On Wednesday, March 16th, we will celebrate Erev Purim with a reading of the Megillah (our special Temple Israel version of the Book of Esther), special Purim songs and a Purim “Spiel,” a parody which uses the story of Esther and Mordechai defeating the evil Haman as an opportunity for celebration. By meeting in this way, we are following in a tradition, extending back to antiquity, of defying anti-Jewish hatred through laughter and derision. In the Talmud, written and compiled during the last centuries of the Roman Empire, Jews celebrated by exchanging gifts, giving tzedakah to the poor and hosting parties which featured bonfires, revelry and drinking so much that celebrants couldn’t tell the difference between “’cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordecai (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, page 7b)’”. Later, it also became the practice to observe Purim by presenting a theatrical skit which lampoons the evil Haman and presents Mordechai and Esther as wily heroes who overcome the evil plot to destroy the Jews of Persia and Media through cleverness and courage.
The earliest reference we have to a Purim “shpil” or “spiel” dates to 15th century Europe. Deriving from a Yiddish word that means “play” or “skit,” the spiel was an opportunity for the community to cheer Esther and Mordechai and mock Haman in a play or monologue that retold the story of the Book of Esther to make it understandable to a community often far removed, both geographical and chronologically, from the setting of the original story. Often, the spiel was filled with mocking references to personalities known in the community to add to an atmosphere of frivolity and derision of authority. According to YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research, these medieval plays often alternated serious thoughts intended for the edification of the audience with burlesque scenes filled with otherwise inappropriate language, insults and transgressive parodies meant to portray Purim as a time which turns the world upside down. For most of their history, these spiels were presented in times and places where Jews were genuinely threatened, both economically and physically. Through these communal presentations, Jewish communities all over Europe engaged in a kind of resistance to antisemitism that persists to this day.
Some scholars maintain that the Purim spiel, with its standard characters and its comedic structure, was the foundation upon modern Yiddish theater developed. Avrom Goldfadn, sometimes referred to as the father of Yiddish theater, was a veteran of Purim spiels at the rabbinical school he attended as a child and young adult. Through the genre of the Purim spiel, Goldfadn and many others learned standard features of Yiddish theater, such as irreverent retorts, jokes, mockery of authority and mime, costume, music, and dance. In today’s world, who knows how many actors of both screen, television and theater first caught the acting “bug” when performing in their synagogue’s Purim spiel?
The institution of the Purim spiel supports NYU Professor Jeffrey Rubenstein’s belief that Purim is a time which deliberately blurs traditional social boundaries and norms. Through a humorous play which makes fun of antisemites and valorizes Jewish courage and resistance, the Jewish community celebrates its solidarity and reminds itself that it is not powerless in the face of hatred. Naysayers maintain that this frivolity diminishes the spiritual significance of the holiday but it, in fact, is a lesson and a remembrance of how good can prevail over evil if we only dare to take our fate in our own hands. The story of Purim, with its simply story of Jewish survival in a distant and hostile land, invites each of us, in our own way, to remember, in Tillie Olsen’s words, that we are not, no matter the time or place in which we live, shirts on an ironing board helpless before the iron. Through the Purim spiel, in all its infinite diversity, we learn that the courage and defiance of Esther and Mordechai can also be our own. Chag Purim Sama-ach! Happy Purim and see you soon in the real!