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Have puns, will revel: Purim sets the stage for parody
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Have puns, will revel: Purim sets the stage for parody

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Members of last year’s Purimshpiel cast at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston performed “The Sound of Purim.”
Members of last year’s Purimshpiel cast at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston performed “The Sound of Purim.”

Mickey Mouse will take center stage at Temple Emanu-el of West Essex in Livingston on Saturday evening, Feb. 27 — a rare instance of the famed rodent speaking and singing in Hebrew.

At the Summit Jewish Community Center, Rabbi Avi Friedman will tread the boards as “The Wizard of Shushan,” while across town at Congregation Beth Hatikvah, cowboy hats and rip-roaring country music will be all the rage.

Purim is coming and with it, the ever-popular Purimshpiel. In keeping with the light-hearted spirit of the holiday, synagogues and yeshivot have long supplemented the traditional reading of the Book of Esther with skits or performances — often parodies of the Purim story itself — that gently mock their leaders, their enemies, pop culture, and each other.

That mocking, said Rabbi Moshe Rudin of Temple Hatikvah in Flanders, reflects the “great overriding theme of Purim — ‘V’nafoch hu’ or ‘everything turned upside down.’”

“In a deepest, profound sense,” he said, “that means our world is a world of shadow and illusion where everything we experience is distorted, illusory” that we all — even God — are wearing disguises and masks.

“When we dress up and mock even figures of authority, we reveal the absurdity of the things and people we are usually afraid of and the emptiness of such fears,” said Rudin. “The Purimshpiel invites us to pierce through the world’s illusion and suffering — to find the joy in God’s renewal and blessings even in the midst of darkness.”

These days, some shpiels feature live bands and stratospheric budgets; others are holiday productions created on a shoestring.

When Cantor Janet Roth Krupnick arrived at the Summit JCC in 1991, there was “nothing,” she said, no shpiel at all. She seized the opportunity and started small, with puppet shows for the children. Now? It’s a major production performed on the Sunday nearest Purim, just before a carnival.

“It’s the most fun thing we do,” said Richard Barron, a former congregation president who will play Mordechai this year.

Krupnick said she thinks the secret to the Purimshpiel’s success at her synagogue is the effort made every year to involve as many congregants as possible, from the children’s choir to a cross-section of adults in the community. “Oh — and it’s fun,” she said.

“It’s got to be an intergenerational shpiel,” said Cantor Sharon-Brown Levy at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston. “We pick a theme that is universally appreciated across generations — a cultural icon.” She puts together a multi-generational cast and choir and makes sure congregants are involved in every step of the planning. “Then people will come out for it,” she said.

Other synagogues rely on the creative expertise of congregants. At Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, member Myra Cole is a trained musician who is director of technical operations for CBS Worldwide Distribution. She agreed to direct the synagogue’s first major Purimshpiel six years ago — with a Beatles theme and a live band. “Everyone went nuts and we had such a good time,” she said. She continued as director and producer, creating “Star of David Wars,” featuring Darth Haman, “The Wizard of PersOz,” and even a Motown production.

The shpiels at B’nai Shalom in West Orange are produced and directed by past president Seth Saltzman, who also happens to be an ASCAP senior vice president and a talented musician.

Cantor Jessica Epstein at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston may be the envy of her peers. Asked what makes their Purimshpiel go, she said, “A large budget of several thousand dollars — and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Also, a belief in the cast to pull it off with panache!”

As with several other major shul productions, especially those with professionals volunteering their time, the demands on the cast are heavy — weekly rehearsals often begin in December or January, and there can be three during the week leading up to the holiday.

At Rudin’s synagogue, it is the young people who take on the responsibility of creatively skewering topical subjects and images. The Purimshpiels are “created, written, and ably performed by the Temple Hatikvah Junior Board,” he said. “Over the past few years, this group of talented and dedicated high school students have wowed our shul with ‘Shushan High,’ a rendition of High School Musical and other shows. This year, they’re preparing a ‘Dora the Explorer’ Purim-spelunking shpiel.”

‘Exhausting’

Cole, at Beth Hatikvah, has shelled out her own money to make sure that productions soar. This year, for the first time, she has a $300-$400 budget to offset the costs of “A Country Purim” featuring parodies of eight popular country songs.

Brown-Levy at Emanu-El squeezes her $500 budget. “It goes pretty quickly when you’re renting costumes, purchasing music, and getting props,” she said. Still, it’s among the higher budgets around the area.

A few synagogues write their own productions every year, an undertaking that Brown-Levy calls “exhausting.” She starts with a creative team in October — it helps that two of its members are in advertising and write jingles for a living. But that’s just the icing on the cake. “It’s got to be a true collaboration,” Brown-Levy said, “and not just the rabbi and cantor putting it together.”

That formula seems to work at the Summit JCC, where the rabbi and cantor team up every year to tweak their script and write new lyrics. At Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, the creativity falls to a single dedicated congregant. Craig Eichner has been the synagogue’s unofficial shpielmeister since 1997. This year, he unveils “Curb Your Hamantaschen.”

Some synagogues acquire scripts for their Purimshpiels from two popular sources: a synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla., where Rabbi Richard Agler and Cantor Stephanie Shore work as a team (“Oyklahoma” anybody?), and one in New York City, where congregant Norman Roth, an accountant by day, has written more than 19 different Purimshpiels (including “Purim Night Fever: the Disco Megillah”). These usually involve a sliding scale donation to the synagogue, ranging from $75 to several hundred dollars, corny jokes and silly lyrics included.

Planners implored a reporter not to reveal spoilers, so we can’t tell you who will play which famous country-western singer at Beth Hatikvah or exactly how the magic of Disney will come to life at Emanu-El this year.

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