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Jewish Journal

Purim Celebrations to Kick It Up a Notch

by Andrea Adelson

March 4, 2004 | 7:00 pm

The calendar is doing for Purim this year what Emeril suggests is good for any recipe: Kick it up a notch.

The celebrations over the deliverance of the Jews of Persia will get an adult rating at one synagogue's annual reading of the scroll of Esther. Virgins cavort alongside the "Jews Brothers" at another temple, renamed for the evening The Apollo . And another haven known for scholarly discourse will give way to a drinking-age-only Shushan party-cum-bazaar for the costumed and bejeweled.

By virtue of its falling on a weekend this year, the amusements planned in honor of Purim at some synagogues around the county are going beyond kiddie moon bounce and costume contests by adding adult entertainment, albeit Jewish style. For the easy-to-blush, these won't come close to an X-rating. Plays that send up the traditional telling of Esther's triumph figure prominently in the weekend's festivities.

The theme of the Purim play remains a mystery up until the last minute at Fountain Valley's Congregation B'nai Tzedek. So intent is the director on maintaining secrecy that rehearsals come to a dead standstill when someone inadvertently wanders into the sanctuary. Keeping the secret instills anticipation for a Purimspiel that annually draws a standing-room-only crowd and overfills the parking lot. Some people arrive 90 minutes before the service starts to ensure they get a seat.

One element of surprise is easy to guess. Congregants can predict with certainty who will be cast as the buffoonish King Ahasuerus: their rabbi, Steve Einstein.

Einstein, who sets a good example by practicing his lines in rehearsals that began in December, also "is the king of ad lib," said the play's director, B'nai Tzedek's cantor, Linda Eckert. Once on stage, "he tried to have someone else win the beauty pageant," she said, referring to a dramatic point in the story's exposition. "Just kidding," the erstwhile king said sheepishly.

"In synagogue life, people get bogged down with politics and fundraising," Eckert said. In a Purimspiel, "everyone has their moment to shine," she noted.

The March 6 play will begin after the reading of the traditional megillah and the twirling of groggers. "You don't want to miss the lines," explained Eckert, who is anxious to reclaim her prop-filled office that remains off limits until after Purim.

On Sunday, the synagogue also will host a carnival, hamantaschen judging and 1 p.m. concert with singer composer Doug Cotler.

In south county, also on Saturday, the social hall at Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin will get a makeover fit for Tehran. The new look will be created by borrowing props recreating the ancient Persian capital of Shushan, used for a gala at Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School.

Recreation at the adults-only masquerade carnival will feature a martini bar, karaoke booth and fortune teller, said Francine Morrison, who co-chairs the event with Marsha Gleit. Although belly dancers were nixed as too risqué, patrons can sample other authentic arts, like henna tattoos, tarot card readings and a tea ceremony, Gleit said.

On Sunday, visiting cantorial soloist Cindy Paley will try her hand at a Congregation B'nai Israel Purimspiel.

At Aliso Viejo's Temple Beth El, the 6:30 p.m. Saturday Purimspiel will get a comedy-pumped downbeat as the Motown Megillah. The director is Lois Wilson, a congregant who works professionally as a stand-up comic and is a self-described Motown fanatic. Fast-talking and high-energy, she promises to put a side-splitting stamp on the show, which was originated by spielmeister Norman Roth.

The New York accountant is a satirical wit at retelling Purim and each year delivers a new script, using a different musical theme and rewritten lyrics. Over the past 15 years, his plays have parodied the Beatles, Broadway, Elvis and surfing and are among the most widely performed around the country.

Beth El's congregants should know who will be cast as Vashti, the impudent, spurned queen. "I like it because I'm in and out," explained Shula Kalir Merton, the synagogue's cantor, who portrayed the rejected Vashti last year as sashaying Dolly Parton. This year's character makeover may take more than a push-up bra: The script calls for Vashti as Tina Turner.

Other characters, too, will get an original look, like Mordecai/Bob Marley in dreadlocks and kippah.

Last year was Wilson's first as Purim play director. She was drafted by Kalir Merton at the last minute, when another director pulled out. Wilson, though, turned up her nose at Roth's script, because it included topical references that were dated.

"It's not funny," Wilson recalled complaining.

"It's a Bible story," the cantor replied.

"I can't do it unless it's funny," Wilson said, proceeding to rewrite the script. She won the rabbi's approval by overwhelming him with her energy.

She's taken a few liberties with the Motown version, too. Barry Gordy was not consulted.

At Santa Ana's Temple Beth Sholom, activities for adults and youngsters will take place on Purim day, March 7. The 6:30 p.m. megillah reading is for listeners 21 and older and will be followed by a BYOB Persian Nights party. "We are commanded to get crazy," Rabbi Heidi Cohen said. Last year, Beth Sholom's Purim party was Megillah in Margaritaville.

"If you read the entire megillah, it actually is adult material. It is very specific about how the queen is chosen and is gory at the end," Cohen said. "The text itself is not appropriate to read to a Sunday school kid."

Earlier in the day, kids will be treated to a Magic Kingdom of Purim carnival.

At Irvine's Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot, not far from the old Lion Country animal park, the Purim theme is Shushan Safari and is open to the community.

Adults masked as animals will stalk the synagogue's Saturday night masquerade ball and silent auction. The following day, four-legged zoo animals will amuse children at the annual carnival, which will include new homemade game booths created by a congregant, Rabbi Richard Steinberg said.

Stacia Deutsch writes and produces the staff-acted Purimspiel, which for several years running cast her husband, the rabbi, in the lead. Last year's Spider-man costume proved problematic, though. Steinberg's glasses steamed up under the tight-fitting mask and he couldn't see.

Who rescued Spider-man? A congregant who offered lasik eye surgery, of course.

Although spilling no secrets, the rabbi did reveal that his appearance will undergo an even more unusual change this year.

Elsewhere, the Hebrew Academy of Huntington Beach will host its annual masquerade and Purim lunch on Sunday. The highlight will feature a stage show by entertainer Scotty Cavanaugh.

Also Sunday, Fullerton's Temple Beth Tikvah plans a family carnival with a fire truck, bounce house and giant slide.

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