March 9, 2006
Celebrating a Shpiel-Good Holiday
"Ramvetlh QonglaHbe' voDleH," Beth Chayim Chadashim congregant Maggie Anton Parkhurst will say as she begins Chapter 6 of the synagogue's Megillah reading on Erev Purim.
It's Klingon, the invented language of the "Star Trek" TV series and films, for "That night the emperor could not sleep." And she'll continue, "'ej ghaHvaD QonoS laDlu' 'e' ra'pu'," which translates to "And he commanded that someone read the log for him."
Reading the Megillah in esoteric tongues is part of the Purim fun at this Los Angeles synagogue, and Parkhurst has chosen this infinitely tongue-tying imaginary language of the Trekkies to make her bid at hilarity.
This is Purim, after all, the one time of year in traditional Judaism when men are allowed to wear women's clothing. A time when comedy is king as clergy and congregants strive to tell the story of Queen Esther saving the Jews from near-extermination in ancient Persia through laughter-provoking Megillah readings, shpiels (Yiddish for skits) and other innovative forms that range from ribald to ridiculous, satiric to sacrilegious. And that sometimes necessitates creative interpretations of the parody/fair-use exception to the U.S. copyright law.
At Beth Chayim Chadashim, the number of languages used has snowballed since 2002, when congregants volunteered to add to the already established English, Hebrew and Yiddish readings. Over the years, the most unusual have included American Sign, Afrikaans, Ladino, pig Latin, Esperanto and even auctioneer-style English.
"Haman's name is understood in all the languages, so everyone can boo and hiss," explains synagogue past president Davi Cheng, who always reads in Mandarin or Cantonese Chinese.
And while Beth Chayim Chadashim's Megillah reading is geared to the entire family, not all Purim celebrations are such child-friendly affairs.
"Bring your IDs," Rabbi Brett Krichiver warns those planning to attend Club Shushan at Stephen S. Wise Temple. It's the Los Angeles' synagogue's first-ever part-shpiel-part-nightclub Purim celebration and it's R-rated, including a DJ and dancing, a cash bar, free food and clergy dressed as go-go girls, bouncers and cocktail waiters and waitresses.
The Empty Stage Comedy Theatre, an improv group based in West Los Angeles, will provide entertainment, veering from the basic structure of the story in ad-libbed and audience-inspired directions. Empty Stage artistic director Stan Wells says these trajectories might include King Ahasuerus' request for Vashti to dance naked and Haman's "overblown and probably nonexistent" attempted seduction of Esther.
In preparation, Krichiver is doing text study on the Book of Esther with the group, which includes both Jewish and non-Jewish actors.
"We're bringing Purim back to its roots, turning Judaism on its head for one day of the Jewish calendar," Krichiver says, adding "but nothing obscene."
Adat Ari El in Valley Village is hoping to turn Jewish gastronomy on its head in a change of pace from last year's original Broadway-style, musical film noir parody, "The Maltese Megillah," which was written by congregant Peter Levitan. This year, the synagogue will present a reading of "mock scholarly papers" on the merits of the latke vs. the hamantaschen, based on the original debate at the University of Chicago in 1947.
In this exchange, attorney Levitan, representing the latke, is squaring off against former radio reporter Barbara Dab, who will prevail upon her investigative journalistic skills to establish proof of the superiority of the hamantaschen, which she believes is the perfect self-contained treat.
"You've got your bread, your starches, your fruit and your dairy. The hamantaschen has almost all the food groups except the green leafy vegetable," she says, refusing to discuss fat content and emphasizing that its "grab and go" nature shouldn't detract from its designation as a gourmet food.
Levitan, however, is unimpressed.
"First, that's not even its name; its real name is 'oznei Haman [Haman's ears],'" he insists. "We should be suspicious indeed of anything that makes its way into Jewish people's stomachs under an assumed name."
Both Levitan and Dab are hopeful that this inaugural debate will become an established part of Adat Ari El's Purim celebration. But in many congregations, it's the Purim shpiel, which dates back to Talmudic times, that continues to reign supreme.
America's best-known shpiel-meister may well be a New York accountant named Norman Roth, who this year composed his 19th consecutive skit for his congregation, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. Titled "Purim Night Fever -- the Disco Megillah," the shpiel spotlights Queen Esther singing "Stayin' Alive" dressed in a white suit like John Travolta's character in "Saturday Night Fever."
Roth, 67, writes each shpiel in a different genre -- including Broadway, Woodstock, Nashville and rock 'n' roll -- always incorporating some version of the original Purim story and always completing the new script and lyrics before Labor Day. He estimates that his shpiels have been performed in more than 300 synagogues in the United States and Canada and one in Australia.
Roth grew up listening to Broadway and Tin Pan Alley music; he says he just wants to create an evening of joy: "I don't even come down on Haman. We're a politically liberal synagogue; we don't believe in capital punishment.
Locally, for the third year running, Temple Akiba in Culver City will perform one of Roth's scripts for its annual intergenerational shpiel. This year it's Motown, with Little Mordechai Wonder and Haman Smokey Robinson and the Schmearacles.
"It's therapeutic to get silly at least once a year in synagogue," says Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who once used a vacuum cleaner as a grogger, or noisemaker, to drown out Haman's name during a Megillah reading. "Even on a day when the underlying message is very profound and very sobering."