Spiels tell the whole Megillah
Purim parodies educate, enhance the celebration
If you’re looking for something to do on Friday, March 22, you could stop by Har Sinai Temple in Pennington, the Reform congregation that will be staging “My Fair Maydel,” featuring Elesether Doolittle, in her cockney accent, taking on Haman and his henchmen — Mackerel, Halibut, and Herring.
No, it’s not quite the renowned Broadway show, but the temple’s annual Purim spiel, a satirical take on the story using themes from the classic play, intended to bring a little levity to a people whose existence has been anything but carefree.
“This one is a lot of fun,’’ said Har Sinai Rabbi Stuart Pollack. “All the ones we have done in the 20 years I have been in Har Sinai have been that way, but I often think of how things were for Jews in tougher times.”
The Purim spiel has earned its place in synagogues as a major community event — in New Jersey and across the globe. First performed in Europe in the 1500s, spiels often include humorous takes on the Book of Esther, AKA the Megillah. As with “My Fair Maydel,” scripts frequently mimic popular Broadway shows or television programs. Most star the main characters of the Purim story: the ancient Persian King Achashverosh, the disobedient Queen Vashti and her successor, the virtuous Esther, the evil minister Haman, and male protagonist Mordechai the Jew.
There are as many flavors of spiels as there are of hamantaschen, and there are varied understandings of the purpose of the play within N.J. synagogues. Reform Temple Ner Tamid (TNT) in Bloomfield, under the direction of writer Gary Rudoren, carries on the tradition of a major production with a dedicated group of about 30 “spielers.” Cantor Marnie Camhi, who has written and sold spiel scripts, just wants the youngsters at Reform Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon to have fun, as does Rabbi Moshe Rudin, of Conservative Adath Shalom in Morris Plains.
Pollack sees a value of including some political satire.
“Purim, with the spiel, was often a time to give a community under siege relief and shelter, sarcasm and humor when all were needed,” he said. “I really think, in those times, it was a good thing. Purim is a story of overcoming a political decision and laws that were detrimental to the Jewish community, and Haman can represent many we have faced politically.
“I feel mixing politics with sarcasm, especially on Purim, is fine.”
For some synagogues, the Purim spiel is a major undertaking and fund-raiser, while for others it is just a 10- or 15-minute performance of fun and laughter. Some buy scripts — or use free online examples — while others have accomplished in-house writers.
Rudoren, who moved to Montclair two years ago and is a veteran comedy writer, produced the script for “Spiel Night Live,” which will be performed March 23 before a crowd of several hundred. He fit Temple Ner Tamid’s Purim program like a glove.
“There was a couple who had arranged this for a number of years who were ready to give it up,” said Rudoren, who was an original member of the nationally recognized Annoyance Theater in Chicago for 20 years. “They had done Purim spiels based on The Beatles and a salute to Billy Joel. I worked with them last year, taking it over this year.”
Having taught and directed at Second City in Chicago and The Magnet Theater in New York, and written several plays before, a spiel is almost second nature to Rudoren. He also teaches sketch comedy writing and improv at Montclair Film and had a previous career as an architect. (His wife, Jodi, is a former Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.) For this year’s spiel he has created a fast-moving production featuring several hit songs from the 1980s, reworked to incorporate Purim and Jewish themes.
“We have all the usual characters covered,” he said. “One of our triumphant numbers is based on ‘We are the World’ and sung as ‘We are the Jews.’” Also, Vashti evaluates the king’s request to make an appearance at his party with a new version of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and kids sing “We Love Esther” to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.”
“It’s coming together well,” he said.
Camhi, of Temple Beth Miriam, working with Rabbi Cy Stanway, wrote a spiel based on the original “Star Wars’’— with references to the more recent sequels “peppered in” for younger children not familiar with Episode IV: “Darth Vader can be Haman or Kylo-Ren can be Haman. My scripts are very adaptable,” she said. The spiel will be performed on March 24, followed by a Purim carnival.
“We thought, with the popularity of ‘Star Wars,’ our kids could have a fun time with this,” said Camhi. “All of the Purim spiels I have written are really made for kids and fun, except the one I wrote about ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,’ which, of course, is for more mature audiences.”
She began writing scripts a few years ago, having watched her kids enjoy and act out shows such as “Frozen,” and she ended up composing a spiel based on the film and selling it to several synagogues in New Jersey (including Har Sinai in 2015). Soon came others based on movies like “The Little Mermaid” and “Moana,” and TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory.” The “Star Wars”-based spiel is her ninth.
Camhi sells the scripts to other synagogues for a donation to hers, and provides buyers with sheet music, CDs, and MP3s to help them out.
“It’s really worked out well for Beth Miriam,” she said. “I think it’s important to aim these at the kids and the fun involved in celebrating Purim.”
However, there is at least one subject that Camhi believes is not appropriate for parodies of this sort.
“I think we all see enough of politics without involving them in a spiel.”
Adath Shalom’s Rudin and Cantor Lois Kittner have another take on a contemporary play and movie for their members, having settled on “Esther Poppins Purim,” which is a popular selection among synagogues across the country this year with the recent release of “Mary Poppins Returns.” The production, to be held at the synagogue March 20, blends the story of Purim with that of the enchanting nanny, and is billed as “Telling the story of Purim as it’s never been told before.”
An added benefit is that, by putting on a spiel based loosely on a plot that centers around child care, Rudin said kids can do more than just watch.
“It features a lot of roles for our young people.”