they were all separate scrolls, the first type of book, and they retained that designation even after they were bound together to form a single volume (the same is true of the ancient Greek and Roman texts).

The Book of Esther is also known as the Megillah, a term that can also be applied to the books of Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. But most only associate it with the Book of Esther. And because it is read out loud on Purim, and because it takes a long time to read the whole thing, megillah also became a Yiddish word for any kind of story or speech that seems to go on forever, for anything that goes on for too long, or otherwise is perceived as boring.

There's also the expression, the whole megillah, which has the connotation of too much, too much. And who can forget the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character from the 60s?

Of course, Magilla Gorilla had nothing to do with the Megillah, the story of Esther, or the holiday of Purim, and there wasn't even any reference to the Yiddish usage in the children's TV program, but there was no question as to the origin of the character's name. And the silliness of the cartoon was very much in keeping with the topsy-turvy theme of the holiday itself.

During the reading of the Megillah, the tradition is that whenever the name of the evil villain Haman is mentioned, the kids (of all ages) shake noisemakers, called groggers, maybe also stomp their feet, and yell "boo!" loudly, the idea being to drown out his name. Sometimes, the names of Mordecai and Esther are greeted with cheers as well.

There's also a tradition going back some centuries of putting on some kind of play or show during Purim, the Yiddish name for it being a Purim spiel, or alternately a Purimshpil (Yiddish is a German dialect, but is written with Hebrew letters, hence the alternative transliterations). It could be a puppet show or a dramatization of the Book of Esther, but in contemporary times it tends to be some kind of comedy, satire or parody, reinterpreting the story of the Purim in different ways, especially in ways that modern audiences can appreciate. And this often includes song parodies as well.

So, all this is background to the main reason for my blog post. You see, the synagogue that I belong to, and serve as president of, Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia (Bergen County), New Jersey, puts on a Purim spiel every year. And for as long as I can remember, this involves purchasing a script from someone (the purchase price going towards some charity). And I have to say that I was not terribly impressed with the quality of what we had been getting, and for a long time have been saying to myself, I can do better than that.

So last year, I sat down and wrote a Purim spiel, which I called, The Schnook of Esther, and it was performed this past March in celebration of the holiday of Purim. In fact, it was performed twice, on Sunday morning March 1st, for our religious school, and then on Wednesday evening, March 4th. And I also played a couple of minor roles in it.

So let's be clear, this isn't Shakespeare. It isn't Seinfeld. It's not Monty Python or Firesign Theatre. It's just a bit of fun. And I did try my hand at writing some comedy skits back in the 80s, although nothing ever came of it. Oh, and I do have one very small TV screenplay credit, an episode of the animated science fiction series, Galaxy Rangers (episode 8, "Ghost Station"). So I'm not entirely a novice at this sort of thing. Just saying.

Anyway, in this post I want to share the first performance of "The Schnook of Esther" on March 1st (its world premiere, ha ha), as it was recorded for posterity. Some notes first, so please bear with me. 

First, there isn't much of a stage to work with, and not much time to rehearse, so you'll see that everyone's reading, script in hand. The songs are mostly done karaoke style, and some of them get messed up a little bit. Not that I'm complaining, just that it isn't always exactly what I wrote. There was also an attempt to get the religious school choir kids involved, which didn't work out so well, and wasn't repeated in the second performance. And as for my theatrical performance, well, I look pretty silly in this, almost embarrassed to show it to you, but then again, that is the spirit of the spiel. And the musical performances of a couple of our congregation's teenagers are absolutely wonderful, and worth the price of admission (the admission that I can't act or sing very well myself, that is).

Anyway, you can watch The Schnook of Esther (A Purim Spiel) Adas Emuno March 1, 2015 over on the Adas Emuno YouTube channel if you like, or catch it right now over here:

Now, if you belong to a congregation that puts on an annual Purim spiel, and you are interested in doing "The Schnook of Esther" next year, just let me know or email adasemuno at, and we can provide you with a copy of the script in exchange for a donation for the Adas Emuno Social Action Fund. Otherwise, I hope you enjoyed the show, for what it's worth, and I'll share a recording of the second performance another time. And maybe even a new spiel next year...

No comments: