Murder. Political intrigue. Love. Genocide. Men dressed as women. Costumed children. Unruly crowds.
No, this isn’t a description of a Shakespearean play. Rather it’s a scene that will replay in several local synagogues this weekend as Pittsburgh celebrates Purim.
The holiday recounts the salvation of the Jewish people from Haman, a Persian court official planning to annihilate the Jews. The Jews defeated Haman on the 13th of Adar, celebrating their victory the next d ay.
To commemorate the victory, large parties take place in synagogues, temples and JCCs and include cookies called hamantaschen, drinking, carnivals, food, costumes, reading the book of Esther, or Megillah, and Purim shpiels.
Purim shpiel simply means “Purim play” in Yiddish and is a staged retelling of the Purim story. The dramatization is often a comic affair that includes the traditional tale updated to include pop references and modern settings.
The shpiels told today cut across all Jewish movements and serve as important links to the community.
Tree of Life*OrL’Simcha is producing its Purim shpiel, “Hershel Potter & the Gantse Megillah,” in conjunction with Rodef Shalom Congregation. The play will not only be performed at Rodef Shalom but will include a special showing at Calvary Episcopal Church, where Tree of Life celebrated the High Holidays following the shooting at their building on Oct. 27, 2018.
“Inspiration for the shpiel came from being at Calvary during the High Holidays,” explained Rabbi Hazzan Dr. Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life. “I was sitting on the bema, looking at this magnificent Anglican-style sanctuary, and I thought, ‘Oh my, I’m davening at Hogwarts!”
Myers wrote the shpiel based on that idea and his belief that the Harry Potter novels include lessons on Jewish ethics and values.
In true partnership, the Tree of Life/Rodef Shalom production will include cameo appearances by clergy from Calvary Episcopal Church.
There are two opportunities to catch “Hershel Potter”: The first is Sunday, March 8, at Calvary Episcopal. The performance will be followed by a short conversation, moderated by Myers, about humor in religion. The following evening, Rodef Shalom will host a second performance following a Purim-inspired dinner and costume party.
Temple Emanuel of South Hills is also collaborating with another synagogue for their shpiel this year. The Reform congregation is partnering with Beth El Congregation of the South Hills to present a “Lion King”-inspired production, according to Rabbi Jessica Locketz.
“This year we’ll spend the morning together doing Purim-related activities and then we’ll shpiel together,” she said.
The musical, which includes professional music and choreography by Douglas Levine and Chris Liatta, will be performed at Beth El Congregation on Sunday, March 8.
Purim shpiels have a long history. In her book “The Fascinating History of the Purim-Spiel,” Janet Leuchter calls the productions “the only genuine folk theater that has survived a thousand years in European culture.” The term “Purim shpiel” was used by Ashkenazi Jews as early as the mid-1500s.
“People don’t realize that Purim shpiels are not just this funny little thing we do,” points out Cantor Henry Shapiro of Parkway Jewish Center. “They’ve had an immense impact on our culture and lives. They go back hundreds and hundreds if not a thousand years. When people were starting Yiddish theaters, that was their starting place. And where did the Yiddish theater go? Hollywood. So, that was the start of our involvement in popular culture.”
Rather than a traditional retelling of the Purim story with a consistent theme, Parkway Jewish Center is featuring what they call “Purim Mashup — 100 Years of Craziness” on Monday, March 9. The evening will include a talk by Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. Lidji will present examples of Purim shpiels in the Rauh’s archives collected from Pittsburgh synagogues, schools and clubs. Following the discussion, there will be a “mashup” from various Pittsburgh Purim shpiels.
Temple David in Monroeville is also producing a Purim shpiel that veers from the original story found in the Book of Esther.
“Shushan Confidential” tells the original tale of a TV talk show hosted by Eubie the Eunuch and includes an Elvis impersonator and commercials with jingles.
“One of the unusual things about the script is that the main characters of the Purim story don’t have any speaking parts,” explained Fred Bortz, Temple David member and author of the shpiel. “They’re all out there in costume and will be acting out their parts as background to the dialogue. It’s sort of a backstory, answering the questions you never knew you had.”
The production “airs” Monday, March 9.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Temple Ohav Shalom will present its original Purim shpiel “Woodstock” on Sunday, March 8.
Temple Sinai’s production of “Fiddler as a Spoof” repackages the idea of tradition, adding elements that speak to current events at the synagogue. “I always tell the Purim story,” explained Cantor Laura Berman, who wrote the musical. Because it’s an original script, Berman said, “I’m able to use shtick and jokes or whatever that might be pertinent to now or include Pittsburghese or talk about what’s going on in the news or whatever.”
This year’s production, taking place on Monday, March 9, will rework the familiar number “Tradition” to reflect the retirement of the synagogue’s longtime senior rabbi, Jamie Gibson. Berman has written a parody called “Transition.” Berman pointed out that while the shpiels primarily target children, there is usually a message for adults as well.
“The story of Purim includes sophisticated themes like political power,” she said. “Also, the stories of women and those who lack a certain power but have been able to put things in play that influenced the destiny of the Jewish people.” pjc
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.